10 Things to Do on the Curonian Spit
By Ana Ro
There are places I remember all my life
Though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
Well well, you know how it goes. In my love I liked them all, but if I have to chose one I loved the most, I would chose the Curonian Spit in the Baltic Sea. And there are so many reasons for this that I am struggling where to begin.
Just a brief introduction of what the Curonian Spit actually is. It is an almost 100 km long 3-4 km wide thin strip of land in the Baltic sea. Half of it belongs to Lithuania, and another half to Russia. In this post I will only touch the Lithuanian part.
Before we begin, let me tell you that I put those to-do’s in no particular order. For me it would be a torture to be forced to decide, which is the best thing to do on the Curonian Spit, and which one is the second best. They are all awesome. The grade of awesomeness only depend on your interests and likes, as well as the weather or your mood on a particular day.
Catch the sunset
The absolute classic! The location of the Curonian Spit in the world specifically makes it one of the best sunset cinemas in the world. Lithuania is a northern country, so the sunsets here are much longer than the ones in the south. I tried those and was disappointed with this fast-forward speed.
Of course in order for you to witness this beauty, the sky has to be clear. If it is a warm summer evening, you can also go for a swim in the water. It is an unforgettable experience – walking straight into that path of light on the water. You will feel as if you are swimming in the liquid gold.
If it is a colder (or in other words – regular) evening, do not forget to grab some extra clothes with you. Usually it gets windy and even chillier during and after the sunset.
Insider’s tip: Get some smoked fish, rye bread and local beer (some of the non-alcoholic ones are also great), dress well and get a blanket. The best spots are not directly on the beach, but up on the dune. This way you can have a great view, some privacy and also be shielded from the wind, if it’s windy. Chin-chin! This is one of the greatest views you are going to have alongside your meal.
Climb the Parnidis Dune
Parnidis Dune is located just outside Nida. Well, at the moment, as this dune has changed its location throughout the history. The wind blows the sand, and the dune moves, sometimes swallowing the whole settlements or fishermen villages. Of course, the speed of this movement is very slow and the village dwellers have the time to prepare and move away. Still, I find the whole idea of moving sand hills fascinating and a bit disturbing.
The dune is 52 m high, and you can see both the Baltic Sea and the Curonian lagoon from its top. Right on the top of the dune, next to the view point, you will see the sun clock.
You can walk on and around the dune, but please respect the signs, allowing or not allowing to go to some specific parts of it. There are plenty of spaces to roll down the sand, explore and take desert-like pictures. The no-access areas are not there just for the sake of it – they are needed to protect the dune and keep it in one piece (and place!).
Insider’s tip: Take a 1.8 km walking trail around the dune. Watch the border control ships in the lagoon. Right after the Parnidis dune the borderland between Lithuania and Russia starts, so if you do not have your passport and visa with you, do not walk too far into it.
See the Dead Dunes
Speaking of dunes, there are more of them for you to see on this trip. Does the name of Dead Dune sound intriguing enough?
The Dead Dune, Naglis Dune or Grey Dune (all the same dune, just many names) is located between Juodkrante and Pervalka. Whether you are travelling by car or by bike, watch for the sign announcing Naglis Nature Park. There is a path, which will take you all the way up to the top of the dune. From there you can see the Curonian Lagoon in front of you and vast hills of sand to your both sides.
While standing on the dune, keep in mind that somewhere below under your feet there is a couple of villages. The dune moved and buried the villages of Nagliai and Karvaiciai (or Karwaiten). Only years later the newer villages of Pervalka and Preila were built.
While exploring the Dead Dune, stick to the path and the view point and avoid walking away on the unprotected areas. Deserted as it may seem, the area is often checked by the guards and intruders can be fined.
And why is this dune called the Dead dune? This is actually one of those rare cases, when dead is good. A dune which is alive would still be moving and swallowing settlements (now including all those fancy property developments, which would really be a bad business). A dead dune stays in one place.
Insider’s tip: So, you are only allowed to stick to the path and even that is actually considered harmful for the dune. A better idea might be to take a boat from Nida or Juodkrante and see the Dune in all its beauty from the water. Check the boat terminals in Nida and Juodkrante. During the high season you would normally have one or two boats a day doing this trip.
Visit Thomas Mann House and Museum
Did you know that Thomas Mann, German writer and Nobel laureate, had his summer cottage in Nida? He spent a couple of summers there, before the Nazi regime made him leave Germany in 1933.
He first visited Nida in 1929. According to his essays, was “so impressed by the inexpressible beauty and uniqueness of its surroundings”, that he decided to have a house built there. You can still see this house, built in typical regional fishermen house traditions. It was repaired several times and has been preserved to look as much as possible the same way as when it was still Thomas Mann’s summer residence.
The House is currently turned into Thomas Mann Culture Centre and Museum.
Insider’s Tip: Visiting the museum might be a great plan for a rainy day (or a too sunny day… or any day really). Check the website before going, as there might be some interesting stuff going on, like special readings, Thomas Mann Festival, a conference or a seminar.
