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Monday, 31 October 2016

Looking, Listening, and Learning: Cycling the Baltic States - Page 2

Written by Dale Fehringer
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Vilnius, the capital and largest city in Lithuania, is vibrant and feels comfortable and modern. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a strong history of Jewish influence and a plethora of beautiful churches. Today, it has a government presence, museums, universities, a symphony, and spectacular hilltop views. We assumed we had seen most of it last night when we walked to a street festival and around town. But tonight, Egle, who lives here, took us through side streets, alleys and shops, and we discovered there's a lot more to Vilnius than initially meets the eye. We learned about its history, people, flowers, and art. We saw tiny cafés and craft shops, and we heard its long and difficult past, and how its people bounced back from invasions, mass deportation, and years of terror and oppression. And Egle choked up a little as she told us how the people rebuilt their city after the Soviets left, and how they formed families, and neighborhoods, and cultures. She proudly pointed to a brass plaque in the town square from 2002, when President Bush came to Vilnius to celebrate Lithuania joining NATO. That was a huge occasion for Lithuania, which has been invaded and occupied so many times by its larger, aggressive neighbors. The plaque says: “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America.”


Vilnius is an amazing city -- not as much for its looks, although it has a beauty of its own -- but more for its resilience. It has come back many times, and we got the impression that if it needed to, it could come back again.




Europe Map



We're still in Lithuania, but on the other (western) end of the country, in a city called Klaipeda, on the Baltic Sea, across the water from Stockholm, Sweden. It was a five hour bus ride across Lithuania, through flat farmlands. Along the way we saw neat wooden farm houses, small villages, and fields of corn, rye, buckwheat, and vegetables. We cycled beside the Curonian Lagoon, which is an important spot to view bird migration, and visited a 19th century lighthouse and an Ornithological Station, where researchers catch, tag, and release birds to study their migration patterns. And, near the end of the day, we pedaled through a forest to fishing villages, where locals have trawled the Baltic Sea since the 16th century.


Our overnight stay in Klaipeda, the third-largest city in Lithuania, was in a large, K-shaped high-rise building built by the Soviets, which now houses a hotel, restaurants, sauna, and casino. Our view included the nearby seaport, with ferries and giant metal cranes used to load and unload ships in the nearby docks. We hadn't heard of Klaipeda, but it turns out to be a very old and important port city, primarily because the water doesn't freeze in the winter. It was once the capital of Prussia, and it's been fought over by Poland, Germany, Sweden, and Russia over the centuries. Today, it's a cruise ship stopover and a major summer resort for people from Lithuania.



Curonian Spit

A short ferry ride away from our hotel is a long sandy stretch of land called the Curonian Spit, which is excellent for cycling and bird watching, which we did today. This beautiful place is connected to Lithuania on one end and to a small, isolated part of Russia on the other end. It's more than 60 miles long, narrow, and covered with sand dunes and forests. In the summer it's crowded with tourists, but today we pretty much had it to ourselves. Narrow trails run through the trees -- perfect for bicycles. This was some of our best cycling ever through dense woods, next to the Baltic Sea, with waves on one side and singing birds on the other. We hiked to the top of Witches’ Hill to see wooden carvings of mythical characters and to hear the stories. We ate mackerel and perch in Nida, a small fishing village, and climbed to the top of a hill to see a gigantic sundial made of stone. Half way up the hill an elderly man stood in the trees playing classical music on a violin. From the top of the hill we could see waves from the Baltic Sea and most of the spit. And, like Sarah Palin, we could see Russia from there. 



Our sojourn through the Baltic States continued today as we cycled through the Giruliai Forest from Klaipeda to the resort of Palanga. Now primarily a summer resort town, Palanga has been around since 1161 when the King of Denmark disembarked there with his army and captured the castle of the Curonians. Various countries have fought for this port and beach city over the centuries, and it is now primarily a summer resort for people from Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. Egle told us her grandmother brought her here as a child to swim in the warm Baltic waters. We enjoyed cycling through the nearby forests and taking in the peace and beauty.


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Last modified on Tuesday, 01 November 2016

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