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Little-known Lithuania: Sand dunes, scenery and silence on the glorious Curonian Spit

Little-known Lithuania: Sand dunes, scenery and silence on the glorious Curonian Spit

By Teresa Levonian Cole
Last updated at 4:16 PM on 1st September 2010

There is a place on the Curonian Spit where fish fall out of the sky.

No, really, my guide assured me - but by then, I would not have been surprised to find mackerel raining down on me. On the spit, one feels, anything is possible. This fishy phenomenon, however, has less to do with the many local myths of witches and demons than the greedy, butter-beaked cormorants. So I waited, neck craned to the heavens. Nothing. Today, alas, the birds were being careful not to drop any of their catch.

Curonian Spit

Small wonder: Divided between Lithuania and Russia, the Curonian Spit is 60 miles long, but barely a mile wide

The Curonian Spit, named after one of the early Baltic tribes that inhabited the region, is a curious place, a 60 mile-long finger of sand that stretches upwards from Russian Kaliningrad to within a handshake of the Lithuanian mainland, separating the waters of the Baltic Sea from the Curonian lagoon.


The northern 32 miles of this peninsula belong to Lithuania, accessed by ferry from the port of Klaipeda. Make the short hop across the strait and you reach a National Park and Unesco World Heritage Site of astonishing beauty.

I arrived around 10 pm to find the sun retiring, and drove southwards through a darkening forest. The spit averages just over a mile wide with a single main road running between dunes all the way to the Russian border.

The famous postal route used to run from Konigsberg to St Petersburg, but I could see neither sea nor lagoon through the thick plantations lining the road.

After half an hour, we reached Nida, the southernmost settlement on the Lithuanian side: a tiny town of 1,500, which swells with visitors every summer and resonates to the sounds of Lithuanian, German and Russian.

The arrival of the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century paved the way for Prussian rule over the next 700 years, to be succeeded by the USSR after World War II.

You could stay at the Nida hotel, until 1990 a favourite of the Soviet apparatchiks, or rent a guesthouse converted from the pretty wooden fishermen's cottages.

Neringa, Curonian Spit, Lithuania

The Spit's shoreline offers spaces for cycling - and pretty wooden houses in the town of Neringa

Every house, it seems, has a little restaurant in its garden, in which holidaymakers linger over beers, while bicycles - the favoured form of transport - lean tipsily in wait.

This is far removed from a trendy resort. A haven of peace, the Curonian Spit is little changed since the 19th century, when a colony of German artists settled in Nida in search of inspiration.

Freud visited, and Thomas Mann was so impressed he built a summer house, which is the focus of a music and arts festival every July.

The unique landscape makes it a place for nature-lovers and, being on the migratory path of 20 million birds, a twitcher's delight.

It was the Sahara-style sand dunes that piqued my curiosity. Sand dunes so far north? Yet, soft and creamy, they rise in places to almost 230 ft. With deforestation for ship-building between the 16th to 18th centuries, the unfettered dunes began to drift with the winds, allegedly burying 17 villages.

The forests, which cover 70 per cent of the land, are the result of replanting in the 19th century. Trails with signs explaining local flora and fauna, lead through the forests, while nature reserves protect the fragile ecology.

The cycle route along the lagoon, past reed banks and swans guarding fluffy cygnets, is one of the easiest and most pleasant rides.

Lining the shore, colourful weathercocks, intricately carved with symbolic ensigns, swing on tall poles. Typical of this region, they were used to identify boats and control fishing quotas. Past the fishing harbour we soon found ourselves in forest, fragrant with wild strawberries. Elk and wild boar roam hereabouts.

Passing Vecekrugo dune, the highest forested hill on the spit, we reached the small fishing village of Preila. 'This is where they make the best smoked fish on the spit,' Neringa, my guide, told me, to the acrid smell of woodsmoke. At a small market, nameless fish from sea and lagoon hung shiny and golden from hooks.

exterior shot of tourists walkign along sand duensexterior shot of an elk drinking water from a river

Tourists wander along the sand dunes of the Curonian Spit, whilst elk can be spotted by nature lovers

The four main settlements of Juodkrante, Pervalka, Preila and Nida, collectively known as the City of Neringa, are lagoon-side.

The Baltic shore, reached over the hump of dunes, is a long stretch of sand and Blue Flag beaches of chill, shallow water.

Well tended, it is ideal for families, the greatest hazard being tripping over a half-buried bottle of vodka left to cool in the sea. You can even hunt for tiny pieces of amber.

The spit is famous for this 'Baltic gold', and Nida is full of shops selling beautiful amber jewellery.

Algirdas Marcius, an amber master, explained the medicinal properties of this fossilised resin - from curing earache to regulating blood pressure. I sipped vodka marinated with amber pieces 'as a prophylactic against illness'. It must work. In his 60s, Algirdas still dredges amber using a net and pole. I watched him fashion a beautiful necklace of chunky white amber, 'a colour formerly reserved for the Tsars'.

A red evening sun smiled as Captain Aurelio hoisted the sails of his flat-bottomed, 40ft oak fishing boat - a copy of the traditional kurenai of the region, which disappeared in the Fifties.

Curonian Spit, Lithuania

Charming: Old fishing boats sit at rest near Preilan on the Curonian Lagoon

We sailed along Parnidis Dune and Gliders' Dune beyond - a nature reserve stretching five miles into Russia.

Grey herons and seagulls wheeled overhead. 'The spit is so unique that everyone must see it,' wrote philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt on his visit in 1809. Two hundred years on, his words still hold true.

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Vilnius is a great place for pleasant strolls. It is green, full of cultural diversity and cozily compact. So compact, that in just a few dozen steps from the gallery, you find yourself in a park, followed by a baroque church, and off to the castle after a cup at the local cafe. Thus, in a short time you get to not just see, but also hear, touch, taste and tune into the soul of the city.

Is it just us, or are you already planning a weekend trip?

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