Lithuania Minor used to be the Lithuania's most distinct region. Save for a few brief periods it had been ruled by German states until the 20th century. Its peasantry however spoke Lithuanian and in a sense this region was the heartland of Lithuanian culture. First Lithuanian books were printed in Lithuania Minor (1547) and knygnešiai (book carriers) of the 19th century smuggled Lithuanian literature from there to the Russian-occupied Lithuania where Lithuanian language was banned. Even the flag and anthem of Lithuania Minor predate those of Lithuania.
Over the centuries the Lithuanians of Lithuania Minor adopted some German cultural practices, among them the Lutheran faith, and called themselves "lietuvininkai". Some campaigned for unification with Lithuania-proper and were partly succesful after World War 1 when Klaipėda Region, the northernmost tip of Lithuania Minor, went to newly-independent Lithuania amidst German prostests (to this day Klaipėda Region is the only part of Lithuania Minor inside Republic of Lithuania). Klaipėda region was ~55% Lithuanian at the time - as in the rest of Lithuania Minor its cities were primarilly German.
Lithuania Minor and both its communities were shattered by World War 2 and the subsequent Soviet Genocide of Lithuania Minor (1944-1949). Soviet army attrocities left 300 000 civilians dead, including 130 000 Lithuanians (most of the remaining locals fled or were expelled). In a sense this killed the region itself. Most of Lithuania Minor was then ceded to Soviet Russia as Kaliningrad Oblast, new Russian placenames coined for its towns and Russian settlers came from the east. Klaipėda Region remained more authentic as it is still Lithuanian and uses the original placenames. However most people there are also post-WW2 settlers and their descendants as lietuvininkai communities were destroyed or displaced.
However, the buildings still remind of the past. The downtowns here are built of bricks. The barns are brick, the churches are built of red brick as well. Some wooden frame buildings exist.
Klaipėda is the area's most interesting city. Albeit severely damaged in the World War 2 and afterwards with most of its imposing churches torn down by the Soviets its downtown with rectangular street plan and German-built homes is still nice.
Curonian Spit, a peninsula reachable only by a ferry or some 200 km detour via Russia, is a popular resort and the most popular tourist attraction of Lithuania Minor. Its beautiful dunes and forests that were planted to tame these moving sands are inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage.
Smaller towns of Lithuania Minor, such as Šilutė, are also of interest especially for their architectural difference from the similarly-sized towns in the rest of Lithuania.
The part of Lithuania Minor along Nemunas river delta is flooded every spring. Local people are well adapted to this. Many own boats whereas others rely on military amphibian transporters that help local people in these times. These are prime locations for angling and birdwatching. Rusnė island sometimes become inaccessible due to floods, but if it is accessible, it is worth a detour.
In the Kaliningrad Oblast a smaller share of historical buildings remain and out of the surviving ones many are ruined. The area was completely ethnically cleanised and not only the entire German and Lithuanian population replaced by Russians after 1945, but also every placename and even many river names changed into communist-themed Russian ones.
Klaipėda is the only port in Lithuania and its heart is beating together with the sea, with annual summer Sea Festivals and biennal Tall Ships regattas, Sea museum, Sea faculty in the local University, numerous beaches and major stevedoring companies.
Ever since its establishment by the Teutonic Knights (as Memelburg) in year 1252 the city was distinct from the rest of Lithuania. It was ruled by Germans together with the rest of Lithuania Minor. Even its Lithuanian name “Klaipėda”, first mentioned in the 16th century, is believed to be a pejorative, meaning “Bread eater” (as the city dwellers used to eat bread grown by the Lithuanians of surrounding countryside).
On the eve of the World War 2 Klaipėda looked just as it did for centuries: 70% of its people were Germans, while in the surrounding Klaipėda County the situation was reverse with 70% of the population being ethnic Lithuanians. But the War changed everything and the advancing Soviet armies found only some 20 local human beings when they captured the city in 1945.
