True Lithuania Sights, cities, culture, history and more

Neringa and the Curonian Spit (Lithuanian Sahara)

Neringa (population 4500) with its spectacular UNESCO-inscibed scenery is the elite seaside resort of Lithuania. It is on the narrow peninsula called the Curonian Spit, only some 2 km wide and 98 km long, with half of that length in Lithuania (forming the bulk of the Neringa municipality). Curonian Lagoon separates it from the mainland Lithuania.

The lagoon coast promenade of Juodkrantė in Autumn. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Curonian Spit was for centures an area of travelling dunes, the “Lithuanian Sahara”. Few fishing villages that existed there were at a constant threat of being buried by sands. This used to happen regularly and over 10 villages are known to have been consumed by the dunes.

Breathtaking dunes such as the Parnidis dune in Nida still exist, but since the 19th century the landscape is dominated by pine forests, a titanic successful attempt by the local people to tame the nature.

The former fishing villages of Neringa are now resorts. These are the most authentic seaside villages of Lithuania. Their lagoon coasts are lined by numerous wooden ethnic style fishermen homes, some still adorned by grass roofs. In late 19th century these were joined by elaborate villas as Curonian Spit became a popular summer retreat. Famous artists such as the German writer Thomas Mann spent their holidays in these buildings (his villa in Nida is now a museum). Small neo-gothic Lutheran churches of Nida (1888) and Juodkrantė (1885) are where the elite of those days prayed. In Juodkrantė the German mass is still held on Sundays.

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Central Juodkrantė township. A massive pre-war villa is visible on the left. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Unfortunately the Soviet era brought in large concrete hotels to the area that marred some views but did not entirely obscured neither the nature nor history. In Nida such buildings are more common and they are larger in size whereas Juodkrantė is more authentic, its 2 km long main street still surrounded by the Lagoon and wooden homes. After independence major construction is banned in Neringa as the entire municipality forms the Curonian Spit National Park (Kuršių Nerijos nacionalinis parkas). Among the few recent aditions is the wooden Nida Roman Catholic church of 2003, a great example of how it is possible for a building to conform with the scenery that surrounds it.

A row of vernacular fishermen homes in Nida. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Despite all the changes in the past century fishing is still important (albeit for tourist industry rather than subsistence) and there is a great number of stores and restaurants offering freshly caught fish. The fishing is done in the Lagoon and all the villages are located on the lagoon side. The swimming and sunbathing is mainly done at clean seashore beaches, an easy stroll 2 kilometers to the west by a forest path.

Alongside the main road that spans the entire length of the Neringa municipality (~40 km) you may sometimes encounter wild animals. From a couple of higher places you may see both the lagoon and the sea. The most famous is the aforementioned Parnidis dune, now crowned by a sundial. From its top you can see the vastness of Neringa sands as well as the town of Nida, drowned among the greenery of countless trees.

An evening view from the top of Parnidis dune (Nida) towards the Lithuanian Sahara. On the left the Curonian Lagoon is visible whereas on the right the sun lands into the Baltic Sea. Endless sands are in the front, with Russian border not far away. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Other tourist sights of Juodkrantė include the Witches Hill full of wooden sculptures and the Museum of small paintings. In Nida there is the Neringa historical museum and a Fishemen ethnographic homestead.

You will have to use a ferry to go to Neringa from Lithuania and to pay additional tax for entrance with a car. To top it off the prices here are greater than elsewhere in Lithuania. If you need nightclubs, loud music, shopping malls or funfairs this is definitely not a resort to choose (opt for Palanga instead). But for calmness of nature, ecology, countless bicycle paths and benches, possibilities for boat trips, emptier and cleaner beaches this is the place to choose.

Neringa is also soaked in first world atmosphere and here you may feel that you have suddenly arrived to a much richer country than Lithuania is. Even some forest roads have benches to sit down and are well lit in nights while tourist information is provided in modern computer screens. Juodkrantė and Nida are adorned by beautiful landscaping and sculptures. Small population, a special law that allows the municipality to collect entrance fee as well as many rich people paying their income tax here makes this possible.

Neringa is the closest thing to a remote island you can find in Lithuania with storms sometimes cutting Neringa off (with the advent of better ferries in the mid 2000s the disruption of service became rare). In summer Neringa's unique atmosphere and fishing history is capitalized on by multiple weekend-long celebrations/festivals.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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