To Lithuania, with cycling and walking tour operator The Carter Company. The trip started at the capital Vilnius, followed by a 300km bus ride across the country to the port of Klaipeda for a few days of gentle cycling along and near the coast, including Lithuania’s share of Eurovélo 10, which makes a complete circuit of the Baltic on the website map if not on the ground. Palanga airport would have been a more convenient gateway, but involves flying via Copenhagen at significant extra cost. Vilnius is an interesting city to visit anyway.
Lithuania was a blank sheet for me, but I guessed it would be flat. The chance to go there came up at short notice and I had just enough time to remind or to be more accurate inform myself of the basics of its geography and recent history.
Although Lithuania is the nearest of the three Baltic states to Poland, Germany and us, its south-western neighbour is not Poland but Russia: the Kaliningrad exclave, to which Mother Russia has clung for the sake of its ice-free Baltic port and the world’s most extensive deposits of amber.
Lithuania has less than 60 miles of coast and most of that is its half of the Curonian Spit, a long thin strip of sand and forest. The only land access to the Spit is via Russia, so for the Lithuanians it is effectively an island, and since the immense lagoon it all but encloses is waist-deep, car ferries are confined to the narrow mouth of the lagoon at Klaipeda where a couple of small boats ply back and forth carrying a few cars at a time.
This singular arrangement probably needs a map, so here it is (with apologies for absence from Palanga and Nida – coastal resorts to the north and south of Klaipeda respectively).
With Latvian, the Lithuanian language forms an obscure family that is thought to be related to Sanskrit, which may not be a great help when you need a beer or a bus ticket. I was told not to worry: most people speak English. In hotels and coastal resorts, perhaps; but not beyond. Luckily I joined a guided cycling group with expert navigators and translators. Once I had successfully boarded the right bus and bought the wrong sandwich – annoying, but better than the other way round – and found my way on foot from bus station to hotel in Klaipeda, resolutions about learning some vocab were soon forgotten. The word for thank you sounds like a sneeze – achoo – and more than once I mastered it well enough to elicit the default response to achoo, which sounds like peugeot. I think peugeot means please, not bless you.
Lithuania was the first of the Soviet Republics to throw off the shackles, in March 1990.
A bloodless breakaway? “Not exactly,” said our leader Saulius, as we rolled through the pleasant countryside on a warm September morning, passing horse drawn carts and small wooden houses in colourful gardens filled with shining apples that cried out to be picked … and dogs that kept us honest.
“There was an economic blockade and the Soviet army never left,” Saulius said. “They tried to take the TV Tower in Vilnius, opened fire on the crowd and killed 14 people.” This was on the night of January 13th 1991, an important and sombre anniversary in Lithuania. Most of the victims were shot, but a couple were run over by tanks.
“Still, looking back, Gorbachev was a great man, would you say?”
Saulius pushed the pedals round a few times before replying. “Who do you think gave the order to shoot?”
Between Lithuanians and Russians, there is no love lost. “It’s raining in Russia today,” Saulius would say, looking south with satisfaction. Sailing is popular on the windswept Curonian lagoon but nobody swims in it, for fear of pollution – pumped out by Russia, of course.
Lithuania is an EU but not a euro member. The latter move keeps being postponed. There are about 4 Litas to the pound. ‘Don’t worry,’ I was told, ‘they’ll be delighted to accept euros.’ They aren’t.
How do the cost and quality of life compare in Russia? “Prices are higher, quality is lower,” said Saulius; “except for three things: petrol, alcohol and tobacco.” Even in Lithuania, the pub is refreshingly affordable, as I discovered when I ran out of excuses in a lively metropolitan night-bar on the waterfront at Klaipeda. Seven pints of beer and two large glasses of quite a good Scotch cost about £18.
Klaipeda, formerly Memel (when it was Prussian), is an up-at-heel university town, timber-framed and cobbled at heart and fun to explore, unless you are pulling a wheeled suitcase or riding a bike. The dockyard installations of the Soviet military/industrial/fishing port are gradually being upgraded with marina and residential developments. Commercial warehouses beside the canalised river Dane are turning in to a nightlife zone of theme pubs, cocktail bars and restaurants.
The Old Mill (pictured) is a good hotel near the ferry pier, joined to terra firma by a wooden bridge which swings open on the hour for 15 minutes to let fishing boats and yachts in and out. I would like to report a brisk salty tang in the air, but detected no such thing. The Baltic is a brackish and non-tidal sea, and the Curonian lagoon is not salty at all.
