Reading the walls of Kaunas, Lithuania

Kaunas Lithuania. pic by James HainsworthOur first full day in Kaunas, Lithuania, was flooded with bright sunshine and brilliant blue skies, so we took the chance to follow one of their excellent tourist maps, Wallographer’s Notes.

Street art began to emerge in the city as a form of protest during the years of Soviet Occupation from 1944 to 1990. Today, the City Municipality regular invites applications of ideas for new artworks, and so every month new creations appear. Here are ten of my favourites.

Insects of Ladislas Starevich. Kaunas Lithuania. Photo by Judy Darley1. Insects of Ladislas Starevich
Rotušės Aikštė, 15, Kaunas
If you begin at the town hall, you will soon happen across this trio of gigantic insects: an ant, grasshopper complete with violin and stag-beetle created in honour of pioneering puppet animator Ladislas Starevich.

Dogs Fountain, Kaunas Lithuania. Photo by Judy Darley2. The Dogs’ Fountain
Rotušės Aikštė, 19, Kaunas
Created by sculptor Vytautas Narutis in memory of the canine guardians said to protect the sleep of emperor Napoleon when he stayed in Kaunas Old Town, Fontanas Šunys (Dogs’ Fountain) was installed in the Kaunas Town Hall square in 1987. The dogs have lovely friendly faces rubbed shiny in places, presumably from people patting their noses for luck.

The Freedom Warrior. Kaunas Lithuania. Photo by Judy Darley3. The Freedom Warrior
Pilies G. 17, Kaunas
Located between the 14th century Kaunas castle and the Neris River, this exuberant statue is named the Freedom Warrior. The figure of the armour-clad knight on horseback mirrors the one of the city’s heraldic shield, known as Vytis. It stands an imposing seven metres high. I love its celebratory air, but feel its triumphant air is rivalled by the tot scooting around the monument’s base in my shot.

The Wise Old Man, Kaunas Lithuania. pic by Judy Darley4. The Wise Old Man
Jonavos G. 3, Kaunas
Turn to the right with your back to the castle, and you’ll spy The Wise Old Man, or The Master, a gigantic portrait smoking a pipe apparently in his pyjamas. We visited on a Saturday when the square below was laid out with stalls selling freshly unearthed root vegetables, cheese, honey, cured fish and the eponymous tree cakes. The 440 m2 creation by artists Tadas Šimkus and Žygimantas Amelynas overlooks it all with a benevolent air. Ironically, he’s painted on the side of a former footwear factory, and though you can’t see his feet in this photo, he has no shoes. He’s said to be an homage to George Maciunas, one of the pioneers of the Fluxus art movement.

Monument to Abraham Mapu. Kaunas, Lithuania. Photo by James Hainsworth5. Monument to Abraham Mapu
Mapu G., Kaunas
This jaunty chap stands on a chair inthe courtyard of the Ars et Mundus Gallery. He is the sculpture of a beloved Kaunas-born author,Abraham Mapu, who is credited with writing and self-publishing one of the first Hebrew novels in 1853. I love the cheeky character sculptor Martynas Gaubas has achieved. With his hand held just so, he looks about to doff his cap in greeting.

Owl on Owl Hill, Kaunas Lithuania1. pic by Judy Darley6. A whole flock of owls
Pelėdų Kalnas, Kaunas
These concrete and sand owls mark the perimeter of Pelėdų Kalnas, or Owl Hill, and were created by sculptor Vincas Grybas in 1922. The owls are the symbols of Kaunas Art School, the hill and the city below.

The Cabin. Kaunas, Lithuania. Photo by Judy Darley7. The Cabin
Putvinskio G. 36, Kaunas
This gorgeous rainbow building springs out of its surroundings as a reminder that art rests on every corner of Kaunas. Once an abandoned and weather-beaten house, it’s now a vivid slice of life set almost midway between the Devil’s Museum and the Žaliakalnis Funicular (which was closed when we visited, with no explanation as to why). There are two chairs on the cabin’s roof, perhaps in case the devil or his wife fancy a rest.

Levitator. Kaunas, Lithuania. Photo by Judy Darley8. The Levitator
Nepriklausomybes Aikštė, Kaunas
Situated close to St. Michael the Archangel’s Church, this sculpture resembles a miracle caught in mid-moment, as a figure rises, harnessed to its long-locked plinth only by a swathe of cloak.
I’ve since seen photos of children pressing themselves beneath the hovering body, but when we saw it rain poured down and all that caught there was the suggestion of clouds. By the way, apparently the Lithuanian word of Levitator is levitatacija. Beautiful.

