From Kiel in Germany, we arrived 21 hours later into the port of Klaipeda, Lithuania.
Cruising past the northern tip of the 30 mile-long Curonian Spit, we saw the protected sand dunes of Lithuania’s coastal national park and home to elk, deer and wild boar in its forests. The spit, like the port, was German until the 1920s, after which both were appropriated by the Lithuanians.
Klaipeda began life in the 1200s as a key trading port founded by the Teutonic Knights on their mission to colonise the north of Europe, under the guise of spreading Christianity.
Reaching eastwards from their base of Malbork in Poland the order built the city’s first castle but were denied further expansion by the conversion to Christianity of the first King of Lithuania, Mindaugas in 1253.
German Klaipeda, or Memmel as it was called, became part of the Prussian Empire until the end of WWI. Under the Treaty of Versailles it, and the northern Curonian Spit, became stateless until seized by the Lithuanian army in 1923. Germany eventually reclaimed it during WWII and the port served as a submarine base, ensuring its near total destruction. Today the area remains a magnet for German tourists and we mingled with them on the ferry, and at our first stop, Karkle.
Half an hour’s or so drive out of Klaipeda on a warm sunny evening and we found ourselves in the belt of forest that runs along the wide, sandy coastline.
Our first challenge was to navigate a route that ended abruptly with the road, the tarmac giving way to a sandy and rutted path.
We circled back through the forest and found a narrow-tarmacked lane which somehow sent us back in the right direction and dropped us onto a new two-lane highway. It was a breeze then to drive the short distance north past impressive newly built houses sporting solar panels, swimming pools and hot tubs.
We had a space reserved at the campsite which was expecting us from our emailed request of some weeks before. We don’t generally book ahead but wanted to be sure of a place to stay on our first two nights in Lithuania and we appreciated the warm welcome.
Chatting with the owner, Remus, we discovered he had left the UK, where he had worked for a ‘doctor for animals’, and had been investing in tourism for the last 10 years on his father’s coastal land.
He was pragmatic about the change in his circumstances saying that he made a better living, could fish day and night in the local lakes if he wished to, and could enjoy hosting his family and friends from overseas. “Life is life” was his motto.
We cycled along the coastline and admired the wide, sandy beaches and soft shallow waters. Unlike in neighbouring Poland, where beaches are home to a wealth of pop up bars and eateries, there was no infrastructure anywhere by the sea.
The coastal park has no toilets, minimal car parks and only the odd and often randomly-positioned mobile coffee and ice-cream wagon.
It was not always the case. Behind the dunes of Karkle’s gleaming sands lies a former German bunker system.
Built in 1939 the Memmel-Nord complex housed look out towers, radio communications complexes and anti-aircraft machine guns. The forest provided cover but not protection. Nearby are two military cemeteries, one German and one Russian.
We cycled through the forests enjoying the pure, clear air and the newly laid cycle tracks.
Stopping at a picturesque and reed-lined lake we spotted a group of silent herons at one end eyeing a noisy flock of Giant Cormorants at the other. The sea birds had established a colony in the trees beside the lake, and as we cycled past them the air reeked of rotten fish and guano.
Lithuania’s many lakes are home to birds of all sizes on their way to the winter grounds of Western Europe, including in the UK.
Like the birds, returning expat Lithuanians are visiting this coastal area in droves which is now clearly gearing up for major tourism. Shrewdly, Remus had got in on the act early.
As English visitors we were a novelty but were warmly received. Young local entrepreneurs establishing a new bar not too far from the campsite hosted an outdoors big screen event of England’s game against Croatia and we were given the best seats in the house.
It wasn’t clear which team the locals were supporting but the evening passed off in good humour and much shrugging of shoulders, including at the rueful result.
“Life is life” it seems!