This national park stretches for 200 square kilometres in the Samogitian ‘lowlands’ of western Lithuania. Its landscape includes dark deciduous forests, wide freshwater lakes and wooded islands and inlets.
Cycling around and through it across three days we enjoyed its quiet and contemplative air, broken only by riotous camps of fishermen and college students enjoying wood fires, copious drinking and smoking and loud Europop music.
Our own campsite, a ‘mom and pop’ place run by a charming elderly couple who spoke no English or German, was alongside the shores of the park’s major lake Plateliai. We had safe camping and easy access to the park’s many cycle trails as well as a short stroll to a popular hotel bar.
Our fellow campers were a large group of young men staying in three small tents and their own cars, and there it seemed solely to drink from dawn until, well, dawn. They left behind a mountain of empty beer cans which were quickly scooped up by mom and pop for the purposes of reclaiming the tax on each. At 10 cents a throw it was quite a lucrative side business!
Aside from swimming and cycling the park offers bird-watching. No twitchers us, we didn’t make the most of the opportunity to spot the many varieties of migratory and water birds that visit in their hundreds of thousands every year.
From tiny tree creepers, tits and warblers in the trees to herons, whooper swans, cranes, ducks and sandpipers at the lakes, and harriers, buzzards and sea eagles in the skies, the park is alive with hootings, shrillings, callings, warblings and clackings.
We did enjoy stork-spotting. This was not hard to do as a stork, or pair of storks, presented themselves every six minutes or so.
Whether perched in nests high up on telegraph poles or in trees, feeding their young or watching the skies for a returning partner, the storks were silent, staring and statuesque.
Cycling the 15-mile perimeter of the lake on a breezy Saturday morning we were amongst the earliest out and enjoyed the views of the wooded inlets at pretty Berzoras.
Small children splashed in the quiet waters at the lakes shore and lone canoeists paddled through the waterways that divided the islands. There was a carefree and happy feeling.
We peeked into the village’s wooden church. Austere and plain on the outside, inside was touchingly carved with columns and motifs, and painted prettily in white, cream and gold. It was peaceful and cool on this balmy summer’s day.
The various alters teetered with the weight of gold, silver and bronze statues and reliquaries and the whole church had a comfortable and homely feel, created as a temple of wood.
At Plateliai, the small town on the western shore which gives its name to the lake, locals were going about their Saturday morning business. For many, it seemed to involve a trip to the local shop to stock up on beer, snacks and vodka.
A few hundred meters down the road at the town beach, sailing boats jostled for space with snorklers and kids in dinghies. A kayak lesson was about to begin .
We sat and enjoyed our packed lunch on the slipway, grateful for some fuel to power us around the remaining half of the lake.
The hardwood industry is currently spending 1.5million euros on improving tourism infrastructure in the park, as well as in the national parks of partners in Sweden and Poland.
Cycling back through the scented pine forests, we saw dozens of trees snapped in half, while others had been completely upended and uprooted. We later learnt that a recent ice storm had caused lots of damage right across the National Park, even destroying a children’s play area at a hotel.
In just three days we witnessed the weather extremes, from sunny and sultry to stormy and steaming!
It was interesting to see the volume of local tourists increase across the weekend so that by Sunday evening, when returning on our bikes, the cycle path had become a roadside car park. A seat at the hotel bar was at a premium and our campsite was a thoroughfare of families and teens heading home from a day’s bathing in the lake.
With no other English speakers around us, we kept our own company for three days.