Petra Shepherd explores the Lithuanian Baltic Seacoast, one of the most beautiful, yet least discovered in Europe
The 20th century saw this area taken over firstly by the French, then twice by the Soviets and once by the Nazis, with a Lithuanian interlude between 1923 and 1939. Only since 1991 has it been firmly in Lithuanian hands again. With direct flights from London Luton airport to Palanga, the lavish resort to the north of Klaipeda, the region is easily accessible and makes for a fascinating alternative mini break as I discovered in May this year
Here are a few of my highlights:
During the warmer months, Palanga becomes the summer capital of Lithuania, its pedestrian walkways, beaches, restaurants, bar and clubs are alive with a variety of entertainment and cultural events. Here you’ll find long, white sandy beaches backed by dunes and a 470-metre pier built in 1998, a perfect place to admire the sunset. Palanga’s popularity as a resort and health spa grew in the 19th century when Count Felix Tiskevicius built a huge mansion, a neo-renaissance palace and park (Birute Park), now home to The Amber Museum. The museum explains the origins of amber, trade routes, production, manufacture, along with exhibits and a rare collection of amber inclusions and one the largest pieces of amber in the world the “Sun Stone”. The most interesting parts of Palanga cover a relatively small area, so it’s easy to walk or bicycle around with Birute Park, the pearl of Palanga considered one of the most beautiful parks in Northern Europe. It was a lovely place for a stroll along with a visit to Birute Hill, 21 metres above sea level from where I got a gorgeous view of the distant roaring sea.
Nearby Kretinga is one of the oldest known towns in Lithuania, home to The Church of the Annunciation of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. It has seven altars created in the 17th and 18th centuries and a pulpit decorated with carved wooden sculptures. If you ask for a guide, you can ascend into the mysterious crypts and then get a birds-eye view of Kretinga from the church steeple. Also of interest is the Kretinga Museum, established in the former palace of County Tiskeyiciai. Inside an arboretum (known as the winter garden) boasts over 580 species of plant and the palace is surrounded by a pretty park.
The town now known as Klaipeda is perhaps still better known in the UK as Memel, which was its name when part of the Prussian then German Empire from 1422 to 1918. There are Memel Streets in London and in Glasgow which commemorate this long era when Memel was a trading port with regular UK links. Klaipeda is the country’s sea gateway and the place where the Curonian Lagoon meets the Baltic Sea. Tour the Old Town and look out for various unusual monuments and sculptures, my favourite was “The cat with a face of a gentleman”. Top of your list should also be a visit to The Central Post Office, a wonderful example of German neo-Gothic architecture whose bell tower is home to an immense 48-bell carillon (a rare musical instrument of bells), played rather like an organ. The carillon bells ring out every Saturday and Sunday at noon but we were privileged to hear one of the few people able to play the instrument practising. Hearing the Harry Potter theme music, Fur Elise and The Lords My Shepherd played by bells was especially memorable.
Night Time Kayaking and Beer Tasting
An original way of seeing the old town is on a night time tour aboard a handmade wooden canoe. On my late evening visit with Wet Weim Adventure Company, led by a guide, I paddled along the Dane River, my canoe lit by a real flaming torch. We headed towards the Old Town of Klaipeda, exploring the old embankments, mid-century Memel fortifications and finally the old town with its Prussian architecture, all beautifully illuminated. Another tour (perhaps best not to do before the night time kayaking!) I enjoyed was a spot of beer tasting, visiting the legendary Svyturys Brewery in Klaipeda. More of a wine buff than a craft beer snob, it was nevertheless fun to give my unexpert opinion on the different beers and tastes on offer whilst admiring the brewery’s forest of steel pipes.
The Curonian Spit and Nida
The Curonian Spit (also known as the Baltic Sahara) is one of Lithuania’s national parks recognised by UNESCO in 2000 as a World Heritage Site. Stretching 60 miles in length and 2 1/2 miles across at its widest part, this thin strip of land is covered in dense pine forests and rolling sand dunes. Be sure to check out the Dead Dunes (Nagliai Nature Reserve) and the Parnidis and Vecekrugas dunes. Its eastern shore is on the Curonian lagoon, while the western shore of the peninsula is on the Baltic Sea, with blue flag awarded beaches and no shortage of walking trails. Exercise was in order after sampling plates of fried fish accompanied by the highly calorific local speciality, deep fried bread, hot out of the pan, crispy on the outside but fresh and moist on the inside. The national park has four main villages Nida, Juodkrante, Pervalka and Preila collectively known as ‘Neringa’. The renowned German writer and Nobel prize winner Thomas Mann visited Nida in 1929 and loved the place so much that he built his own summer house, now an interesting museum. Lithuanian mythology describes amber as the frozen tears of Jurate, a sea goddess who fell in love with a mortal fisherman and Nida’s recently opened Amber Museum is another museum well worth visiting. In an old fisherman’s hut, there’s a fascinating exhibition of professional works using amber including a telephone and a mouse trap with a lump of amber as the cheese. Jewellery and amber artworks can be bought in the shop.
Dreverna is an old fisherman’s village on the coast of the Curonian Lagoon by the mouth of the river Dreverna and is a place to discover local culture, cruise on an ancient sailboat, taste a traditional fish soup (they say the most authentic recipe can be found in the region), try a desert known as ‘gliumzinis” basically a curd cake with coffee and sample some of the local wines. Memel Wine is a small boutique winery, making exceptional quality, handcrafted, limited edition fruit wine made from gooseberries, raspberries and other berries.
With Nida to the south of Klaipeda and Palanga to the North the whole region is essentially a Baltic Riviera, throw in some top notch museums, traditional and filling cuisine and oodles of history and you’ve got yourself a winning destination for an unusual summer break.
More information https://www.lithuania.travel/en/
https://wizzair.com/en-gb#/ flys to Palanga from London Luton Airport