24 November 2010

The Curonian Spit

Somehow, we ended up staying fifty kilometers away from firm ground on a giant sandbar in the Baltic sea.
The Curonian spit seals off a large bay, creating a shallow, sandy lagoon. The whole spit is over a hundred kilometers long, but only two kilometers wide at its widest point. We were only a few minutes from the Russian Kalningrad region, which controls the southern half of the spit. The people here are referred to as Neringians, regardless of their nationality, and they're a hardy, seafaring lot. They've endured a lot in their history, losing towns and lives to shifting sand and encroaching water.
There is a little gap at the northern end of the spit, so we had to take a ferry from Klaipeda down onto the sand. There were quite a few people and cars on the boat, probably because it was a saturday. We waited for about forty-five minutes to board, then were on the water for a total of ten minutes. Because we were one of the first cars off the boat and there is really only one road on the other side - and because we were freaked about speeding tickets - we made a lot of people mad. Everyone was able to pass us eventually.
The people that live on the spit rely mostly on tourism for employment, but there is still a considerable fish-smoking industry. The smell of smoking fish makes its way downwind from each of the four Lithuanian villages - especially the two smaller hamlets of Preila and Pervalka, which are cut off from the main road and most of the tourists. Our hostess is originally from Klaipeda, but her husband's family has been on the spit forever. We met him briefly - he looked like a sea captain with his weathered face and white beard.
We were staying just outside of Nida, the southernmost Lithuanian town. Because the Russians are very picky about their visas, the land might as well have ended right there. All of the towns are on the lagoon side of the spit, away from the waves and wind of the Baltic. Nida is the largest and the most touristy - there are also a lot of vacation homes belonging to Lithuanians. Someone was having a party one night, and they had a rented sauna sitting outside their house.
We were able to make arrangements with our hostess for two bicycles, which let us get out into the wilder parts of the land. The spit is a highly protected nature preserve, so a lot of the dunes are off limits. The concern is that tourist traffic on the delicate sand environment will lead to the destruction of the plant life and make the sands more unstable. This is a long-standing problem - in the fifteenth century, deforestation caused the sands to begin shifting and fourteen villages were swallowed up. In 1768, the Prussian government began replanting trees and grasses to protect the dunes.
That seems like a very long time ago for such drastic ecological action, but it's the reason that the spit even exists today. There are a few paths up to certain sections of the Baltic (western) side, but even these are protected by latticework designed to keep the sand in place.
The one unprotected dune - the Parnidis dune - lies in the borderland between Lithuania and Kalningrad. It is spectacular, with its towering vantage points and moonscape valleys. The above picture is taken from close to Nida, looking south into Russia. It is difficult to gauge distance from the picture, but the landscape is vast. The sand is piled about sixty meters high. Walking down into the sand is almost frightening, it feels like a desert and it's easy to lose track of landmarks.
It feels like a tenuously solid place, as though the entire landscape could get blown away in the night. It's a beautiful, lonely place and it's totally unique in the world.

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