Klaipėda was swiftly repopulated by Russians (22%), Russophones (5%) and Lithuanians from elsewhere (72%). Some of its iconic German-style buildings that survived the war were torn down soon afterwards. Unfortunately, this included all the imposing churches (Saint John church used to have the tallest spire in Lithuania).
However, much more of its past remained visible in Klaipėda than in cities like Kaliningrad (formerly Koenigsberg) or Sovetsk (formerly Tilsit) in Russia, where the German history was wiped out almost entirely.
In the Klaipėda Old Town and New Town there are still many pre-war buildings, art nuoveau and wooden frame, even if they are frequently standing side-by-side with newer ones. Among the more interesting is the post building and various red brick port warehouses. Strolling on the straight narrow old town streets may be as rewarding as seeking specific landmarks.
In Smiltynė, the part of Klaipėda that could be reached by ferry alone, there is a former German 19th century sea fortress, currently housing the National Sea Museum, which covers both shipping, fishes and sea mammals, many of which live in large acquariums here.
Smiltynė together with Melnragė, Giruliai and Karklė (north of the city) are also popular for their beaches.
The streets of downtown Klaipėda are adorned by numerous small playful statues built in 2006 and later. Among these are a bag of money, a canine "Guardian of the Old Town", a small mouse that supposedly makes wishes come true and a dragon climbing a building wall. They revitalise Klaipėda urban landscape and remind some aspects of the city past and folklore. You never know what you will encounter in that side-street and this makes your time in Klaipėda even more interesting.
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. Curonian Lagoon separates the Spit from mainland Lithuania.
The Curonian Spit for centuries has been an area of massive travelling dunes, the “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, but since 19th century the landscape is dominated by pine forests, a titanic successful attempt by the locals to tame the nature.
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 fish for subsistence today but fishing and other boat-based activities and sea cuisine are now well enjoyed by tourists. Nevertheless Neringa's main drag is a 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, laidback feel, cleanness, bicycle paths and boat trips also draws people to Neringa. If you need nightclubs, loud music, shopping malls or funfairs opt for Palanga instead.
The landscapes of Neringa attract vacationers since 19th century when the Spit (then part of Germany) was “discovered” by German artists and politicians. While the Soviet era brought in concrete hotels, they have not entirely obscured neither the nature nor history and the National Park status bans new construction.
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 available. This comes at a price however: getting into the Spit is costly (ferry service and car entrance fees) while prices there are among the steepest in Lithuania (although average on Western standards).
In summer Neringa's unique atmosphere and fishing history is capitalized on by multiple weekend-long celebrations/festivals.
Nida resort village
Nida (pop. 1200) is the municipal center and its largest resort. "Large" is on Neringa scale though so most restaurants are still one-family affairs with a few tables and shops are compact.
Pedestrianized Central Nida boasts the Curonian Spit's best collection of dark red vernacular former fishermen homes. A few offers accommodation, some are owned by urban rich and one serves as a modest Fishermen Farmstead museum.
The nearby port is still the village's heart but pleasure vessels, many available for hire or excursions, have since replaced the traditional kurėnas fishing boats.
Further 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 Neringa 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 World War 2 Neringa was overwhelmingly Lutheran. The red-brick 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.
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 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 works were burned by Soviets but reproductions are available. More info on area's history is available at Neringa history museum on the opposite side of the road. The museums are small and meant to augment rather than replace sunbathing.
The most famous sight in Nida is undoubtedly Parnidis dune. From its sundial-crowned 52 m high top you can see the vastness of Neringa sands as well as the town of Nida, drowned among the greenery, the Sea and the Lagoon. At Nida the lagoon is wide enough to put the mainland beyond horizon, making it romantically appear that sun both rises from and sets into water. 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 Nida symbols, its nightly light surrealistically racing across the dunes and 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.
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 grey herons live on top of these trees, causing calls to “protect nature from the nature”.
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, a shop and some accommodation opportunities. Entertainment 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 grey dunes and their surroundings. Four villages and two cemeteries lie buried under the Nagliai sands.
