Day 11 – Curonian Spit, Lithuania

4 Oct

Night in a full size bed was bliss, although I had managed to forget the directions to breakfast this morning.  Luckily, I had an orange line to follow through this large hotel to find it.  It took me to a lift, where the number were on the outside – i.e. you had to decide which floor you were going to before you got in.  A panel then told you which of three lifts to get in.  I saw the restaurant was on the 20th floor, so up I went, to discover it closed.  Back down again, and I somehow managed to end up in a different place, with the other restaurant now far more obvious.  On the return journey, I walked outside the hotel and along the street, rather than chance the 20th floor again.  Nearly all the others in the group recounted a similar story.  On the plus side, the view from the 20th floor was worth it.

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Our trip today was to the Curonian Spit, a long strip of tree covered sand, that runs all the way to Kaliningrad – an exclave of Russia.  To get there, we needed to catch a short ferry – 5 minutes to the other side. This presented Tauno with an opportunity to enlighten us.  The Curonian Spit has about 2000 inhabitants on the Lithuanian end, and 1500 on the Russian end.  There are officially a lot more though, as residence there grants you cheap access to the ferry.  It’s a National Park with great beaches and therefore attracts a lot of local tourism as well.

Some other Tauno-isms this morning.  Firstly, the news from Estonia.  A picture of the Virgin Mary in the Estonian National Museum has hits the headlines today.  It was setup as an interactive display, where visitors could “kick it” and it would smash (before resetting).  Whilst this was an accurate display of things that happened in the past, understandably, the Lutheran Archbishop was a bit upset, when he was invited to take part.  It’s now not so interactive.

Secondly, wildlife news just in from the Latvian population in Lithuania.  They used to catch and cook crows up to the 1940s.  On the Curonian Spit, wild boars were almost domesticated, and were very friendly.  That was until the locals applied for a licence to shoot them.  They’re not so friendly now!

As we drove through the Curonian Spit we saw that it was heavily forested with mountain pine.  The bad news is that this particular type of tree is highly flammable, and there were large patches of no young trees which had previously been hit by forest fire.

We passed through what looked like a road toll, but was actually collecting an eco-tax, and stopped to familiarise ourselves with the map.  Too big to fit in one photo though.

Our first stop was at Juodkrante and the “Hill of Witches”.  This consisted of a short forest walk where 80 large wooden sculptures were dotted about.  Each had folklore associated with it, and Tauno did his best to give us a good background to the stories.  We passed through the gate of hell to meet Lucifer, joined in a game of cards with the devil and a witch, met the Gods of thunder and mist and avoided the kissing seat.  In between all that, Tauno had another degustation – this time Lithuanian alcohol called “999” or, if you turn the bottle upside down … 666.  Spooky.

Some of the sculptures showed women standing on the feet of the men.  This was to prove that they were not the devil in disguise – the devil apparently has hooves, and therefore no toes.  Even the slide and the seesaw in the children’s play area were in the same style, carved from wood.

The lagoon side was peaceful and full of stone art.  It was however very cold.  Even the ducks were tucked up.

Our next stop was to a cormorant and grey heron nesting site.  Up a short flight of steps, we witnessed the damage that the acidic cormorant poo can do to trees.  In 1990 there were only 14 nests, but there are now over 3000.  Saying that they must have all been out fishing, as we saw no birds at all – just the nests!

If we had continued on the road, we’d have ended up in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, so we stopped instead at a viewpoint, where we could see just how narrow the Spit is.  With the salty Baltic Sea on our right and the fresh water Curonian Lagoon on the left, the Russian border post could be seen to the south.

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Russia to the south (that’s it there)

The Lithuanians are dredging the channel between these two bodies of water, to help bigger ships access the port at Klaipeda, causing more salt water to enter the lagoon and driving the fresh water fish towards Russia.  You can’t win them all.

The viewpoint also had a huge sundial.  The names of the months in were Lithuanian, which are totally unlike our names – mostly named after trees, “summer”, “dry”, “cold” and so on.

We were driven into the last village – Nida – where Tauno showed around us the extensive village.  So large that it didn’t allow minibuses to enter.  We wandered along the waterside and encountered many heavily decorated weathervanes. These were previously used on fishing boats to show where they came from, and helped to enforce fishing areas.  Over time, they became far more decorative, telling the story of the fisherman and his family.

Four of us also headed to the Amber Museum.  A day without learning is a day without sunshine.  Today, my learning was all about amber.  Firstly, it’s not a stone, it is fossilised pine tree resin. The stuff in the Baltic is about 50 million years old and is mined from the waters around, or just picked up on the beach.  At one point they did also have amber fisherman.  The Russian area of Kaliningrad has about 90% of the amber in the Baltic.  The museum was only two small rooms, but contained an amazing display of amber in all states, from the unpolished rock lookalikes, to the finished silver framed jewellery and chess sets.  For the amazing price of €1.25 we had a guided tour of the white, green, blue, black and amber amber.  There are actually seven colours. The blue and white amber is the most expensive.  Wearing unpolished black amber around your neck is supposed to be good for your health.

Burning it is the only sure way to make sure it is amber, but this of course results in no more amber.  It should sink in fresh water, and float in 10% salty water.  Fakes are usually plastic or glass.  Several items on display contained other organic material – either animals or fauna.  It is about half the weight of a similar sized stone and flat slices are usually transparent enough to act as a magnifier.

Whilst I gasped at the prices, two of the group tried on a few and ended up buying.  Credit cards needed – it’s not cheap!  I was more interested in the amber alcohol that our guide had also mentioned was good for you.  Basically, leave some amber beads in the alcohol of your choice for 4 weeks, and your drink is then flavoured with amber, smells of amber, and is amber in colour.  This works with the same set of beads for up to 5 years.  They were the cheapest item on sale at €20, but as this didn’t include the alcohol, and there were no sample tastings on offer, I passed.

After a brief lunch of chicken, cheese and pineapple, we met with the group and drove to the house of Thomas Mann, a German writer who won the Nobel Literature prize in 1929.  We saw the outside of his house – it had a great view over the water.  Not quite sure of the point of this visit, as very few had heard of him, and Tauno didn’t add much either.  I ended up Googling him back on the bus, but soon lost interest.

Nida beach was deserted, cold and windy, but very picturesque.  The waves of the Baltic Sea were pounding the beach, but I imagine on a warmer day that the beach would be full of sun seekers.  We tried to make that we didn’t remove any of the sand to the bus, as they are quite keen to keep as much as possible on the small Spit.  I also tried trawling the beach for amber, and found a possible candidate.  Will let you know once I polish it.

We took an hour drive back along the 40km to the ferry and back to the hotel in Klaipeda.

In the evening, the fab 5 met to find a restaurant.  We headed for the Old Mill – a converted warehouse on the river that was now a boutique hotel.  The place was empty, the Lonely Planet named restaurant was unknown by the staff, and we headed back into the Old Town to find another place.  Senoji Hansa – the food was good, the apple pie huge and the bill very reasonable – again!

Packing again tonight – off on a 3 hour drive tomorrow to Kaunas.  Leaving at 9am if I can find the breakfast restaurant in time!

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