Yard Gallery Kaunas1 Lithuania. pic by Judy Darley9. Yard Gallery
Ožeškienės G. 21A, Kaunas
Begun in artist Vytenis Jakas more than a decade ago, the Yard Gallery is a constantly evolving creation, with new artworks being added by a range of artists, neighbours and passersby all the time. It aims to bring life and a sense of community to this space surrounded by residential homes. An astonishing space crammed with evidence of narrative and imagination.

Pink Elephant Kaunas Lithuania. pic by Judy Darley10. The Pink Elephant
Ožeškienės G. 18A, Kaunas
Just up the hill from the Yard Gallery, you’ll find a vast, resting elephant depicted in power pink. That large ear seems ripe for secrets, better than any church confessional. It’s by artist Vytenis Jakas(yep, him of the Yard Gallery, and to me seems to represent all things joyful and accepting in this quirky creative city. It was actually inspired by a graffiti slogan that translates as Love Conquers All.

Find out more about Kaunas, Lithuania, at visit.kaunas.lt/en/ 

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Chicago 10 Top Experiences

Lake Michigan and Navy Pier. Photo by Judy DarleyThe first sighting of Chicago – long before the towers come into view – is of the lake. Big M, a landlocked ocean licking the shore of three states, sans salt, sans sharks, sans tides. Lake Michigan.

Our Airbnb is just a stroll from its edge, in the Gold Coast district where ornate mansions speak of an almost grotesque excess of money, while more time-worn streets have been turned over to a more Bohemian clientele.

We’re close enough to stride along the water’s edge into the city, using the John Hancock Center or Navy Pier’s big wheel to guide us. Nature battles against the rampant urbanity here. Cormorant spread their wings in the harbour and fish dart, while tourist paddle kayaks, ride tour boats or pause on bridges to admire the soaring architecture. All human life jostles here – wealthy residents sidestepping broken-down beggars to enter designer shops, while holidaymakers hurry to the next museum, the next work of art, the next tower to ogle and ascend.

Here are my top ten recommendations of what to see, eat and experience in and around Chicago.

Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor, Chicago_Photo by Judy Darley

1 Encounter the Cloud Gate

Known by locals as the Bean, the Cloud Gate sculpture by Anish Kapoorresembles a gigantic silvery globular mirror. It rests in the AT&T Plaza at Chicago’s Millennium Park like a capsized UFO, enticing tourists and passersby to pause and photograph their own reflection.

A vehicle to our own selfie-obsessed vanity, it’s a perfect tool for people-watching, as well as capturing majestic views of the Chicago cityscape. The one thing it doesn’t seem to me to meditate on is sky – but perhaps it’s in the Illinois winter, when sub-zero temperatures halt human hive activity, that it truly comes into its own.

Architecture river cruise. Photo by Judy Darley

2 Embark on an architecture tour

In a city riddled with extraordinary towers, there’s plenty of scope for admiring the architecture. With the river attracting many of the most ambitious designs, the most leisurely way to take in the their grandeur is with a Chicago Architecture River Cruise by Shoreline Sightseeing. From just over £30, you’ll get a 75-minute guided voyage through the urban masterpieces, learn about the fire that destroyed 3.3 square miles of Chicago in 1871, and discover that in Chicago, the word Willis is pronounced Seeears. As an added bonus, our excellent tour guide Jalen seemed to be warming up for a set at legendary comedy hotspots Second City.

View of the John Hancock Building from the Willis Tower. Photo by Judy Darley

View of the John Hancock Building from the Willis Tower

3 Ascend the towers

In a city of skyscrapers, there are several that stand out more than others, and you can pay to visit two of the more notable of these.

The Skyjack of the Willis Tower (previously the Sears Tower), offers exceptional views over Chicago and some unexpected treats. We glimpse a kestrel swooping on the thermals and a few vertigo-defying spiders too. Don’t miss the chance to step onto the Ledge, a glass balcony that juts out from the 103rd floor of the tower (1,353 feet up!) – the perfect opportunity to snap your next profile pick/author photo/ album cover. Buy your tickets.

Above Michigan Avenue, 360 Chicago is accessible from the 94th floor of the John Hancock Centre, overlooking the city and Lake Michigan. You also have the chance to test your nerves with thrill ride Tilt, try Sky Yoga, get into photography, challenge your artistic side, or simply enjoy happy hour at the bar up in the clouds. Get your ticket here.

Pancakes for breakfast. Photo by Judy Darley4 Eat

The people of Chicago are ravenous. Hungry for better views (how else do you explain all the skyscrapers?), bigger lives, and most of all for food. There are several dishes you have to try here: deep pan pizza, best served against a backdrop of TV screens each showing a different sport; burgers and fries; pasta; cheesecake; ice cream…

There are tricks to getting the most out of these dining experiences without losing your mind and gaining a ton of weight. 1) be ready to answer questions about the types of bread, side orders, salad dressings and cooking methods you want (fried eggs just won’t do, you need to know whether you want them over easy, sunny side up or whatever). 2) Request a box and save half of your breakfast/lunch/dinner to eat the next day. 3) Share your dessert with your beloved. It will be ever so romantic and ensure you can get amble afterwards without waddling too badly.