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).
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 in Neringa in which case you may also sail there by other vessels (Klaipėda-Juodkrantė-Nida; Mingė-Nida). This is at a premium but offers sights.
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.
Šilutė (pop. 20 000) is likely the most intact town of Lithuania Minor and therefore northern East Prussia. Its 2,5 km long tree-lined main avenue was largely spared from the mass Soviet demolitions that ravaged the Kaliningrad Oblast and the churches of Klaipėda.
Šilutė is now regarded to be the unofficial capital of Lithuania Minor since the pro-Lithuanian Klaipėda Revolt captured it but not Tilsit/Tilžė in 1923. While the 1918 declaration calling for the unification of Lithuania Minor and Lithuania Major was signed in Tilsit the later 1923 act of actual unification was signed in Šilutė.
Šilutė became a single entity only in 1910 with the unification of the four villages (Šilokarčema, Žibai, Verdainė and Cintijoniškės, or Heydekrug, Szibben, Werden and Cynthionischken if you prefer the Germanized names). As such the town has several centers. In the east the main street begins at the former market square of Šilokarčema, still an extensive rectangular open area surrounded by pre-war buildings. 1911 yellow truss bridge over the Šyša river and the late 18th century Šiultė manor are nearby.
Main Lietuvininkų street goes eastwards, connecting Šilokarčema main square to the main square of Žibai. Laid in the 19th century the throughfare still reminds of those days. Large 3-floored detached art nuoveau buildings are partly hidden by its linden and chestnut trees. Among these buildings stands the Lutheran church dedicated to Martin Luther, completed in 1926, known for its interior murals depicting 104 famous historical personalities, among them Biblical figures Noah and Moses, Šilutė's local luminaries H. Scheu and T. Eicke, Roman Emperors Justinian and Constantine, founders of the reformation M. Luther and J. Calvin, and seccular people such as S. Kierkegard and Dante Alighieri. Unfortunately the church is closed outside of mass.
Žibai main square is of irregular layout and a national romantic red-brick builidng now housing a vocational school (1909) is arguably its most impressive one.
Going further east you will reach the railroad, before World War 1 a trunk route from Karaliaučius/Koenigsberg to Klaipėda/Memel, both still part of Germany at the time. Modest 19th century station building still exists north of the main street but in 2011 the last passenger services to Klaipėda have been cancelled.
Beside the railroad, south of the main street, stands a red-brick Holy Cross Roman Catholic church (1854). Built in a romantic style more typical to Lutheran architecture of the area it is much smaller than its local Lutheran counterpart. This indicates the relative size of the two communities in the pre-WW2 era. Like the rest of Lithuania Minor Šilutė used to be overwhelmingly Lutheran, both Lithuanians and Germans adhering to that faith.
Lutheran communities were largely destroyed by the advancing Soviet armies, this genocide barely mentioned in the history books even today. The extensive Lutheran cemetary in a forest beyond the railroad serves as a powerful compensation for the never-built memorials. Overgrown and eerie, it has no sinlgle grave left undamaged and unransacked by the Soviets. Their metal fences are bent, most inscriptions hardly readible, crosses swaying and never visited as most relatives of the deceased have been murdered or exiled decades ago, leaving nobody to care for what was once a nicely landscaped area of an East Prussian provincial town. And yet unlike most other Lutheran cemetaries in Lithuania's cities and towns this one was not demolished (except for the graves of German soldiers), its hundreds of interesting gravestones and a funeral chapel still available for all to see.
While the main street is interesting and worth a stroll, the districts north and south of it are largely dating to the Soviet occupation.
Šilutė is the hub of the Nemunas Delta region, known for its annually submerged floodplains, bird migration paths and the prime location for boat related activities in Lithuania.
The Delta of the Lithuania's largest river with its many flumes, Nemunas branches and lakes is the prime spot for boat tourism, angling and birdwatching in Lithuania. It has extensive annually flooded plains, a major bird migration path, a beach full of seashells (Ventė) and a fishermen village where a river serves as a street (Mingė). The Nemunas Delta area is located next to the Šilutė town.
