A ferry regularly runs back and forth between Klaipeda, Lithuania's port city, and Smiltyne, one of the handful of settlements on the Lithuanian side. From there, a network of bike paths thread along the shore and the interior where bird sounds from blackbirds, chat finches and other species are abundant. In fact, bird whistles, chirps and tweets are about the only sounds ringing through the forests. Beyond the towering sycamore, willow, birch and aleppo pine trees, a white tent comes into view; it's a snack bar for the nearby beach. From here, I climb the steps that course over the dunes and down to the wide stretch of white sand. I'm alone because it's only 11 am. This beach bears the sign Bendras, which means it's a general (non-nudist) beach. But the spit has nudist beaches as well that are signed Vyru (male), Moteru (female), or nudism for everyone (Nudista).
It's quite common for Lithuanians who crave nature to cycle the Curonian Spit after work or to bring a blanket and picnic and settle on one of the beaches even in the fall. But it also makes for a relaxing weekend -- there are a number of accommodations available, including Hotel Viesbutis, which is sited very close to the ferry.
Imagine sands sweeping across the villages on this strip of land to the point that they bury the houses. That's what happened in the 18th century -- the villagers were, obviously, forced to relocate. And this is why dense conifer forests now dominate this landscape. (The locals planted them to make up for the rampant deforestation and to reduce the land erosion.)
Sure, cars do roll down the roads, but I see few of them as I peddle past myriad side trails leading, of course, to more tempting sands. I stop at another beach where I spy three local men along the shore with large nets. If you think they're fishing you'd be wrong. They're sifting for chunks of amber, the fossilized resin of conifers and a valuable commodity that this area has long been known for. As I stroll the beachfront, I stop and check out the sand, finding a handful of amber grains. (I'm told that a violent storm the night before is the reason why the amber is especially plentiful.)
But the ferry waits so it's back on the bicycle, passing the Sea Museum and Dolphinarium, several old fishing boats from the mid-1900s as well as a collection of traditional 19th century farm structures. Once on board, I gaze at the receeding shore and imagine what my next trip will reveal. I plan to spend the weekend, traversing the bike paths from village to village, visiting the museums, and maybe collecting some larger chunks of amber.