True Lithuania

Neringa and the Curonian Spit (Lithuanian Sahara)

Neringa (population 2500), with its spectacular UNESCO-inscribed scenery, is the elite seaside resort of Lithuania. It spans a narrow peninsula called Curonian Spit, merely 2 km wide and 98 km long, with half of that length in Lithuania. The Curonian Lagoon separates the Spit from the mainland Lithuania.

The Curonian Spit for centuries has been an area of massive traveling dunes, the so-called “Lithuanian Sahara”. Its few fishing villages used to be ephemeral: over 10 of them are known to have been consumed by the moving dunes.

Some large swatches of breathtaking dunes remain. However, since the 19th century, the landscape is dominated by pine forests, a titanic successful attempt by the locals to tame the nature.

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 the Russian border not far away. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The former fishing villages of Neringa are now authentic resorts. Their lagoon coasts are lined by numerous wooden vernacular style ex-fishermen homes, some still adorned by thatched roofs and many housing small family-owned guesthouses and restaurants.

Few people fish for subsistence today. However, fishing and other boat-based activities, as well as the fish-heavy cuisine, are now well enjoyed by the tourists. Nevertheless, Neringa's main drag is its glorious sandy beach that spans the entire seashore of the peninsula. A 2 km healthy hike is necessary to get there as the accommodation is limited to lagoon side. Natural beauty, a laid back feel, cleanness, bicycle paths, and boat trips also draw people to Neringa. If you need nightclubs, loud music, shopping malls or funfairs, opt for Palanga instead.

The landscapes of Neringa attract vacationers since the 19th century when the Curonian Spit (then part of Germany) was “discovered” by German artists and politicians. While the Soviet era (1945-1990) brought in concrete hotels, they have not entirely obscured neither nature nor history and the National Park status largely bans any new construction.

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

In the Curonian Spit, one gets soaked in that First World atmosphere of a much richer country. Benches line every forest path, roads are well-lit, tourist information screens and pretty landscaping are available. This comes at a price, however: getting into the Spit is costly (due to the ferry service and car entrance fees) while prices there are among the steepest in Lithuania (although average by the Western standards).

In summer, Neringa's unique atmosphere and fishing history are capitalized on by multiple weekend-long celebrations/festivals.

Nida resort village

Nida (pop. 1200) is the municipal center of Neringa and its largest resort. "Large" is on the Curonian Spit scale though so most restaurants are still one-family affairs with a few tables. Likewise, the shops are compact.

Pedestrianized Central Nida boasts the Curonian Spit's best collection of dark red vernacular former fishermen homes. A few offer accommodation, some are owned by urban rich and one serves as a modest Fishermen Farmstead museum.

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

The nearby port is still the village's heart but pleasure vessels, many available for hire or excursions, have by now replaced the traditional kurėnas fishing boats.

Further away from the lagoon, old buildings give way to Soviet hotels. Luckily, they are not as monstrous as outside Neringa.

New construction is now nearly banned in Nida but an exception was made for the Roman Catholic church (2003). Its design tastefully incorporates vernacular architecture combining wood and thatch with modern forms.

Prior to the World War 2, Neringa was overwhelmingly Lutheran. The red-brick Nida Lutheran church (1888) still offers German Sunday mass in addition to Lithuanian. Its nearby restored cemetery is famous for krikštai, a type of wooden “gravestones” ubiquitous to seaside Lithuania.

The original Curonian Spit inhabitants (a unique blend of Lithuanian, Latvian and German cultures) largely fled the Soviet Genocide but their traditions are still cherished. The weather vanes that once crowned their boat masts (identifying the village of origin and thus helping to prevent overfishing) have now became village emblems and an art form. They are common in landscaping, asserting the local identity.