The floodplains of Nemunas delta are submerged every spring, transforming the small hills crowned by farmsteads into islands (yes, these homes are inhabitted despite all the odds). Rusnė island town (pop. 1 600) 11 km west of Šilutė is also annually cut off by high water, the transportation organized by amphibious vehicles and high-clearance tractors in such days. Rusnė is known for its 1809 Lutheran church with a fortress-like tower and Uostadvaris where 1907 polder and 1873 lighthouse (possible to accend) are located. It is possible to sunbath and swim in Atmata, a brach of Nemunas, near Rusnė.
Mingė (also known as Minija) village is known as the "Venice of Lithuania". This place is a far call from the Serenissima, but it shares with it the importance of water passages. In Mingė the river Minija is the "main street" faced by all the building facades. The time-battered boats of Lietuvinink fishermen have been largely dipslaced by modern yachts moored in its anchorage (Nemunas delta is the prime spot for boat-related tourism in Lithuania). A regular some 4x daily ship connects Mingė to Uostadvaris and Nida in summer. Up to this day there is no bridge, so a 13 km detour is needed to go from one bank of the village to another by non-water means. The western side has more buildings, although both sides are authentic and devoid of modern buildings.
West of Mingė you may reach the Ventė Horn peninsula (25 km from Šilutė), famous for its bird ringing (ornithology) station with the world's largest bird trap (69m x 113m, 25m pillars). Established by naturalist Tadas Ivanauskas in 1929 it is also among the oldest such institutions. The station is under a major bird migration routes convergence spot, as many as 3 000 000 birds passing over it daily during the migration season, and some 1 000 - 6 000 ringed. In the breeding season (spring) the area boasts some 200 local bird species. 1863 lighthouse, 11 m tall, is nearby, while the Curonian Lagoon coasts at Ventė are known for thousands of seashells washed away.
Kaliningrad Oblast is now an exclave of Russia but it is populated by Russians only after it was conquered by the Soviet Union in year 1945. Prior to that the area was ruled by Germans. Ethnic Lithuanians made a significant portion of inhabittants. The area was part of Lithuania Minor and it is in Kaliningrad (then known as Koenigsberg in German and Karaliaučius in Lithuanian) where the first Lithuanian language books were printed.
History, however, is nearly swept away in the Oblast. All the placenames were changed. Even many river names were changed from German and Lithuanian ones to Russian (a rare practice after conquests). Instead of Bareiškiemis there is now Pervomaiskoe (litterally "May 1st town"), in place of Koenigsberg - Kaliningrad (named after a famous communist Kalinin who never visited the city), Tilsit/Tilžė is now Sovetsk (after Soviet Union).
In Kaliningrad little remains of Koenigsberg as entire downtown was obliterated and only the long-abandoned cathedral is now restored by German donations. The massive medieval castle has been torn down and its place is now occupied by the Soviet Palace (actually a dull white tower block).
Some other towns were more lucky, however it is well understandable why German exilees used to weep when they saw their former hometowns after finally being allowed to visit them once the Soviet Union collapsed. Even those stately German buildings and churches that were not obliterated now lay in ruins. Not a single old town is intact. The few remaining old buildings dissonate heavily with the modern poverty surrounding them. They are joined by countless plain Soviet ones and ones rebuilt after 1945.
Chenekhovskoe (Insterburg / Įsrūtis), Sovetsk (Tilsit / Tilžė), Zelenogradsk (Cranz / Krantas) are among the more interesting towns.
In the times of Soviet Union travel to the heavily militarized Oblast was forbidden. Now this ban on foreigners still applies only to the town of Baltijsk (Pillau / Piliava). Still however a Russian visa is needed and the waiting times on the borders may be long. They tend to be shorter in Neringa (Curonian Spit), but there you will have to pay local tax for entering the national park on both sides. It may be quicker to get in by train from Vilnius. Oblast being an exclave every train from Moscow to Kaliningrad stops at Vilnius station.
