Delightful Lithuania

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Leaving Vilnius and heading for the Baltic coast, we come to the sea gate of Lithuania and the port city of Klaipeda. The third-largest city and the oldest town in Lithuania, Klaipeda is a port that does not freeze in winter; actually, it is the northernmost ice-free port on the eastern Baltic. A small yet energetic city, it deserves a stop, especially for its atmospheric Old Town, a few good museums and a lively year-round night-life scene.

Seven sea-ferry routes link Klaipeda with cities in Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Poland plus Kaliningrad, Russia, the chunk of land on the Baltic between Lithuania and Poland that the Russians retained. Local ferries connect Klaipeda and the Curonian Spit using local waterways. Klaipeda also is the home port for two yacht clubs, and there is a cruise-ship terminal. A maritime museum and aquarium are housed in a large 19th-century fort. These attractions feature an exhaustive exhibition on marine life; dolphins and sea lions perform daily.

Nearby is the Klaipeda Picture Gallery with a small collection of 20th-century Lithuanian paintings. The gallery also mounts seasonal exhibitions by contemporary artists, but more contemporary art is on display at the Martynas Mazvydas Sculpture Park, peppered with all manner of abstract creations.

A short hop by ferry from Klaipeda is the long, sandy promontory that makes up the Curonian Spit. The story goes that Neringa, the giant daughter of the goddess Laima, gathered up sand in her apron and deposited it on the spot in order to provide a bulwark strong enough to protect the local fishermen from the storms that continually ravaged the Baltic coast. Neringa also is the name of a town in the area.

The spit, a long, thin peninsula that includes a national park of more than 44,000 acres, separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. Covered with sand dunes, it has been preserved to counter the natural erosion process by deforestation. It is one of the most exotic natural wonderlands in the Baltic.

Formed over millenniums by deposits of wind and wave-driven sand, the spit closed off the Nemunas delta from the open sea, forming the Curonian Lagoon. Never more than 21/2 miles wide, the spit has a few villages on the eastern side, while the western shore is one long, silky stretch of beach.

The whole Lithuanian spit has been placed under the protection of the Curonian Spit National Park to preserve the pines and dunes and ensure the survival of the species living there. The best way to explore the spit is by bike or on foot; there is an extensive network of forest trails and surfaced cycle paths.

A short drive up the coast leads to Palanga, Lithuania’s favorite beach resort. This fishing village was first developed as a resort by Polish-Lithuanian aristocrat Jozef Tyszkiewicz. The beaches are the same white sand as elsewhere on Lithuania’s coastline, with bars that stay open all night. A local guide told us that there is a Ladies Beach where you can get a very good tan without stripes.

After a day at the beach, head for Palanga’s beautiful Botanical Gardens and more of landscape architect Andre’s work. Visit the town’s charming Amber Museum and learn more about the history of this lovely stone. Afterward, relax at one of the many seaside cafes.

Resort towns such as Neringa and Nida have managed to preserve their old fishing-village charm. My favorite place is Nida, where the German Nobel laureate Thomas Mann had a summer house. His cottage has a breathtaking view of white sandy mountains fading into a choppy Baltic Sea and, on the other side, green pine woodlands and the calm Curonian Lagoon. A hike through Neringa National Park with its famous wooden statues is a good way to start the day.

The dunes are the highlight of any visit to Nida. Stand on top of the dunes, and breathtaking views appear in all directions. One of the largest is the 165-foot-high Parnidis Dune, marked by a modern sundial at the top. Blown off its pedestal by a gale in 1999, it has been reconstructed only partially and looks like the mysterious remnant of an ancient civilization.

Many paths lead to the beach, a glorious place for strolling even on bad-weather days. Or take a break from the beach and the fast-paced night life to visit another Amber Museum on the coast. According to Lithuanian folklore, amber came into being when Perkunas, the king of the gods, discovered that Jurate, queen of the Baltic Sea, was having an affair with the mortal fisherman Kastytis despite being betrothed to the water god Patrimpas. Perkunas showed his displeasure by zapping Jurate’s undersea palace with a thunderbolt, scattering a myriad of golden-colored fragments across the Baltic.

Valued as an ornament since Neolithic times, amber provided the ancient Baltic tribes with an important means of exchange, putting them at the supply end of trade routes that went south beyond Rome.

There are about 250 colors and varieties of amber, ranging from light yellow to dark brown. Amber can be almost white or have blue, green or violet tints. In all three Baltic states, charms, bracelets and necklaces made from amber remain the principal offering of souvenir and gift shops.

Traditional Lithuanian festivities echo elements of the mythological beliefs of the ancient Baltic peoples. Uzgavenes (Shrove Tuesday) is a merry feast when crowds of masked people dressed as devils, witches and ancient village folk attempt to drive away the winter.

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