A Peek Behind The Once Iron Curtain
Whether we lived before the collapse of the Soviet Union or view it as Ancient History, there’s always been a bit of intrigue swirling around the Baltic States. We outsiders imagined stout men in itchy tweed suits with three-day growths and hand-rolled cigarettes flapping as they whispered their mysterious tales. And women, hardened by the heavy hands of war, who could birth a baby and move the tractor without batting an unadorned eyelash. Make no mistake, Lithuanians are hearty and capable and able to tackle the fate before them but, today, they do so in Versace jeans and Tag Heuer watches. They ripped open the curtain that shrouded them from the West and the rest of Europe, then embraced all their trappings and traditions. This is the new Lithuania.
But First We Celebrate The Past
Reminders are everywhere in this 760-year-old city. In the architecture. In the carved wooden headstones called krikstai bearing witness to those who came before. The testimony of a time when Germany ruled Klaipeda and named it “Memel.” And the more contemporary period when Russia was in control. During WWII, Klaipeda was the Soviets main ice-free port for the Eastern Baltic so they provided much of the infrastructure. Their designs are often stark, perhaps “sterile”, lacking flurry or fancy. But as this nation’s third largest city today, there is a bit of everything in Klaipeda from days gone by.
Klaipeda traditionally played an important role in trade and commerce throughout the centuries. Some consider it in the exact crosshairs of Europe, both historically and geographically. Think about its physical location being surrounded by Russia, Belarus, the Baltic, Latvia and Poland. Goods and people traversed this city as soon as someone wanted to swap a fish from his kurenai fishing boat for a reindeer pelt from the mountains. Goods also arrived via the Dane River, then were hefted aboard vessels bound for cities throughout Europe. Money changed hands. Men grew powerful and built castles and manor homes. Memelburg Castle is just that. Dating back to the 13th century, it once served as a bastion of Teutonic Knights. Today’s structure, from the 19th century, houses a fine museum.
Some Locals Were Truly Trapped In The Past
We’re talking about bugs and leafy bits, for example, encased in drips of pinesap compressed over time to form amber. Fossilized resin from 60 million years ago. That’s when some hapless insect stuck his foot in a blob of goop and sealed his fate forever.
Sad for them, good for us because we’re in the amber capital of the world. “Baltic gold” country. Found along the coastline of the chilly Baltic Sea, amber is this country’s national gem. And our fossilized friend is now ready to decorate a slender wrist or delicate ear lobe. Ah, such are the twists and turns of Mother Nature and her whimsical ways.
Courish Lagoon, Nida, Palanda, and Juodkrante are known for their amber deposits. Many fine examples are on view at the Amber Museum in Palang, the former get-away of Count Tiškevičius from 1897.
And, speaking of Juodkrante, this is home to the Hill of Witches. Dotting the paths in this cool forest are 80 wooden sculptures that depict local folklore and fantasy. An eerie chill is sometimes felt by those who dare visit the Hill of Witches.
Now, unlike the glassy-winged whateveritwas that’s trapped in a fine piece of amber, other representatives from the animal kingdom are wild and free to take flight. And they do so by the millions in this part of the world. You need not be an ornithologist to appreciate the majesty of the birds overhead, as witnessed at Ventė Cape. In the late summer, early autumn some three million of them soar daily on the winds overhead. Scientists tag on average 60,000 to 80,000 birds every year. This program allows specialists to track the birds’ migration and behavior, providing them with important data.
Religious freedom is something one might take for granted if he was never in jeopardy of losing it. But that’s exactly what happened here under Soviet control. Today, Lithuania’s fine citizens are free to practice their faith without fear. Remember this if you visit the 17th century Church of Annunciation in Kretinga. A Franciscan Monastery, it features a 400-year old altar and burial crypts.
Nearby is the Kretinga Museum with exhibits of Lithuanian clothing, tools, art and antiques. Another section remembers the thousands of Lithuanians who lost their freedom, sometimes their lives, deported to Siberia for crimes we do not know. For additional Cold War intrigue, there’s also the Soviet nuclear missile base in Zemaitija, shuttered up for more than 30 years.
And, finally, something for everyone. The Curonian Spit, site of the shifting dunes now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Battered by the sea, sculpted by the winds, these dunes show no mercy for anything in their path. In fact, a small community had to be moved in the 1730s when the sand simply marched forward to swallow everything in its midst. The great dune in Nida stands a mighty 170 feet high.
And speaking of Lithuanian curiosities, pick up a traditional weathervane from Nida that is typical to this region and no other.