Kaliningrad city itself may be reached by bus or train from Vilnius, and by bus from other main cities. Still if you want to explore smaller and more interesting locations it will be better to drive a car.
In summer the spotlight of all Lithuanian life moves to the Seaside. Klaipėda, Palanga and the Curonian spit become the stages for many major events, celebrations and gigs.
Many summer weekends have a weekend-long annual celebration going on somewhere in the Seaside, with tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) inland dwellers attending and participating. Many events are sea-related (dedicated to shipping, fishing) but there are also modern musical festivals. Seeking to become a year-round resort Palanga has successfully established some festival weekends outside season.
A drawback is that many of these annual events lack a specified date meaning that every year they move in time a little. There are approximate dates however and you may Google up the exact weekend the year you visit. Moreover, pre-booking a hotel may be essential in some celebration weekends.
List of annual celebrations and events
These are just the more famous events. Additionally every resort has a "Season opening" (May) and a "Season closure" (September) weekend. There are also many non-annual fests at the main venues or right on the beach. Among the more interesting venues is the Klaipėda Musical Ferry that offers concerts while sailing in the Lagoon.
|Palanga smelt holiday||Mid-February weekend||Palanga||Entire Basanavičiaus high street is turned into a large open-air restaurant for smelts in this culinary/fishing holiday. If you prefer catching the smelt yourself you may do so at the Sea Bridge where there are angling contests. Or you may swim in the cold sea yourself with a group of “health fanatics”.|
|Ship parade and regatta||Third Saturday of May||Klaipėda||The start of summer is marked by a parade of ships in the Curonian Lagoon and a massive firework. A regatta takes place the same day.|
|Benai, plaukiam į Nidą||Final weekend of May||Nida (Curonian Spit)||The oldest summertime seaside musical festival in Lithuania (est. 1994) offers open-air concerts of different musical styles.|
|Lagoon region fisherman’s holiday (Pamario krašto žvejo šventė)||Mid-July weekend||Juodkrantė (Curonian Spit)||Fishermen from all over the lagoon meet up in Juodkrantė showing off their livelihood/art to thousands of tourists and letting them taste traditional fish recipes. Now they may be a minority but before the 20th century everybody in Juodkrantė used fishing for subsistence.|
|Thomas Mann festival||Third week of July||Nida (Curonian Spit)||The Curonian Spit was ruled by Germany prior to World War 1 and even after becoming Lithuanian it used to be favored by German artists and writers. Thomas Mann spent a couple of summers there and the art festival named after him includes concerts and fairs held all over Nida.|
|1000 km race||Late July weekend||Palanga||Lithuania’s prime road race attracts many international teams. There are few limitations: old stock cars, Lamborghinis, buggies and formulas all drive the same circuit. Trackside events include concerts a line-up of racecars in central Palanga prior to the race. The circuit is established by secluding a part of highway.|
|Nida Jazz marathon||Final weekend of July||Nida (Curonian Spit)||A festival that brings international jazz to atmospheric spaces of Nida (old Lutheran church to a pier).|
|Sea Festival||Late July-Early August (one weekend)||Klaipėda||The main festival of Klaipėda with its roots in 1934 when it was started to promote Lithuania as a naval country. Currently it attracts hundreds of thousand people from all over Lithuania. There are concerts, parades, fireworks and other events typically located near the sea or the lagoon, while some key ceremonies are directly related to the sea.|
|Palanga Table (Palangos stalas)||Late September weekend||Palanga||A long table spans across Basanavičiaus street full of various meals. A great emphasis is put on healthy foods in this culinary festival.|
|Autumn solstice||September 20th-22nd||Juodkrantė (Curonian Spit)||In this ceremony hay sculptures (crafted by artists that Spring) are set on fire in Juodkrantė bay, symbolizing the defeat of Pagan gods.|