And if you decide to opt for something a bit classier, you could do a lot worse than Café Robey. Read my review of Café Robey.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan Avenue Entrance. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago. Edward Kemeys, Lions

Edward Kemeys, Lions, Michigan Avenue Entrance. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

5 Mingle with art stars

Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago is bound to be a highlight for any art aficionado visiting this extraordinary city. This vast space is teeming with renowned artworks, as well as plenty of less famous gems. From the intriguing Thorne Miniature Rooms to marvels such as Georgia O’Keefe’s Sky Above Clouds IV, I found myself floating on an excess of wonder. To me the Art Institute of Chicago felt like a portal through time, space and sensibility, with each doorway offering admission to another absorbing world.

Find out more at www.artic.edu. Read my full write up of the Art Institute of Chicago.

6 Hop on a train!

Have an adventure and take an Amtrak train journey to one of the quirky towns that sit outside the major cities. Kalamazoo is just over a couple of hours from downtown Chicago, yet lies in a different state (Michigan) and timezone. Trains run here infrequently, so we got up early, and saw dawn break over the Chicago towers during our stroll to the elegant Union Station.

Our train passed through industrial areas and by sparsely populated woodlands before reaching this small township of cute shops, breweries and one of the most attractively housed public libraries I’ve seen. Intriguingly, the town was once renowned for its celery crops, but don’t let that put you off. We pass the time in coffee shops, admired unexpected sculptures, and visit the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Sadly, there is no longer a zoo in Kalamazoo – it closed its doors in ’74. Hmm, that sounds like the start of a Dr Seuss story…

Lincoln Park Zoo Harbour Seal. Photo by Judy Darley

7 Explore Lincoln Park Zoo

A good zoo done well with plenty of imagination and an emphasis on conservation is a wonderful thing, and Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the world’s finest. Even better, it’s free to visitors, providing families and passerbys with the opportunity to glimpse wonderful animals and learn about the natural world both within and beyond America’s shores.

We watched grey seals cavort with harbour seals, spotted a pygmy hippo being groomed by fish, saw black and white colobus monkeys playing, met an aardvark and glimpsed a slow loris, among so many other species I couldn’t possibly list them all. Plus, beyond the confined areas a chipmunk darts by, turtles sunbathe with ducks, and a hummingbird dances in mid-air for its supper. There are some exquisite sculptures too.

Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk. Photo by Judy Darley

Outside the confines of the zoo, but in this case considered part of its realm, you’ll find the Nature Boardwalk, which teems with wildlife and offers a tranquil spot within sight of the city. Find out more.

8 Sample the neighbourhoods

Old Town. Photo by Judy DarleyChicago is made up of an assortment of different districts, or neighbourhoods, each with boasting its own distinct personality. While Downtown is where you’ll find the major highlights such as Millennium Park, even this area boasts an assortment of areas, including Gold Coast, Magnificent Mile and the Loop.

Check out Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) at transitchicago.com to discover the treasures awaiting you in the other areas, from Andersonville to Old Town.

9 Search for public art

As treasure hunts go, this is one with endless riches. Sculptures pose on Chicago’s street corners, in plazas and outside edifices. The Chicago Picasso is one of the more notable – untitled it stands 50 feet tall in the Daley Plaza, a monumental artwork that doubles up as a kids’ slide.

Gentlemen by Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming. Photo by James Hainsworth

On the AMA Plaza beside the river, look out for Gentlemen, a series of statues by Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming resembling quirky businessmen complete with umbrellas.

The Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa. Photo by Judy Darley

In Millennium Park, the Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa comprises two 50-foot blocks that stand adjacent to one another, each made up of screens that present a vast visage of a Chicago citizen. The faces blink, smile and occasionally purse their lips so that spouts of water emerge. It’s especially appealing on hot summer days.

ake Michigan beach.Photo by Judy Darley

10 Be amazed by Lake Michigan

This shining pool is so vast that the far side is beyond the horizon’s edge. One of the five Great Lakes of North America, it’s unique in being set entirely within the United States. I’ve heard that in winter, it freezes over. In summer it attracts swimmers, kayakers and sand castle builders. Cyclists and runners pelt up and down the shore, while fish dart in the depths. A short train-ride away, more rural areas appeal to day-trippers, but within the city, the beauty of the water framed by gleaming skyscrapers is undeniable.

Discover more about Chicago at www.choosechicago.com.

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