Authie et Mi

The Curonian Spit

15th April 2012

It sounds like malady but in fact this an eighty odd kilometre sand dune which comes northwards out of Russia (used to be Prussia) and almost into Klaipėda.

Originally all of the spit belonged to the Teutonic Knights (because they invaded it and the people living there at the time didn’t count in the eyes of the knights) and then as Grand Masters came and fell, to the Prussians. Considerable damage was done during the siege of Königsberg in 1757 by the Russian Army who cut down most of the trees to build boats to aid their war effort.

Unfettered by the removal of the forests the sand took over much of the spit covering villages and forcing the native fishermen to relocate their homes. Following the Seven Years War the Prussians realised the impact and began planting trees starting the forests that cover much of the peninsular today – and they had probably never even heard of the word: ecology.

All remained calm until the aftermath of the Second World War when the Soviet Army arrived expelling all of the German inhabitants. The Russo-Lithuanian border now runs across the Spit just south of the town of Nida.

As Klaipėda is a popular spot for Russians to do their shopping we found quite a number of their vehicles on board the ferry leaving the port for the ten minute trip across the bay. Once back on land we were left in the dusty wake of Russian BM’s, Mercs and other flash cars belting off into the distance.

There is a small fee to pay to get into the Kuršių Nerija National Park which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. At the toll booth we had to wait whilst Vytautas put the money in the slot and the guard then got his key out to unlock the machine which wasn’t working properly. This got the barrier up and we continued on our way. We never did get the ticket that you have to guard with your life : Don’t worry you wont need it.

The grey dunes are immense and constantly shifting

It was a warm sunny day and there were numerous tourists, mostly Russians and Germans, driving about to look at the sights. The first of these we stopped at was the Grey Dunes. The authorities have created a trail to be followed across the dunes out onto the lagoon side (we kept saying bay, but lagoon is more correct). Underneath the dunes are the carcases of the old villages, not that you would see any sign of them.

The dunes form great valleys and although a walkway starts you off you are soon trudging sand. It did seem unusual to see signs telling you that it was forbidden to climb the dunes off the trail. Tell-tale footprints however showed that a few people had disregarded the interdiction (perhaps they didn’t speak pictogram).

We continued on through the forest towards Nida which is just short of the Russian border of the Kaliningrad Oblast’ (Oh let’s go for it, just to be complete : Калинингра́дская о́бласть). Back in the days of yore Nida was a little further south but because of the encroaching high dune had to be moved to its current location.

It is really pretty place and I can understand why during the high season you can hardly move for visitors. Almost all of the brightly painted chalets along the front were apartments and Vytautas was saying that you could probably have a decent hotel in Paris for the same price (sounds reasonable until you consider the differences in the cost of living).

The number of tourists though is controlled by the lack of planning permission and what is allowed is supposedly strictly controlled (famous Lithuanian basketball players appear to be exempt from being told : take it back down again). There is almost no commercialisation of the village for the simple reason that there are all but no commerces. One small shop selling things at the high prices caused by the importation of absolutely everything from the mainland and that was about it; but there was a vomiting bank.

Did I mention that the place was spotless, I probably didn’t need to anyway.

We wandered around the houses, one of which was used by the German writer Thomas Mann; around the port (where I did joke that give them another hundred years of evolution and Lithuanians would realise that the boat went in water and not on wheels) and then into the village cemetery. I think my hosts feared I would be suffering withdrawal symptoms.

The entrance to the cemetery at Neringa

The real reason for going in is because there are numerous wooden pagan styled grave markers. An interesting point being that the name of the deceased is on the outer edge of the post rather than as we would have it on the inner grave side. Once again I was struck by the number of trees and the hilly nature of the ground. A woodland burial site, rather than a planned lawn cemetery.

After a very good lunch of fish we moved on to the High or Parnidis Dune. Near the lookout point (because once again you are warned not to go trekking across the dune) is a large solar clock. It was created in 1995 but was then badly damaged by hurricane Anatoly in 1999 when the top half was ripped off. It has since been repaired (even if shorter) and is back in full working order.

The site was chosen because it is the only place in all of Lithuania where the sun rises and sets into water. Surrounding the obelisk are a numerous stone runic carvings marking certain days of the solar year when the sun will pass through them.

Our final stop on our way back to the mainland and thence Vilnius was at the Cormorant colony near Juodkrantė. The site is in fact a mix of cormorants and grey herons and there are thousands of them. With a plentiful supply of fish near to hand and a seemingly never ending nesting development the birds have a fine time of it.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the woodland beneath the nests. Evaldas was only half joking when he suggested that we took an umbrella and this is one place that you would only ever look up with a great deal of caution.

Unlike the Prussians the cormorants have obviously never heard of ecology or proper toilet facilities either.

More to come…

Posted : 2 May 2012

Travel, Lithuania