True Lithuania

Žaliakalnis Borough of Kaunas

Žaliakalnis is the interwar (1918-1940) extension of Kaunas. Some of the era's grandest projects have been constructed here, but the borough still retains its calm suburban feel.

Homes here stand amidst old trees that line up every street. Large wooden edifices are joined by entire streets of 1930s brick villas and a few new houses of the modern elite with swimming pools and fountains. Many of its art deco "little castles" and wooden masterpieces now bear plaques with the names of interwar high society members who used to live there and some have been converted to museums.

P. Višinskio street, one of many calm wooded streets in Žaliakalnis with interwar curved-cornered buildings in the foreground. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Southern and Central Žaliakalnis: Interwar elite neighborhood

Žaliakalnis name means "Green hill" and it lives up to its name. From the New Town, it can be reached by ascending several pedestrian streets named "Laiptai". "Laiptai" means "Stairs" and these streets, in fact, are long flights of stairs that used to be traveled daily by the commuting Žaliakalnis inhabitants of the 1930s. Kauko laiptai are beautiful but derelict.

A wooden Swiss funicular, built in 1931, offered an alternative. Considered part of Lithuania's technical heritage it still travels up and down Žaliakalnis hill, although today most people use buses, trolleybuses or private cars instead.

Church of Christ Ressurection (near the funicular top station) is Žaliakalnis's most impressive building. Its construction started in 1933 with the aim of creating the largest church in the Baltic States. However, the unfinished building was turned into a factory by the occupying Soviets. Construction was eventually completed in the year 2003 and the white tower of the church is now easily visible from most of Kaunas. You are able to visit not just its massive plain interior but also ascend the elevator to the flat roof crowned by a unique chapel. Marriages are performed there with great views to the entire city center of Kaunas.

Take note that there is another church of Christ Ressurection that served the community while the main church was unusable. However, if you will see them both you will certainly know which is the monumental one.

Church of Christ Ressurection as visible from the lower parts of Kaunas. The factory on the left was constructed by Soviets to lessen the prominence of the church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Streets like Perkūno Avenue let you „breath the air“ of Kaunas elite from almost a century ago. Here stands the historic Sports district, centered around a pedestrian boulevard with a monument for Darius and Girėnas, the first Lithuanian pilots to cross the Atlantic (also the pioneers of transatlantic air mail service), an important feat in the dawn of the aviation. Around it stands the Europe's first basketball-specific arena (5000 seat Kaunas Sports Hall where the 1939 European Championship took place), the Darius and Girėnas football stadium (est. 1926, the largest in Lithuania) and Sports academy buildings. The nearby Radio antennas in southern Žaliakalnis are the oldest Lithuanian radio station (est. 1926).

Perkūno Avenue is also surrounded by some of the best private homes in interwar Kaunas. If you wonder about their interiors and original owners, check one of the Žaliakalnis memorial museums. There are ones for Kipras and Mikas Petrauskas (opera singers), Chiyune Sugihara (Japanese consul famous for saving potential Holocaust victims by illegally issuing them Japanese visas), Marijona Rakauskaitė and Liudas Truikys (opera singer and scenographer), Galaunė family (opera singer and art historian). Only the first two can be visited without a prior arrangement; Petrauskas's museum is recommended, while Sugihara museum inscriptions lack historic accuracy.

The living room of interwar star opera singer Kipras Petrauskas. The total area of his home is 1000 sq. m, but much of it was nationalized by Soviets. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Eastern Žaliakalnis: The garden city

The 1923 concept of a "planned garden city" was fulfilled the most faithfully in Eastern Žaliakalnis anchored on diagonal and crescent streets. Its vision was created by a Danish engineer Frandsen, who was also responsible for contemporary Copenhagen urban plan. However, Frandsen's utopian hopes of relocating the entire Lithuanian government to patriotically-shaped buildings here were not fulfilled and the district was built up by largely wooden homes instead. Simpler than the pompous edifices of Southern Žaliakalnis they still housed notable families of intellectuals. One may visit the memorial museum of writer Balys Sruoga to see an authentic interior (arrangement not needed).

Next to the modest St. Anthony church there is an Old Jewish cemetery (est. 1861), its sad state of repair a result of Soviet policy against preserving old cemeteries. Unlike many others, this one at least was not demolished or redeveloped.

To the south lies the Kaunas zoo (now somewhat outdated it is the largest in Lithuania) and Ąžuolynas (Oak forest) (a pristine land where a southeastern extension of Žaliakalnis was planned but never completed). With 770 oaks and 84 ha area, Ąžuolynas is the largest urban oak forest in Europe. Mickevičius valley on the eastern end of Ąžuolynas has a pristine mountain creek valley feel in the middle of the city.

Ąžuolų kalnas: A calm outback

Savanorių Avenue coincides with the historical Saint Petersburg-Warsaw road (constructed in 1830-1835) and it is the 19th-century roots of Žaliakalnis. Here stands the gothic revival Saulė (Sun) gymnasium (1913), the first Kaunas official Lithuanian school after Russia scrapped the Lithuanian language ban (1904).

Neighborhoods north and west of Savanorių Avenue are known as Ąžuolų Kalnas (Oak Hill). This area has a suburban feel as its wooden buildings are smaller. Many of them have been replaced by modern single-family dwellings. Historical Kaunas art school (1924) occupies a green yard of the former 9th battery of the Kaunas fortress. Its romantic fence with 48 owl sculptures (originally 52 for 52 weeks) is the symbol of Ąžuolų kalnas. The materials for its construction have been gathered from the fence that surrounded whole Kaunas city in the 19th-century fortress era.

The owl fence of Ąžuolų Kalnas (Western Žaliakalnis). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Ąžuolų kalnas inhabitants famous enough to have their homes transformed into museums were sculptor Juozas Zikaras and writer Juozas Grušas.

Map of Žaliakalnis. Parts of Ąžuolų kalnas (Western Žaliakalnis) are not included (see Old Town map for the art school and Zikaras home). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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