The symbols of Curonian Spit culture (from left to right): krikštai gravestones, traditional fishing boats, and elaborate freestanding weather vanes. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In summers, you may hear so much German language in Nida that you may feel it is still ruled from Berlin. These Germans are nearly all tourists, however, tracing the paths of pre-WW2 luminaries. They visit Thomas Mann house, built by the legendary German writer in 1932 for summer vacations. They also glimpse at the one-room H. Blode museum located in the sole remaining building of the Blode’s hotel where he accommodated Sigmund Freud, Albert Speer and, most famously, held symposiums for some 200 artists. Most original artworks created by them were burned by the Soviets but reproductions are available. More info on area's history is available at the Neringa history museum on the opposite side of the road. The museums are small and meant to augment rather than replace sunbathing and nature-loving.

The most famous sight in Nida (and, likely, the entire Curonian Spit) is undoubtedly the Parnidis dune. From its sundial-crowned 52 m high top, you can see the vastness of Neringa sands the Sea, the Lagoon, as well as the town of Nida, drowned among the greenery. At Nida, the lagoon is wide enough to put the mainland beyond the horizon, making it romantically appear that the sun both rises from and sets into the Sea. Parnidis may be accessed by car or a calm lagoon-side footpath.

On another 52 m high hill (Urbas) the views are obstructed by trees but the lighthouse there is among the symbols of Nida, its nightly light surrealistically racing across the dunes and the lagoon.

Juodkrantė resort village

Juodkrantė (pop. 700) is centered around a 19th century Villa district. These elaborate wooden contraptions, still housing hotels and restaurants, almost seem too large for the village. A port is nearby while a 2 km long lagoon-side promenade adorned by stone statues goes both northwards and southwards from there.

Juodkrantė villa district. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Southern Juodkrantė hosts a small Lutheran church (1885) and a Museum of Miniature Paintings (these artworks feel much more in place at the scaled-down Juodkrantė than at bustling Vilnius). Another attraction there is the Hill of Witches, its numerous scary wooden statues popular with kids.

Beyond the southern town limit, the Europe‘s largest cormorant colony is undoubtedly an eerie sight. The birds‘ feces destroyed a large chunk of pine forest. ~4000 cormorants and ~1000 gray herons live on top of these trees, causing calls to “protect nature from nature” by culling them.

The cormorants of Juodkrantė. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Northern Juodkrantė has the Amber Bay. Today‘s laid-back small gulf was a massive amber mine in between 1860 and 1890, annually excavating 75 tons on Lithuanian national mineral, including the famous stone age Juodkrantė treasure. Thatch sculptures are now built there regularly and burned every Autumn solstice.

Preila and Pervalka resort villages

For the most pristine Neringa experience, one should head to Preila (pop. 200) and Pervalka (pop. 20) one-street villages with nothing more but a couple of small restaurants, shops, and some accommodation opportunities. Entertainment there is largely limited to the usual seaside beach, forest hikes, and a few lagoon activities.

Pervalka is also merely 3 km from the Nagliai dune reserve where a footpath offers spectacular views of the gray dunes and their surroundings. Four villages and two cemeteries lie buried under the Nagliai sands.

Dunes at Nagliai reserve as visible from the lagoon. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Getting to and around Neringa

Neringa is the closest thing to a remote island you can find in Lithuania with storms sometimes cutting it off (with the advent of better ferries in the mid-2000s, the disruption of service became rare, however).

Klaipėda ferries are the only option to bring your car in (red tape largely precludes the route through Russia). Curonian Spit is spanned by a single road with its only gas station in Nida.

The costs may make you think twice before driving into Neringa. As an alternative, you may also sail there by the passenger vessels (Klaipėda-Juodkrantė-Nida; Mingė-Nida). This is at a premium but offers sights. A cheaper alternative is to simply cross into the Curonian Spit by a local ferry in Klaipėda, and the use the local Neirnga bus to get anywhere within the peninsula.

Inside Neringa, an hourly bus service connects all the villages but with so many bicycle paths you may cycle instead (renting a bike is easy). Only a couple buses a day go outside Neringa (to Vilnius, Kaunas, and Kaliningrad) so a ferry ride and transfer at Klaipėda is usually the most convenient way to travel onwards.

See also: Smiltynė, the northernmost tip of the Curonian Spit which is part of Klaipėda.

English tourist map of Neringa (Curonian Spit). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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