by Andy Paolacci,
Attention all travelers and trekkers! A trip to the Curonian Spit is a must if you’re planning to see more than just the major cities of Lithuania.
It is so easy to bypass this picturesque marvel! With Vilnius, Kaunas and the Hill of Crosses on most travelers’ Lithuanian itinerary, it’s little wonder that this band of land, which dangles off mainland Lithuania, gets overlooked. Despite its apparent isolation, the spit can be accessed from the port city of Klaipeda that sits upon the western coast of Lithuania. From there, a short, ten-minute ferry ride transports you over to the spit itself, where your journey then begins.
The Wonder and Beauty of the Curonian Spit
The magnificent strip of land separates the Curonian Lagoon to the east and the Baltic Sea to the west, with UNESCO acknowledging it as a World Heritage site at the turn of the millennium. The spit’s main drawcard are its scintillating sand dunes, which give the feeling that you are in a desert despite the innumerable amount of pine trees you’ll set your eyes on along the way. In fact, the sand dunes are often referred to as the Sahara of Lithuania for its desert-like condition and ambiance.
Yet, it’s the contrast with which the spit provokes that needs to be seen to be believed; indeed, parts of the cycling track that trickles south from Smiltyne will provide you with dramatic glimpses of dense forestland to the left and vast sand-clad beaches to the right: truly a stunning sight to behold!
Wildlife and plant species are in abundance on the spit, with deer, elk, herons and cormorants just a few examples of what you can discover on the Curonian Spit. In fact, the Curonian Spit National Park alone is said to feature about 40 species of mammals, 300 species of birds and an amazing 900 different species of plants.
Neringa, or the Neringa Municipality, is the region that entails the 52-kilometre Lithuanian portion of the spit. The portion essentially runs from the northern village of Smiltyne to the southern city of Nida and passes through the smaller settlements of Juodkrante, Pervalka, Preila and Skruzdynas.
A host of buses and mini-buses operate daily throughout the day between Smiltyne and Nida and take about 75 minutes to commute one-way. An interesting fact about Neringa is despite its aforementioned length, the width of the region from coast to coast stretches no longer than four kilometers at any part.
Disembarking at the northern end of the spit, you will arrive at the underdeveloped, Lithuanian village of Smiltyne. There’s not too much to do in Smiltyne to be fair, but if you are interested in touring the village, head north to check out the Lithuanian Sea Museum. Positioned near the idle Kopgalis Sea Fortress, the museum takes you on a journey through the evolution of the spit’s geology – particularly its sand dunes – as well as its fascinating fauna and flora.
Juodkrante and the Hill of Witches
The quaint, little town of Juodkrante provides little in the way of human atmosphere but more than makes up for it with its quirky character, and a true symbol of its quirkiness can be summed up at the Hill of Witches.
Originally used as a celebratory point for the midsummer feast of St John, the Hill of Witches is now used as an outdoor gallery to showcase a collection of wooden sculptures depicting witches, demons and other mythical creatures crafted from Lithuanian folklore. The Hill of Watches can be found close to Juodkrante’s town center and houses close to 100 different oak carvings including various pieces of seating furniture including thrones and swing sets.
Avian wildlife is also rife around selected parts of Juodkrante. Conveniently, you will be able to find several lofted perches littered by the roadside giving even the most avid traveling bird watcher an eagle eye of the several species of birds which can be found along the spit. Hundreds of couples of herons and cormorants can be seen fluttering their way along the forests of the spit, with bird watching being a vibrant activity of life in Neringa.
Nida boasts itself as the westernmost point of Lithuania, yet it is known for so much more than its geographical location. Nida has become a booming tourist site with museums, galleries, churches and, its main attraction, a large sundial which provides breathtaking views of the city and its surrounds.
Identified as the administrative capital of Neringa, Nida confirms itself as the heart and soul of the Curonian Spit for the awe-inspiring sand dunes that can be found near the city. Moreover, the sand dunes that are located south of the city are actually the highest moving sand dunes in the world.
Known as drifting sand dunes for its shadow-like patterns, they naturally create a rippled effect similar to the arrangements seen in some of the major deserts of the world. Traveling down the designated paths of the sand dunes, you’ll get a feeling of being on a road to nowhere, with the shoals completely removing all sense of time.
The feeling of being enveloped by such untouched terrain is indescribable, but can be closely related to being spiritually at one with the land. The sad part about all this is that the sand dunes are eroding rapidly, so much so that it has worn away approximately 20 meters in the last 40 years due to the ocean, wind and persons interrupting the terrain. Protection of the sand dunes is paramount if we are to conserve this jewel for the many generations to come.