Curonian Spit (21 – 22 June 2013)
I took the boat across the narrow strait from Klaipėda to Smiltynė on the Curonian Spit. The ferry looked like the sort that was used years ago to transport recruits every week between the main island and Pulau Tekong where they were trained to become soldiers. I can absolutely imagine that the mood on the ferry back to the main island would have been joyous and that on the ferry back to Pulau Tekong would have been suffocatingly sombre.
A bus traverses down the length of the Spit and one was already waiting when my ferry docked at Smiltynė. My destination was Juodkrantė where I had booked my accommodations. The village was easily accessible by bus and was somewhat in the middle of the Lithuanian section of the Spit.
I got off the bus at the tourist information centre, which serves as the unofficial village centre, of Juodkrantė. My hotel, the Vila Vita, was at L. Rezos 25 and based on my research ought to be nearby. I walked confidently on past the tourist office information centre until I got to L. Rezos 24. The next one was number 26. Now what the hell happened to number 25? I walked behind the row of houses but still could not find number 25. It was all very bewildering!
I walked all around and saw no L. Rezos 25. I felt like I had been cheated and decided I was going to spend a bit of money on a phone call to Vila Vita to find out where on earth they were. Fortunately someone friendly picked up the phone gave me directions to the hotel. L. Rezos 25 is actually one bus stop further down!
The girl who picked up my call put me in the wrong room for the first night and then apologised profusely the next morning and got me to move to the right room. I much prefer the significantly bigger room with a balcony they had mistakenly put me in of course. The single room I had booked only had a little square at the top of the wall for a window which was disappointing. The size of the room though was what I had expected so no complaints on that.
The folks at the Vila Vita though were really friendly. It was such a refreshing change from the people I had met in the interior of the country. They even bothered to have conversations with me. Breakfast at the hotel was not buffet style but freshly cooked and I enjoyed breakfast more because of that.
The Curonian Spit is a 98 kilometre long spit shared between Lithuania and Russia. The northern 52 kilometre long section belongs to Lithuania and is protected as the Kuršių Nerija National Park. Administratively, the Lithuanian part of the Spit is part of the municipality of Neringa. I told my landlady in Vilnius that I was going to visit the Curonian Spit and she did not know what I was saying. Then I mentioned Klaipėda and Juodkrantė and she said, “Oh, Neringa.”
The Spit is home to the highest drifting sand dunes in Europe, reaching an average height of 30 metres and a maximum of about 60 metres. Settlements on the Spit have been swallowed up by the sand before and it is crucial for the people living on it to ensure that the sand is tamed sufficiently to protect their homes. It is possible to climb onto a sand dune outside of Nida and I did just that. Standing on top of the dune, it was possible to see the the town of Nida on one side and the Russian portion of the Spit in the distance on another side. My toes (I was wearing flip flops) however hurt from the sand made hot by the strong sun.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the spit was covered in forests. A large number of the trees were Canadian mountain pine which was apparently selected because it was most suitable for local conditions. These trees help to prevent excessive sand drifts. The best part of my visit was my walks in the forests outside Juodkrantė and Nida. Too many people spend their time at coast on the lagoon side or the beach on the Baltic Sea side of the spit. That allowed me to have the forest, and the wonderfully fresh air, mostly to myself. I preferred the one outside Juodkrantė since the one outside Nida felt a bit too eerie at times.
Speaking of fresh air, I could not have been at the Curonian Spit at a better time. Singapore was experiencing its worst haze in history at the time. PSI readings went up to a high of over 400 at one point. Everyone I know was absolutely fed up with Indonesia because it was man made forest fires there that caused the haze. In response to Singapore’s protest, Indonesia called on Singapore to stop being childish and remember all the oxygen it had been enjoying all along because of Indonesia’s forests. That incredible response I learnt from watching BBC at my hotel in Juodkrantė. Then right after that report BBC played an advertisement from Indonesia which aims to attract business to the country. The advertisement emphasised Indonesia’s diverse nature.
Later it would become clearer to all that Singaporean companies had some responsibility to bear in the forest fires. The belief had always been that the fires were caused by slash and burn farmers. It then became known after that horrendous haze episode that much forest was in fact burnt to clear land for plantations for Singaporean businesses, or for businesses which Singaporean entities have interests in.
In any case, I had clear blue skies and sunshine and fresh air in Lithuania while my friends in Singapore had to bear with hazardous (to a Singaporean it means life-threatening) air quality. I knew better than to rave about the wonderful time I was having on the Curonian Spit and the marvellously fresh air I was enjoying in the beautiful pine forests.
Although the Curonian Spit is very long, it is also very narrow. I remember walking aimlessly in the forest outside Juodkrantė and then less than an hour later I found myself outside leaving the forest and arriving at the beach on the western side of the Spit and looking at the Baltic Sea.
Other than the trees and the sand, the Spit does also have other places of cultural interest.
Juodkrantė has a Hill of Witches, or Raganų Kalnas, which is a section of the forest behind the village that has many wooden statues of people and witches and demons, characters in Lithuanian legends and folk tales. It was quite enjoyable exploring this section of the forest.
Nida however seemed to be the most important tourist area on the Spit. There is a house there, now called the Fisherman Ethnographic Homestead, that has been preserved to give visitors an idea of what it was like living in there. This is a fisherman’s house and similar ones can be found all over the coast. This particularly one looked like a cosy little place and would have made a fantastic holiday cottage. The fishermen houses of the Spit are generally charming and colourful.
Being a place inhabited by people who relied on the sea for their livelihoods, fishing had to be controlled. In 1844, a special marking system using special weathervanes was used. Each weathervane was attached to a fishing boat to identify the boat in an assigned fishing area. The weathervane also provides information about the fisherman and his background. They are really pretty.
Just outside Nida is an Evangelical Lutheran church and a cemetery. I bothered to visit the cemetery not because I had a thing for dead people but because they had some interesting headstones there. The metal crosses, examples of which I had seen in the Blacksmith’s Museum in Klaipėda, are used here. But it is the krikštai (singular krikštas) that I found more interesting. These are headstones carved from a piece of wood into distinctive shapes.
There is also an Evangelical Lutheran church in Juodkrantė very near my hotel. It is quite strange that they have a copy of the Divine Mercy in there.
The coasts of the Baltic Sea are apparently filled with amber. Unfortunately I was not able find any while I was on the Spit although I might not have tried hard enough. There is however an amber museum in Nida. Actually it was more a shop than a museum. I think they call it a museum only to lure innocent visitors like me into their lair. If I had known that it were a shop I would most likely not have gone in. Some of the pieces on display there were exquisite though. Exquisite but expensive, and entirely useless to me except to collect dust with.
It was a beautiful, and restful, end to my visit in Lithuania. I never thought that I could enjoy a holiday at a beach resort, which to me is what the Curonian Spit essentially is. I enjoyed the walks in the forests and the cute houses in the towns and villages. I was thankful for the sunshine and fresh air that I would not have been able to enjoy at home at that time. I also got the rest that I never gave myself on this trip before I got there because I was always trying to see as much as possible of every place that I had gone to.
As for Lithuania as a whole, it was such a unique country and my visit had been fulfilling. Although Lithuania was not that much bigger than either Latvia or Estonia, I gave it more than twice the number of days I did to the latter two countries. I still think that I had done the right thing.