Klaipēda and the Curonian Spit

Thursday 31 August to Saturday 2 September

We returned to the last of the Baltic states on our travels, Lithuania. The weather was getting a little warmer as we headed south, but there was a coolness in the air in the evenings, as autumn encroaches.

We arrived at Klaipēda where the Danēs River enters the Baltic Sea, and walked into the tiny old town.

Klaipēda was detached from Germany after WWI in the Treaty of Versailles, and was governed by the Allies. In 1939, following a tense stand off, Germany openly declared it would take Klaipēda, which was Lithuania’s only access to the Baltic Sea and contained a third of its industry. Italy and Japan supported the matter, and the United Kingdom and France expressed sympathy but chose not to provide material assistance.

On 23 March 1939 a treaty was signed stating that Lithuania was ‘voluntarily’ transferring the Klaipėda Region to Germany. The following day Hitler gave a rousing speech from the balcony of the Theatre in Theatre Square.

In the Theatre Square is the statue of Taravos Anikės (Anik from Taraw), a heroine of the Simon Dach (1605-1659) poem about  fiery love, eternal fidelity, friendship and respect for women. Dach had fallen in love with the young women, however she was engaged to another man. His poem is set to music and is still a popular song in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

There are many other statues in Klaipēda, but the strangest is The Black Ghost known as Juodasis Vaiduoklis in Lithuanian. Sculpted by Svajunas Jurkus and Sergejus Plotnikovas, the mysterious figure holds a lantern in one hand, as his long, sinister fingers grip the dock. As a man without a face, he slithers ominously.

The creepy statue, which is located near the Memel Castle, actually has a historical precedent. Klaipēda, which was founded by the Teutonic Kings as early as the 7th century, was saved from impending famine by a mysterious ghost.

Legend has it that in 1595, a castle guard was walking by the docks when he saw a ghostly, hooded figure. This black ghost asked about the town’s grain and timber supply, inquiring if what they had was sufficient. The guard replied that they did indeed have a good supply, but the figure issued a warning that their stocks would soon run low, and then vanished.

So, in the end, the Black Ghost actually turned out to be a friendly spirit. 

The tourist information had made suggestions for dinner and we chose Forto Dvaras and tried local black pudding and meat dumplings. I certainly couldn’t eat such rich and heavy food every night.

The next day we planned to explore the Curonian Spit. The spit is a 98km long, thin, curved sand-dune that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. It goes all the way into the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The Lithuanian portion is about 50km Long.

The weather remained poor, so we drove south on the spit to Nida near the border with Kaliningrad Oblast and took a couple of dull photos, then had lunch. The weathercocks are famous here and provide decoration all around the town. They were originally used to decorate the masts of the local sailing, fishing boats called kurenas. The kurenas have been documented since the 14th and 15th centuries and are shaped to manage the shallow draft and harsh waves of the Curonian Lagoon. The weathercocks showed the direction of the wind and also identified the particular sailing boat and ensured the boats did not stray from their assigned fishing area.

We then found the Parnidis Dune, which overlooks the Kaliningrad Oblast and fondly known as the ‘Lithuanina Sahara’.

An elaborate Solar Clock, which was created by architect Richard Krištopavicius, sculpture Klaudijus Pūdymas and ethnocosmologist Libertas Klimka, sits on top of the 52m high dune. The clock was constructed in 1995, while celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Restoration of Independence. It can show the months, equinoxes and solstices as well as the time of the day, all on stone steps.

We called into the Blue Flag beach at Nida, on the Baltic Sea or western side of the spit. It is a popular holiday destination in Summer, but today it was cold and windswept, like all the other beaches we have visited on the Baltic Sea.

We also stopped at Nagliai to walk through the Dead Dunes. These are in fact a very delicate ecosystem of grasses lichen and moss that holds the dunes together. Our walk was confined to a narrow path which allowed us to climb the dunes and reduce the impact hundreds of feet have on the fragile environment. The dunes over the years do continue to shift. In the 18th century villages were twice swallowed up by the sand, forcing the villagers to abandon their homes.

In earlier years the trees had been chopped down for their wood and the result was moving sand swallowing up villages and moving into the lagoon. Since 1803 efforts to manage the dunes have been made by creating a protective dune ridge with landscaping. So most of the sand dunes on the Curonian strip are covered by trees with a rich understory of shrubs and moss.