I was still in a little sour mood by the time we crossed over into Lithuania, country #21, about someone stealing my tripod last night in Latvia. In hindsight, as I sit and type this now, I don’t know why I didn’t contact police and claim it on our travel insurance…
Coincidentally, as we crossed the border, the van ticked over 200,000km on the odometer! I celebrated with some woohooing.
The roads instantly felt nicer than Latvia. I wonder sometimes if upgrading the road by the border is a propaganda tactic to make it look superior to the neighbouring country – it certainly quickly forms an opinion for me. Not only the roads, but the whole area felt more developed, with nicer houses and cars. Sadly, inside these nicer cars were the same aggressive/suicidal drivers.
The major town in this area was a chance for us to stock up on food for the next day or two. Risa wanted to visit a small market in town, so we went to check it out. Sadly, not much there to get excited about. She was deeply hoping to find some shashlik like we found at every central Asian market, but no such luck. I picked up some semi-terrible garlic cheese, which seemed to get worse the more you ate.
It had been quite nice arriving in the outer suburbs of town, but the closer to central we got, the greyer and blockier the apartment buildings became.
We made the detour out to the west of Lithuania to visit the Curonian Spit, a long thin stretch of sand that has formed into an island. It borders with Kaliningrad (Russia), which I still find weird that Russia has Kaliningrad, a small part of non-contiguous land outside its main territories. I’m pretty sure that the same visa rules apply, so as tempted as I was to included Russia on this trip, there was no way I was going to go through the paperwork to gain entry.
Back to the spit. As it is an island on the Lithuanian side, the only way to access is via a car ferry. After being used to the many that we had to catch across fjords in Norway, we were prepared for around €10 – I mean, I could comfortably swim across and back it was that close. However, it turned out to be €30 as we’re a motorhome (but less than €10 for a car). Risa wanted to cancel, but I thought it was waste as we’d made such a large detour to visit. We waited 10-minutes for the next ferry across.
Risa wasn’t in a great mood at having to pay so much for such a short ferry just to see an island. I had to agree with her a little, but tried to keep a positive attitude. We drove north first, but quickly came to the end of the island and had to turn around.
It was thankfully mid-week, but it was still surprisingly busy. It was stressful driving along the only road, with people tailgating and attempting to pass at any opportunity. I wanted to be able relax and enjoy the scenery of the pine forests to either side, but I had to focus on the narrow and bumpy roads instead.
And, a few moments later, we arrived at a toll station, where we had to pay a further €20 to drive on the island… It was too late to pull out now, so we paid, but did so begrudgingly.
It was a real shame, as we had suddenly paid €50 to visit this thin stretch of land. There was a feeling of resentment, and it was hard to relax and really enjoy the Curonian Spit. I kept trying to tell myself how beautiful it was, and how much I was enjoying it, but my mind kept telling me that it’s nothing special, and we’d wasted our time/money to come visit. It’s quite possibly because we’d done it wrong, and should instead be seeing the island by bike, where it’s possible to slow down and enjoy the nature, rather than speeding through it on the bumpy busy road.
The forests outside were beautiful, this is true. The trees weren’t too tightly packed, and it was still possible for light to penetrate to the floor, which was covered like carpet by grass. Because the light penetrated through the canopy, it was possible to see some distance in to the forest, which in the quick glances I could make in between corners and oncoming traffic, was hypnotic.
The forest opened up, and we came to a small settlement called Juodkrante, which slowly grew with beautiful wooden hotels and a waterfront boulevard filled with shops selling the local speciality – smoked fish. I’m not generally fussed about seafood, but Risa loves it. The fish looked pretty good, so we grabbed an entire fish for lunch – which I ate with the average cheese I’d purchased in the market. It was only €4 – though, Risa considers it to be €54!
Raganu Kalnas – Witch Hill
Right on the edge of Juodkrante was one of the few attractions that I wanted to stop and see here on the spit. It’d been a while since we’d done any walking up hills, so the first little climb up the stairs came as a quick shock. All along the path were wooden carvings of witches and other evil creatures. It was kind of weird, and some of the sculptures were very twisted indeed, showing a very dark sense of humour – which of course I loved.
But, it also gave us the chance to slow down a little and enjoy the forest, too. It was different to what we’d been driving through, not as uniform, and a lot denser. Leaving the safety of the main trail and stepping into the forest was a little off putting – I guess it was just because we’d been surrounded by these sculptures that made my mind feel that this place was creepy.
We were really starting to get into the walk, and then we realised that we had completed the loop, and were back in a car park (filled with souvenir stalls) on the edge of town again.