The Lithuanians love beer and basketball. “It’s a second religion for some people,” said Saulius; “and a first religion for others.” By happy chance, my trip coincided with a run of success for the national team in an important European championship. This included a win over Russia, so the mood of the country was upbeat. On match night the bars of Klaipeda were packed, the streets empty.
The climate does not favour viticulture, but wine and stronger alcohol is made from other fruit, and our first stop in the pastoral region known as the Memel-land was a winery near Sveksna. A PYO session in the raspberry patch was followed by a blind tasting of the multiple-award-winning hooch.
After spending half a lifetime trying to bluff my way through tasting wine made from grapes but supposed to smell of quite different things, such as blackberries, it was refreshing to be invited to identify the fruit that actually made the drink.
Even this proved challenging, with the added complication of translating from Lithuanian to German and thence into English (without being 100% confident, I am ashamed to admit, of the difference between blueberries, bilberries, cloudberries etc). The white wine was easily identified as apple, but not so well liked as the red fruit wines such as chokeberry and a softer mixed brew in which redcurrant plays a starring role. Raspberry was in the mix too.
Lithuania’s only island, Rusne, sits in the fertile delta of the River Neman which flows into the Curonian lagoon and marks the Russian border. The area is a happy hunting ground for wetland bird-watchers (and listeners – there are corncrakes, bitterns +++), and we paused on the river bank to look at the wildlife on a mud bank. “Those cormorants are in Russia,” said Saulius. “I hope their visas are in order.”
Rusne’s traditional livelihood is fishing, but it also has rich pastureland to fall back on, and its inhabitants prospered from taking butter and cheese to market as well as towing live fish behind their punts in baskets specially designed for the purpose. During winter the shallow lagoon freezes over, and the people of Rusne turned to ice fishing – that is, until alternative career paths such as running an ecomuseum offered an easier living.
During Lithuania’s Soviet period – 1945 to 1990 – when churches were closed and in some cases used for basketball, priests sought refuge on Rusne where they were able to carry on their religious observance unmolested. The island is hardly remote, but has its own peaceful atmosphere, its own dialect and identity. We visited an eco-themed thatched farmstead museum, banged our heads on low flying punt poles on display in a creaking barn, and ate a traditional local lunch of fish soup followed by fish. “Better to have fish with bones than bones with no fish,” is a Lithuanian proverb that sounds as though it might date back to the Soviet period. When Saulius was a boy in Soviet Lithuania, all the best meat went to Moscow. “We used to joke that Lithuania had exploding pigs,” he told us. “After the explosion, only the ears, tail and feet were left.”
Lithuania claims to have more storks than any other country in Europe, and perhaps the world: more than 30,000 nesting pairs. “They leave on August 24th,” said Saulius, so we missed them and the chance to verify this statistic by a few weeks.
Spaghetti Junction for birds is Cape Vente, a low lying promontory that juts out into the lagoon near Rusne island and serves as a staging post on one of Europe’s busiest bird migration routes in spring and autumn. Its bird observatory and ringing station was founded in the 1920s and, from the look of it, has changed little since then. The head ringer claims to be No. 2 in the world, whatever that means, speaks at high speed in a lively approximation of English and welcomes visitors.
Rowan bushes lure birds into the open mouth of our friend’s nets, and now and again a couple of girls waving football rattles drive the birds to the sharp end where he grabs and rings them with a pair of pliers, logs the details and sends them on their way. It looked a bit heavy handed to the lay visitor, but the robins and warblers we saw undergo this process all flew off unscathed. A different method may be required for a stork.
At Vente we hauled our bikes on to the flat-bottomed Ventaine for the hour-long crossing to Nida, the Curonian Spit’s leading international resort. The weather having taken an unwelcome turn for the cooler, we warmed up on board with local firewater and chunks of Baumkuchen (tree cake). If there is anything I would have liked to bring back from Lithuania, it would have been a recipe and the required rotary oven.
The landscape of the Spit is quite different – instead of rough farms and smallholdings, only pine forest and sand, and villages of neat little painted holiday homes and B&Bs – brown, blue and white – lined up on leafy avenues along the edge of the lagoon. All habitation and the steep dunes are on this side of the Spit, leaving the Baltic side open and empty – an infinity of featureless soft sandy beach licked by a brackish sea.
Kitesurfers on the water at Nida told us we were coming to a resort, and a prosperous sporty one at that. More Scandinavian than North/East European in aspect – if that distinction makes sense – it seems culturally different, its lifestyle more leisured and prices higher than elsewhere in Lithuania.
The Curonian Spit is ideal terrain for cycling. A well-marked trail of varying surface meanders pleasantly through the woods for 50km with duck-board paths leading off to the beach on one side and into a wilderness of dunes dropping steeply to the lagoon on the other. This stretch forms part of Eurovélo 10 and may be one of the few dedicated cycling trails in the Baltic states.
