10th June 2018
Water and Whales in Birštonas, a Spa Town in Lithuania
Birštonas, a pretty spa town in Lithuania, nestles in a loop of the River Nemunas. It is a town within a park of trees, grass and flowers, the Nemunas Loop Regional Park, and owes its prosperity to the mineral waters that flow beneath it. It guards these precious waters through the belief that they are protected by a mythical whale. When the curative properties of the waters were discovered Lithuania was part of Tsarist Russia and was granted permission to establish a resort at Birštonas. During the First World War this resort was destroyed but its fortunes were revived in 1924 when the Red Cross became interested in the area and established the first mud baths (still operational as the Tulpės sanatorium). Around the same time a concrete statue of a whale was placed on the spot where the Vytautas spring (the most important) was discovered. In 1959 when the Kaunas hydroelectric power plant was build downstream the water level in the River Nemunas was raised and the whale was submerged. It was thought it would be unlucky to attempt to retrieve this whale and a new one, created by the artist A. Kazdailis was placed in front of the mud baths. In 1995 it was decided a while should be part of the coat of arms of Birštonas. This whale is a splendid creature – a gold fish with silver teeth and a fountain springing out of its head.
Drinking the waters of a health spa is the most effective way of utilising their curative properties. In Birštonas mineral water drinking fountains and pavilions were built to bottle, treat and carbonate its salty waters. During the period of the First Independent Republic of Lithuania (1918 – 1940) ornate mineral water drinking fountains were established reflecting the belief that mineral waters were the most important aspect of health resorts. One of these drinking fountains was built in art deco style near the hill (now a ski slope) in Birštonas Park. This park was the site of the original resort and since its regeneration it is now known as Vytautas Park. Originally the waters for these fountains came from natural springs but after the dam was built on the River Nemunas in 1959 raising the level of the water these springs were destroyed and the resort now draws its mineral waters from sources underground. Mineral water is still freely available from several fountains around the town and the Birutė villa in the park. The water from the Vytautas spring is the most famous and it is bottled for sale worldwide.
After sampling the Vytautas spring water I climbed the several flights of wooden steps leading to the top of Vytautas Hill also known as the Birštonas Mound. Nothing remains of the fourteenth century wooden castle that was built on the top of this artificial mound. But it is a great vantage point from which to view the River Nemunas winding its way through the valley below.
Close to this hill is a magnificent statue of the Grand Duke Vytautas the Great. During the fifteenth century Birštonas was used as a royal hunting ground and the Duke was a frequent visitor but failed to give the town royal status by dying shortly before his coronation as King of Lithuania. This pink granite equestrian statue stands on the bank of the River Nemunas. The granite used by its creators, G. Jokūbonis and V. Čekanauskas was brought from the Ukraine which belonged to Lithuania during the rule of Vytautas the Great.
Throughout the town visitors will come across a wide variety of statuary. Dedicated sculpture walks and parks have been created reflecting different themes or remembering different people and events. My favourite is the Girl with Fifes outside the City Hall. It enhances the beautiful gardens outside this municipal building on the other side of town.
Continuing on my way through Vytautas Park I paused by the Kneipp Garden to watch some people taking advantage of this free facility. It was established to promote the Kneipp therapies devised by Father Sebastian Kneipp who believed that water cures everything. His holistic concept, prevention is better than cure, is based on five elements: water therapy, exercise therapy, plant therapy, balance therapy and nutrition. The Royal SPA Residence in Birštonas particularly promotes these therapies.
Just behind the Kneipp Garden is the church of Saint Anthony of Padua. Its elegant spire can be seen for miles around. This modern brick church was consecrated in 1909 and replaced the former wooden church, dedicated to St Jude Thaddeus that had stood on the same site for one hundred years. Built in the neo-gothic architectural style this beautiful church features with naves with wide arches decorated with neo-gothic elements. The interior was brightened up at the end of the twentieth century with the addition of stained glass windows.
A wedding was taking place in the church when I passed by it the first time. I returned later to explore the interior and was disappointed to find it had already closed. The wooden doors were open but there was an ornamental iron gate across the entrance. Some young men were lighting candles to put in the holders that were hanging from this gate. When they moved away I stepped forward to take a photograph. I had forgotten about the candles – until my hair burst into flames. It stopped burning as soon as I moved away. A bemused lady was watching me and I thought she was going to shout at me. Instead she removed a large key from inside her jacket and motioned to me to follow her. She let me into the church through a side door. While she got on with her cleaning I was free to take photographs. A golden rays of sun were pouring through the stained glass windows and it was an uplifting experience.
Walking through the town on my way to the river I came across the Birštonas Museum of Sacred Art. This museum was established in an old clergy house (interesting in itself) and opened in 2000. The building was associated with two esteemed clergymen Teofilius Matulionis and Vincentas Sladkevicius both martyrs to their faith during the Soviet Union occupation of Lithuania (1944 – 1990). The museum tells their stories and includes exhibits of their personal belongings. It also relates the history of the old wooden church.
It was very pleasant strolling along the Nemunas bank promenade which links Vytautas Park in the south to Central Park https://www.visitbirstonas.lt/en/sightseeing-places/birstonas-central-park/ in the north. There are benches and cafés along the way. This promenade was created when a dam further down river raised the water level threatening to submerge the town. I enjoyed watching the activity on the river beside me. Rowing up and down this river is a popular form of transport for local people due to lack of bridges over the river. Boat trips are also very popular here and visitors can travel here by boat from Kaunas.
I took a short detour from the embankment back into the town to visit the quaint Birštonas Museum. This museum occupies a wooden house http://www.autc.lt/en/architecture-objects/1637 that was built by a Forestry Officer in the early 1930’s. He intended to use it as a summer house but up until 1941 the villa was rented to educational institutions sending employees to Birštonas for treatment. In 1948 the ownership of the building was transferred to the state (Russian again) and became a sanatorium. In 1967 a teacher in the town turned the building into the museum it is today. The museum represents a haphazard documentation of the past and present of Birštonas – all in Lithuanian. There is an information board outside and the curator will be happy to give English-speaking visitors a leaflet containing a brief explanation of the exhibits. She does not speak any English herself but was able to convey the prohibition of photography inside the building and her delight when I signed the visitors’ book.
On my way back to my hotel I noticed a building one side of which was one huge stained glass window. Curiosity drew me inside the Centre of Culture. Although the building was constructed during the 1970s during the Russian occupation it has survived and I was able to appreciate one of the largest stained glass windows in Lithuania. Simply entitled Lithuania it lacks any outward propaganda or Soviet symbols but the manner in which the various classes of Lithuanian society are depicted is Soviet-style. The centre is still used for events and conferences and features a café.
Early that morning I had left my hotel, Vytautas Mineral Spa in a hot air balloon. Set in its own extensive grounds around a lake with a small beach it is the ideal starting point for this very popular activity. Our pilot was Zydrunas Kazlauskas who has been flying hot air balloons for more than 25 years and competed in ballooning events worldwide.
It was incredible, drifting through the silence over forests and fields. Curious cows gazed up at us, excited dogs ran around in circles barking furiously and a couple stood in their doorway and stared at us. I was able to appreciate the true beauty of this exceptional spa town from above. It was just as lovely when I explored it on foot.
I stayed at three very good and very different spa hotels. The Royal SPA Residence which concentrates on Kneipp treatments; Eglės Sanatorija which offers cutting edge cryotherapy; Vytautas Mineral Spa which was a glorious mixture of excellent treatments and a great atmosphere.