The other main ‘sight’ that I wanted to see while we were here was the sand dune near the Russian (Kaliningrad) border. I kind of knew that it would be underwhelming, given how generally flat the surroundings have been, but I still went with an optimistic point of view. Risa was tired, and still in a non-positive mood, so we separated and I went to explore solo. There was a short downpour of rain as I left the car, which (forgive the pun), dampened my spirit.
It wasn’t too far to walk from the town of Nida, passing through more forest and eventually reaching a stairway to reach the top of the dune. They have been having problems with erosion caused by tourism, so hopefully the money they are collecting from entering the park is able to protect it. I wasn’t alone in wanting to visit, even in this weather. Reaching the top there were quite a lot of other tourists wandering around, running out on the dune and posing for photos.
I have to say, I was underwhelmed, and Risa was right. I still think it was worth the walk from the car to see, since we’d made such an effort to visit already, but it was a large, flat, series of sandy undulations, mostly covered by grass. Unfortunately we’ve been spoilt with some of the places that we’ve been previously, with the enormous 300m high sand dunes in Gobi Desert in Mongolia, to countless beautiful stretches like this in Australia – even France had a larger and prettier set of sand dunes. It made me realise just how relative beauty and experiences are. If you’ve never left this part of Europe, then I can see how it would be an incredible experience – which the ratings all seem to suggest.
To find positives, there was still beauty to be found here. Staring out across the damage that has been caused by human activity, it was nice to see that nature is starting to reclaim the land.
Overall, it wasn’t worth the detour to have a day trip here. It was partially our fault for not slowing down to really maximise the experience, renting bikes and surrounding ourselves with the nature. It would also probably be nicer later/earlier in the season, as it was still amazing busy for a cold and windy Friday.
We tried to drive as far as we could last night to shorten the driving today. We ended up in a small clearing by the side of the highway. Fortunately, it wasn’t too busy last night, and we slept well enough.
As hinted at earlier, today was to be a long day of driving. It started off much the same as it had been the past several days, with long stretches of flat and boring driving. Thankfully we had a slight tailwind, which was welcome after fighting it for the past few days. It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes to our little van.
Progress was steady, but hampered by long stretches of road works. Their planning seemed to be somewhat chaotic, with entire lanes at a time reduced to the layer of dirt below the road, turning the remaining lane into a one-way highway. Occasionally the timing would work, and we’d manage to clear multiple stretches of works at a time, though usually it wouldn’t, and we’d be in queues with impatient drivers – who occasionally ignore the red light, and would take their chances with the oncoming traffic. This behaviour seemed directly proportional to how large/expensive their vehicle is.
There were small pleasures to be had with the simple farming views outside, with farmers busy making hay bales (I could watch that machine all day), as well as more of the old raw wooden timber houses, showing signs of strain from their eternal battle against gravity.
Hill of Crosses
We didn’t take the fastest route between the west coast and Vilnius. We took a slight deviation to the north to see the curious Hill of Crosses. I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting to see so many other tourists here, with the road lined with parked cars long before the hill came into view. But, we’d arrived at lunch time on a Saturday.
We took our time and had some lunch, looking at what resembled a small hedgehog from a distance. All the while, stretch limousines were dropping off wedding parties who were lining up for photos here, too. The fashion of the wedding parties were incredible, and I wish that I’d been able to get closer for some memento shots.
I didn’t have a clear historical explanation of the site, with some stories saying that it originated in the 14th century. The one thing that seems in agreeance is that especially during Soviet times, with their ban on religion, the crosses were being bulldozed by the Soviets, only to have brave locals sneak back past the soldiers and replant them again at night. I truly hope that this was true, as it sounds like a beautiful (and peaceful) assertion of them protesting their beliefs.
We joined the crowds and made our way towards the hill. From a distance, there really isn’t much to see. Calling it a hill is a stretch – it’s the tiniest of lumps that barely breaks the flatness of the surrounding area.
As we walked closer, it became possible to really see just how dense this hill was packed with crosses. They were all shapes, with the larger ones close to 10m tall, and the tiniest ones no larger than what would be worn as jewellery. The density still amazed me, especially along the main path that cut up to the ‘summit’. The large tour groups arrived with crucifixes in hand, keen to add to the mass of crosses already here.
There seemed to be some order in the chaos, with small pathways that snaked through the masses of crosses. It was surprising to see such order, and that people hadn’t taken the easy option of planting their crosses, choking the narrow passageways.
Many had inscriptions or messages of loved ones that had been lost. I’d read that many were for those sent out to the Siberian camps during the Soviet occupation. There were many from foreigners, too, with both English/American and Japanese who had laid crosses here. We joked about making a cross from what we could find in the car, but I realised it’s not an art installation, but it’s serious to the majority of those who are visiting.
It got a little repetitive, and it was quite a small area, so it wasn’t too long until we were back on our way to Vilnius.