Slightly larger than West Virginia, Lithuania seems to have it all: huge dunes and forests, seashore, lakes, impressive architecture, and above all, a people with a strong desire for freedom. No longer hidden from the world in the gloom of the Iron Curtain, Lithuanians led the fight for independence in the Baltic States as the winds of change swept through Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. Now, more and more travelers are discovering the many delights of a country that has finally made its way back to the rest of Europe.
As the ferry from Germany moves slowly into the port of Klaipeda, the sun is shining and people throng the shoreline. It's early summer and Lithuania welcomes us with the best weather imaginable. A few kilometers down the road, we board another ferry for the short trip to the Neringa Peninsula.
The little boat is packed with people planning to spend this sunny Saturday on the beaches of the Baltic, and as soon as we get off the boat, Sanja and I plan to let the Honda Africa Twin roll. Riding south on the old postal road, we enjoy a cooling jaunt through the shade of huge pine forests. Fifty kilometers on, we reach Nida, the southernmost village on the Curonian Spit. Slowing down, we quickly succumb to the relaxed atmosphere of the place. Stress is something they don't seem to know here.
Beautifully decorated gardens and colorful wooden houses are everywhere. Typically, a gable on each of these homes braces the heft of a wooden horse's head, a substantial talisman to keep harm away from the inhabitants. Eventually, we have to park - if you want to see the best part of this area, you must leave the bike behind and hike the dunes. After walking for half an hour, my wife and I are rewarded with the spectacular view displayed from the top of the Parnidzio Dune.
On the left we survey the lagoon, on the right the Baltic. To the south, we can look deeply into the enclave of Kaliningrad (the Russian border is less than two kilometers away), and in front of us, there are the miles of forests and, of course, the dunes, heaped 60 meters high. In the rising sun, they appear in different aspects from moment to moment: shifting Saharan impressions in northeastern Europe. That's something you can't find anywhere else. And, as Thomas Mann described the region, "There are no paths, only sand, sand and the sky."
A Maritime Myth: Neringa and Bangputis
Once upon a time, the giant Neringa built the nearby lagoon because she pitied the fishermen. They had a hard life. The sea god Bangputis routinely sent too much wind and waves their way. So, the giant filled her apron with sand and emptied it over the sea. Creating a lagoon, she protected the fishermen, who were most thankful and thenceforth named the region Neringa.
However, the granite obelisk that tops the dune is proof of the power Bangputis still wields. A couple of years ago the massive column was toppled in a violent storm. But today, everything is quiet. We take a seat in the sand and listen to the birds chirp and the wind flowing over the dunes. The tourist and school groups haven't arrived yet, and there's no one else around to disturb the peaceful atmosphere.