As happened in south-west France, the forest on the Spit was replanted in the 19th century to stabilise the dunes after houses and entire villages were buried. There are impressive mountainous dune-scapes (up to about 200ft) to the north and south of Nida, the best viewpoint perhaps being the so-called Paradise Dune, which is easily reached by footpath and staircase from Nida, or by a steepish road around the back. The entire area has all sorts of protection orders – UNESCO heritage, National Park, Nature Reserve – and large parts of it are off-limits, even to pedestrians. Footprints in the sand suggest that the rules are not universally respected.
Thomas Mann spent several summers (1929-32) at Nida. Its quiet surroundings and an empty view of the lagoon helped the ink flow, and his summer house has plenty of evocative memorabilia for the literary tourist. The less dusty generation might prefer to devote half an hour to the amber museum where everything you need to know about about ‘Baltic gold’, and perhaps more, is well explained, exhibited and demonstrated. The best way to find out if a piece of amber is genuine is to put a match to it. If it burns, congratulations: you have just set fire to something valuable. We were not brave enough to try this in the souvenir shops.
Brought about by an outpouring of resin provoked by a primeval forest fire of devastating intensity in Sweden, amber is mostly to be found several metres below the sea bed, or in the sub-basement of a dune. The aftermath of a big storm is the most likely time to find chunks of it washed up on the beach. In a period of little to no wind, almost everyone I saw on the beach – about a dozen, that is, in three visits – was bent double, sifting the sand in hope. I didn’t see anyone jumping about in excitement, trying to light a match.
A busy restaurant on a parade of shops near the marina at Nida gave us a first and possibly definitive taste of a local speciality, one of the glories of Lithuanian gastronomy, the Zeppelin. The idea is something sausagey in a stodgy envelope of potato dough. A little Zeppelin goes a long way, was the general consensus, but we were glad to have tried them.
Another Lithuanian speciality is woodcarving, and the villages on the Curonian Spit are a good place to admire it. There are carved wooden tombstones (sic), intricately detailed weather vanes which, rather like facebook pages, give summary information about the property owner: profession, relationship status, religious adherence, hobbies. The ultimate woodcarving experience is a stroll through the woods at a place known to me only as Hexenberg (Witches’ Mountain) at Juodkrante, a smaller resort than Nida but otherwise similar in style and character, about an hour’s ride up the bosky piste towards Klaipeda. A group of sculptors has filled the forest trail with carvings illustrating popular legends and fairy stories. A few examples will give the idea:
The Curonian Spit is so awkward to reach, the majority of Lithuanian beach-seeking weekenders take the easier option and head for the coast north of Klaipeda. The resort here, Palanga, is Lithuania on Sea, as far removed in style and mood from the quiet villages on the Spit as Blackpool is from Salcombe. Palanga was busy when we rolled up late on a grey Sunday afternoon in September. In high summer the place must be heaving. Compare and contrast the mobile coffee stalls.
The drink itself was excellent at both stalls.
If the resorts are quite different, the coastal cycling path was reassuringly similar. A pretty trail led us back through the sandy woods to Klaipeda, between the main road and the sea. Considering how close we were to the resort sprawl of Palanga and the urban sprawl of Klaipeda, the emptiness of the coastal forest landscape was quite a surprise. Much of it is what they call a ‘strict nature reserve’ which is to say: no entry, even on foot.
“This area was used for military training during the Soviet period,” Saulius explained, when we stopped at a bird-watching hide overlooking a patch of water in a strict reserve zone. “They used to wash tanks in this lake. It’s good and it’s bad. The bad is the pollution they left behind. The good is that nothing was built here – no roads, no buildings, nothing. So now we can return it to nature.”
The Carter Company is introducing cycling holidays in Lithuania to its programme in 2014, suggesting self-guided itineraries of about 25 miles a day. The local agency in Klaipeda, Baltic Bike Travel, supplies good hybrid bikes and accessories.
Cycling along the Curonian Spit could not be more straightforward, but the Memel-land region does not have marked cycle trails and calls for a good map. We were guided, so did not put this to the test.
Vilnius has a Boris-bike-like system of city bikes, but the mechanics of setting up an account make it impractical unless you are staying in the city for a few days or more. Renting a bike for a day or a few hours would be a better bet if you are passing through. The ‘official city guide’ Vilnius In Your Pocket (widely available in hotels, airport etc) is a model of the genre: packed with useful info, and well written. Museums are shut on Mondays.