True Lithuania

Birštonas Resort and Nemunas Loops

Birštonas (pop. 2500) is a mineral spa resort in central Lithuania. It is located in a scenic area where the Lithuania's main river Nemunas makes multiple bends ("loops"), hugging the town.

Birštonas castle hill provides some of the best views of Nemunas. Currently serving just as a vantage point, it originally hosted a wooden castle of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, guarding the river. Nemunas is also used for recreational boat tours in summer.

Excursion boat sailing in Nemunas, as seen from the top of Birštonas castle hill. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Birštonas has been established as a resort in the 19th century as the belief in mineral water healing powers swept through Europe. Birštonas's importance continued between the World Wars when it was the closest such resort to Kaunas which then served as the capital of Lithuania. Dating to that era are the iconic central mud spa building (1927), a Gothic revival red brick church (1909) and the resort house (kurhauzas, 1931), all located next to each other in the downtown and still used for their original purposes. Unfortunately, many wooden buildings of the era have burned down during World War 1 and the great fire of 1905.

Under the Soviet occupation (1940-1990), Birštonas expanded rapidly, mostly for the worse. The downtown was surrounded by massive eyesore Soviet sanitariums for the sick. After independence, Birštonas stagnated as Lithuanians would opt for other, more up-to-date resorts.

Tourists sitting near the central mud spa of Birštonas. Originally operated by the Red Cross (1920s), it still has its symbol on it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, in recent years, Birštonas has successfully reinvented itself through a partial re-orientation from the caring for the sick to those who seek spa procedures for pleasure, as well as through the addition of several new free-to-use tourist attractions.

Kneipp garden in the downtown allows people to try out procedures suggested by a German priest Sebastian Kneipp: "Kneipp coffee" (putting arms into cold water, claimed to rejuvenate the same way as a cup of coffee), "Kneipp path" (a path of various rough surfaces to be walked on barefoot, supposedly stimulating various organs) and the "Stork steps" (a pool of cold water to be walked in by raising legs above the waterline with each step).

Tourists walking on rough surfaces (left) and holding their arms in cold water (right) at the Birštonas Kneipp garden. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Nearby, Birutė villa allows its visitors to lie indoors watching an artificial waterfall and fountain.

Further north, next to the central park, a mineral water evaporation tower is a wooden structure where mineral water is automatically poured on its every wall, evaporating swiftly and providing a humid air for the surroundings, where people come to breathe it.

Additionally, just like for decades, the mineral waters of Birštonas are free to drink from several fountains (public faucets) if you bring your own glass or bottle. "Vytautas" spring is the most famous one, its fountain located in a small yellow building in the downtown. If the uncarbonated authentic flavor will be too much to stomach, you may also buy carbonated and bottled "Vytautas" all over Lithuania. In fact, this well-advertised "Vytautas" is one of the best known Lithuanian trademarks.

People relaxing inside the free Birutė villa at Birštonas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For the first time after 20 years hiatus, new spas have been constructed in Birštonas in the 2010s. Moreover, many of the Soviet ones were renovated. The town still has a multitude of abandoned Soviet buildings, but those now tend to be overshadowed by trees and pretty landscaping in summer rather than vice-versa.

Birštonas landscaping includes some fountains and many sculptures. Some of the biggest clusters of sculptures are located near the church (wooden sculptures) and at the southern side of the Central Park (stone sculptures). The other side of Nemunas (accessible by boat or a lengthy drive-around through the nearest bridge in Prienai) hosts a remembrance path for Lithuanians exiled by the Soviet Union.

While what is pre-Soviet and post-Soviet tend to far surpass what's Soviet in quality and aesthetics, one may want to view the Soviet era stained glass window "Lithuania" (original name "Soviet Lithuania") inside the Birštonas House of Culture (a typical Soviet institution where various events are held). 145 sq. meters in size, it was the largest stained glass window in Lithuania. It lacks any outward propaganda or Soviet symbols, although its depiction of various classes of Lithuanian population (workers, soldiers, scientists, peasants...) is Soviet-style.

A fragment of stained glass window 'Lithuania'. Photo ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Nemunas bank promenade for pedestrians effectively serves as the "main street" of Birštonas. It links the castle hill in the south to Central Park some 1,5 km to the north, offering benches to sit and watch the river as well as some cafes en-route. Most other things worth visiting can be discovered taking short turns inland from the promenade. The Nemunas bank promenade was created in the 1960s when a dam further downriver raised the water level of Nemunas (without the promenade, Birštonas could be submerged).

The Nemunas loops that hug Birštonas provides several more good vantage points outside the city proper. Škėvonys exposure is just ~2 km from the downtown and may be reached on foot. Balbieriškis exposure is some 15 km away (so a bike or a car ride will be necessary to visit).

Merely 5 km from Birštonas stands a town of Prienai (pop. 10000). Both towns even share a single basketball team. While Prienai is larger, it is not a resort, making its institutions, cafes, and restaurants far more prosaic and aimed at the locals rather than tourists. Sights in Prienai include a 1750-built wooden church and a 19th-century paper mill. Prienai is also the location of area's sole bridge over Nemunas.

A new spa in Birštonas and a lakeside Beach. Construction of this spa began under the Soviet occupation but was never completed as Birštonas went into decline. In 2016, it was completed according to a modernized project by the bottlers of 'Vytautas' mineral water. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In Vazgaikiemis some 5 km south of Prienai, a New-Age-esque "Park for peoples' harmonization" (a.k.a. Harmony Park in English) is privately developed, offering some interesting sculptures (it serves as a hotel and a hippodrome).

Map of Birštonas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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