Armed with a map of the Baltic countries and a GPS that belonged in a computer history museum, I found my way to Klaipeda and a good (free) place to park near the old city center. I discovered that the 30 year Audi rental had a faulty transmission, so I eased it into first and second gear at a snail’s pace. As I arrived, festivities were already well under way, and I walked the lovely old streets where leather crafters had formerly been based (the only part of the city left after Russians bombed it to pieces in WWII), taking in the sights and smells along the historic canal near the sea. Sail boats from previous centuries lined the canal, taking passengers and providing a scenic backdrop. There was a large arts and crafts fair on the other side of the canal with the setting sun in the background. I quickly gathered that locals evacuated in favor of drunk Russian tourists who took over the streets, shouting and causing mayhem.
I wandered for a few hours, then drove out of town in search of a place to sleep. I found a dead end road with bushes separating me from a few houses. I slept quite late, till 11am or so, and after I awakened, a curious Lituanian poked his head over the fence and asked if I was okay. Luckily he spoke English, as I know only 2 words in Latvian. I explained that I’d been camping and wasn’t sure where to sleep. He was very kind and said it was fine to park where I had, and that this was okay to do in Lithuania. I was struck by the orderly house and yard, and felt that I’d entered the Shire as described in JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit. I later learned that the whole area of western Lithuania and Latvia had been settled by Baltic Germans and was culturally different from eastern Lithuania and Latvia which had been Russian occupation for many centuries. A prelude to my later visit to Landsberg am Lech in Bavaria.
I meandered back into town and continued to explore the festival. I made friends with a very nice woman from Kaunas who made paper-thin wood cuts with traditional looking patterns. We talked for several hours, and she invited me to camp with her and her husband in the artisans area. It had started pouring rain, and I decided that I was better off in the woods, so headed 20 minutes out of town to a wood I’d scouted that morning. I parked at the entrance of the dirt road winding into the wood, as it quickly turned into mud. A guy stopped on the other side of the road and I felt a bit vulnerable. I asked him if it was okay to park there, and he said yes, that he was just stopping for a cigarette break. Relieved, I fell asleep to the sound of rain hitting the roof. The next morning I explored the peat-covered forest, in awe of the beautiful plants, mossy peat, and deep woods. I found a small brook and a strange wooden shack on stilts at the edge of the wood facing an open field, which I later realized was a hunting hide.
It seemed that Lithuanians didn’t appreciate their forests. Much of the woods had been cleared for farm land, and I found litter and huge tire tracks criss-crossing this sacred spot. After seeing the woods in Latvia and Estonia, however, I concluded that Lithuanian forests were in better condition than those of their Baltic neighbors. I returned to Klaipeda for the last day of the sea festival and was overjoyed to find a man selling amber at a fair price. It turns out that most Baltic amber has been found within 50 miles of Klaipeda, so I was near the epicenter of what I consider the loveliest amber in the world. My father and aunt told me of picking up amber along the shores of the Baltic Sea in northern Poland as children. I have a romantic and nostalgic view of amber from this part of the world reflecting the bygone days of my father’s youth.
The amber seller was in fact so kind that he gave me a discount when I bought 4 or 5 necklaces. He was concerned that I might not want to pay 30 Euro for a choker of blue amber. Blue amber, I discovered, is very rare and caused by naturally-occurring oxide in the sea near the Curonian Spit where I was visiting. I bought a lovely amber rose pendant, several cherry and honey colored necklaces, as well as one of white amber. I was in heaven ;> I went to the local museum and learned that Curonians from the stone age created calendars with the help of ornately-carved rune covered standing timbers (a variant of Stonehenge). I loved the reconstructed costumes of these people and wondered what it would have been like to have lived in their time. I later found a granite obelisk covered in Runes in Nida (on the Curonian spit), which harkened back to those of ancestral times. I also discovered the workshop of a black smith who had rescued metal grills and crosses from the local cemetery in the 1950s that Soviet occupiers decided to obliterate. The upstairs loft was filled with signs, crosses, and fencing that had been saved from destruction by the history-loving smith.
I drove to the ferry, hoping that 8:30pm wasn’t too late to cross to the Curonian Spit on a Sunday night. Luckily I was just in time, and in the blink of an eye (10 minutes) I was across and driving through the national park (the entire Lithuanian half of the spit is a national park). It was light till 10pm, so I had a good view of the small towns. I stopped in Judokrante to inquire about a place to stay, and found a nice place but decided to continue on. There I met a very friendly Lithuanian who said that he and his family come there every year for 2 weeks for summer vacation. Good choice. I drove on to the next town, then the last (Nida), where I found the most infrastructure (cafes, grocery store, bakery) and tourists. I quickly fell in love with the town but found that there was almost no parking of any kind. I decided to drive to the other shore 6 kilometers away, and found a remote parking place near the sea where I parked for the night. It turned out to be an ideal spot and I returned for the next 5 nights of my stay.
The next day I found a delicious bakery in Nida (I ended up trying most of the goodies over the course of my stay), and then treated myself to a latte. Coffee Inn, which is based in Vilnius, is in Nida and offered free wi-fi. Cafes become my hang out when traveling, giving me access to email and the web while sipping a latte. After going to Coffee Inn for 2 days, I ventured to another cafe and asked the waiter, who makes the best latte in Nida? He replied that he did and proceeded to prove it! While at the bakery, I met and had a riveting
discussion on Russian politics and great books in the 1800 and 1900s with a young man from Kaunas. After a good hour or so, he announced that he needed to work. I inquired into the nature of his work and he said he was co-organizer of the Nida Jazz festival starting the next day. I’d planned only to stay for a day or two, but the jazz festival was tempting me to delay my departure. I asked him about the festival and he said he’d try to get me a pass for the first night.
I loved Nida. I hiked, went to Thomas Mann’s summer house (another Baltic German), walked on the dunes, learned about environmental efforts to control the sifting sands (massive tree planting efforts beginning in the mid 1800s), admired the unique weathervanes that fishermen in the spit have made since the mid 1800s, toured a fisherman’s cottage, and relaxed. The first 2 nights I attended oboe and string concertos (I heard a group rehearsing in another town and vowed to attend the concert). I decided to stay for the jazz festival and crossed my fingers that I could get a pass. My friend ended up giving me a guest pass good for the whole 3 night festival. The first gig was an Italian threesome (sax, drums, and piano) who were avant guard/cool. The main headliner was Lagaylia Soul Unit, headed by Lagaylia Frazier, a dynamic Aretha Franklin born in Florida who’d relocated to Sweden. Her band (pianist, drummer, and sax player) was dynamic and punched out pop and blues tunes. She was an amazing dancer and singer, and inspired everyone to get up and dance! Timid Lithuanians gradually shed their self-consciousness and let loose.