Lithuania, a Baltic beauty

Catching my bus from Riga to Lithuania, the last stop on my Baltic itinerary, I decided to make a halt in Šauliai to visit the Hill of Crosses. I took a minivan, got down on the main road and walked down the smaller road to this eerie-looking site. Lithuanian families planted crosses here during the 1831 Uprising against Russian hegemony to commemorate the death of their relatives whose bodies they could not find. Asserting their Catholic identity, more and more people placed crucifixes, statues of Virgin Mary and other symbols, making the place a jumble of crosses.

I realised it would be impossible to make it back to the station in time to get a bus to Klaipėda, so I stuck my thumb out and found a ride in no time. Not only did I manage to get there by early evening, I also stopped by a field full of moose and visited a beautiful stretch of beach at Palanga with a jolly animated fair filled with visitors enjoying the glorious weather. I was deposited right outside the house I was staying in. After dinner, I enjoyed a walk on the beach, and then read a book on a bench looking up occasionally to savour a dramatic late-summer sunset.

The next morning, I walked to the port and caught a ferry to Smiltynė at the northern tip of a unique natural formation called Kuršių nerija or the Curonian Spit. This is a narrow strip of land covered in high sand dunes and separated from the mainland by Curonian Lagoon.

This slender finger is shared almost equally between Lithuania and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian enclave. According to a local legend, Neringa, a giantess, created this line of sand to protect fishermen from a dragon. I took a bus all the way to Nida at the end of Lithuania and ambled around this bucolic village admiring the wooden architecture and quaint flowery windows.

Cycling along the Curonian Spit

I rented a bicycle for the rest of the day and rode to the very end of Nida and climbed up a gigantic wall of sand. Parnidžio dune is a high mound of sand with tufts of green vegetation growing in patches. I ran down to the Baltic side and waded in the water for a few moments before climbing back up. There is a barrier beyond which it is a protected area, and I could see untouched virgin sand sitting like a dollop of beige ice-cream. A huge bird roosted on its crest, but it was too far to make out what it was. Beyond lay Russia.

Climbing back down, I rode along the main thoroughfare and took a detour into a village, and onto a path along the sea. It suddenly started raining, so I stopped at a restaurant for lunch. As I finished a delicious involtini with baked potatoes and salad, the rain stopped. Thanking nature for its sense of timing, I reached Nagliai Natural Reserve. Parking the bike near the road, I walked through an opening in the forest and onto a sandy path where I was joined by other visitors. Continuing upwards, I reached the top of what are called the Grey Dunes or Dead Dunes. There was more grass here than on the other dune, and the sand had more ripples on its surface.

By now there was no sign of the rain; the wind had swept the clouds away and the sky was a bright blue, a perfect day for biking and hiking. I rejoined my bicycle and rode through a wooded area and surprised a wide-eyed fawn that sprinted away the moment it saw me. It was evening when I returned the bike in the settlement of Juodkrantė. Two colourful boats dawdled on the sea as my bus picked me up. I spent the evening exploring the old town of Klaipėda.

Vilnius, its environs

In Lithuania’s capital, I met my friend at the university where he was busy organising an event. The first thing I did was climb the bell tower to get a 360-degree view of the city. This helped me get my head around the hilly capital. Three crosses up on a hill stand in memory of Franciscan friars who were killed when they tried to convert the locals. I visited the city centre starting with its cathedral and the main street in the Old Town, ending at Gediminas Hill, a round, grassy mound capped with a brick tower called Gediminas’ Tower. Gediminas was the 14th-century Grand Duke of Lithuania to whom we owe Vilnius. Under his watch, Lithuania’s territory spread all the way to the Black Sea. Behind the hill is a glassy, modern business district. I ended my tour in the rebellious, free-spirited Užupis district, which even has its own constitution on a tall metal plaque.

In the evening, I attended an international food festival at the university with my friend’s girlfriend Sandra and discovered a weird but tasty cake called šakotis, cooked on a rotating spit. It looked like a yellow candle that decided to spew out its wax in all directions.

The next morning, I took a short bus ride to Trakai where a big red castle awaited me in the middle of a large lake. This 14th-century brick castle, located on an island in Lake Galv,ė is accessible by a bridge. I walked across and entered this monument, which was an important strategic centre of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and later took a refreshing swim in the lake. People were out boating or swimming.

Trakai is home to a Turkic minority called Karaims who came here from Crimea. I bought a few of their delicious specialities called kibinai — a pastry filled with mutton and onion — and enjoyed them while leaving this alluring spot.

Back from Trakai, I met Sandra, and we visited another part of old Vilnius, entering a street lined with beautiful churches through the Gate of Dawn. For a city with a pagan history, Vilnius has an extraordinary number of churches built in various styles including Northern Renaissance, Russian Orthodox, Flamboyant Gothic and Brick Gothic, earning it a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Vilnius was also home to a thriving Jewish population, giving it the sobriquet ‘Jerusalem of the North’, but today only one synagogue bears testimony to this history.

Visiting with a local has numerous advantages, including getting access to little-known places. Thanks to Sandra, I got to see the dilapidated remains of a part of the Jewish ghetto. We ended our day with a delicious meal of cepelinai, stuffed potato dumplings resembling zeppelins in a creamy sauce.

The next day, my friends took me to a conference with interesting political discussions, but I could not linger for I had a flight to catch. I bade them and my Baltic travels goodbye and flew away with a head full of memories.

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