Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city sits at the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris, the two largest rivers of the country. The name “Kaunas” was originally used as a person’s first name, later as a surname. The city was strongly influenced by its status as the provisional capital during the inter-war period and by the growth in industry during the Soviet occupation. Its most interesting districts lie along the banks of the Nemunas and include the Old Town of Kaunas at the confluence of the two rivers, and Naujamiestis (New Town) on both sides of Laisvės alėja (Freedom Avenue) to the east and up on the Žaliakalnis crest along Vaižganto and Kipro Petrausko streets.
Development of the Kaunas settlement
The settlement grew around a castle built at the end of the 13th century, and was mentioned in written sources in 1361. According to legend the city was founded in the year 1030 by Kunas (Kaunas), son of the Roman Palemon. It acquired the rights of Magdeburg in 1408, a Hanseatic merchant trade office by 1441, and a school, hospital and apothecary in the 16th century. The city was ravaged by Russian soldiers in 1655 and by the the Swedes in 1701.Much of the city’s population died of the plague in 1657 and 1708; it was damaged by fire in 1732, and plundered twice by Napoleon’s army at the beginning of the 19th century.
Kaunas as a military and administrative center
Kaunas was the center of an administrative province in 1843, and of the Samogitian diocese after the 1863 uprising. In 1861 Lithuania’s first branch of the St. Petersburg–Warsaw railway line passed through Kaunas. A year later it acquired the 1.28 km long train tunnel, which is used to this day. The railway stimulated the development of industry and the construction of residential districts for workers. In 1879 Kaunas was assigned 1st class military defense status, and was encircled by fortifications. It acquired army barracks and other military buildings. A law limiting public construction to two storeys was issued as well. Its urban structure changed once again with its rapid expansion as the provisional capital of independent Lithuania at the beginning of the 20th century.
Kaunas during and after the Soviet occupation
The Soviet period brought new industrial enterprises, blocks of typical residential buildings, and the institutes of medicine, polytechnics, and physical education in place of the destructed university. The Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis Art Museum remained an important cultural hearth, as did the city’s musical and drama theater; the latter was especially popular during the 1970s-1980s. Kaunas was also the center for basketball, Lithuania’s national sport: over the years its “Žalgiris” team won many tournaments.