And by the way, while writing this I realised I managed to take no pictures of the Museum. So here is another sunset, there is never enough of those!
Explore the Hill of Witches
The Hill of Witches is located on the outskirts of Juodkrante. The hill is basically a big sand dune covered by forest with many wooden sculptures of witches. The legend says that in the old days the witches loved to gather on this hill at night to dance until the dawn. Later some people followed this tradition and chosen this hill as a place for midsummer celebration.
The first sculptures started appearing in 1979, when the forester Jonas Stanius decided to honour the witches and invited a group of artists to make the first sculptures. The “population” of witches continued to grow since, at the moment reaching 80 sculptures.
The hill is divided in two parts: the Light and the Dark. The Light part is – logically – light and has big paths. There you will find the brave and romantic heroes and heroines of Lithuanian legends. But try walking further and the path will narrow, entering the Dark side. In this part you will find dragons, devils and witches. And on the very end of the path you will meet a rooster, announcing the end of the night and scaring all the creatures away.
Insider’s tip: When you find yourself on the very top of the hill, take your time and look around. You can see the Baltic sea on one side and the Curonian lagoon on the other side.
Watch the sunrise over the Curonian Lagoon
Did I say that the sunset was my favourite? But if I’m really forced to choose between the sunset and the sunrise, I would chose the sunrise. It is just so painfully difficult to get up to watch it, especially in June-July, when the sun rises as early as 4-5 am.
But this is the most beautiful sight. In most villages you would find a path by the lagoon and some benches. You can sit on one and watch the sun slowly rise above the lagoon. If the day is clear, this is a sight difficult to forget. All the colours change and the water turns gold. The air fills with so much energy and promise that this day will be absolutely special.
Insider’s tip: Although if you look at the photos later, they will be rather similar to the ones from the sunset, it is exactly this promise which will make all the difference. Try and force yourself out of the bed just once! Even better – watch the sunset, stay up, enjoy the sounds and smells of the night outside and then enjoy the sunrise.
Eat smoked fish in the dunes
Before becoming a tourist destination, the Curonian Spit was first and foremost a heaven for the fishermen. One one side you would have the lagoon, where most of the fish is coming from, and on the other side – the sea.
At the moment there are still many fishermen, who preserved the craft. The fish would be fresh smoked using old-fashioned smoking equipment. You can get it in any village on the spit, just look for “Rukyta zuvis” (“Smoked Fish”) signs on the houses. Probably every person going to the spit for holidays more or less regularly would have her or his own favourite spot with absolutely best fish.
Insider’s tip: If you are in Nida, try “Tik pas Jona” (“Only at Jonas’”). It is probably the most established place you can get your fish from. The best is to just get it as a take-away, get some bread and fresh cucumbers on the way and have a picnic in the dunes or in the pine forest.
Go cycling or trailing through the spit
It is a heaven for not-too-well-trained cyclists. The length of the Lithuanian part of the spit from Smiltyne until the border with Russia just after Nida is roughly 50 km. You will have a cycling path all throughout the spit. The path is very well-maintained and has signposts along the way, so you will not get lost.
The path goes mainly through the centre of the spit between the sea and the lagoon. If you want to visit the villages specifically or have a swim in the sea, you would need to take a connecting side path to the either side. Most of the distance you would cycle through the pine forest, but you also will see some fields, plains, dunes on your way. The path is not too challenging even for a beginner, but not completely flat.
If you are not too much into cycling, you can also walk on the same paths or chose many others on the spit.
Insider’s tip: I tried both cycling and walking on this path and enjoyed both a lot. Disregarding whether you chose feet or wheels, you would still have experience, which you would otherwise have missed taking a car or a coach. The pine forest is unique and the trees look like overgrown bonsai trees. It also has a smell of its own – one of my favourite ones in the whole world. This smell will also have so many different notes depending on the time of the day and the day of the year. A hot sunny day and a damp autumn morning will have a tone of their own, making it worth coming and exploring this place again and again.
9. Check out cormorant colony near Juodkrante
A rather tragic story of an opposition of grey herons and cormorant birds. Grey herons were typical for Lithuania since at least 19th century and possibly even earlier. The cormorants are the new arrivals. They were hardly known in Lithuania until 1978, until suddenly a couple of waves of them came here. The cormorants decided to settle on the hill just outside Juodkrante and pushed the grey herons, who occupied this location since the old days.
On this hill, now called Heron Hill, there are currently around 2000 cormorant pairs and 500 heron pairs. The cormorants are clearly winning this battle, outnumbering the herons. What is even more interesting – destroying the forest in which they live. If you go to the hill, you will easily find the location of the colony, because the trees there are all absolutely naked and dead. But not only the foresters are unhappy by this invasion. The fishermen blame cormorants for the reduced catches.
There is however no way to stop the cormorants at the moment as they – although in this particular location they may seem very strong and destructive – are endangered birds and protected by law.
Insider’s tip: Hey, what tip can I give you about the cormorants? I’m not an ornithologist. Do not mess with them!