Neringa (Curonian Spit)

The Curonian Spit (Kuršių Nerija) is a narrow sliver of land that stretches 60 miles from the Russian province of Kaliningrad to a narrow strait near the Lithuanian port city of Klaipėda. The northern half of the spit is part of Lithuania and is known as Neringa. The southern half is part of Russia (and requires crossing a formal border and dealing with Russian customs).

The spit is basically a long series of sand dunes, most of which are covered with pine forests. It ranges in width from 400 meters (near the southern end in Kaliningrad) to a little more than two miles (near the Lithuanian town of Nida). It is separated from the mainland by the Curonian Lagoon and reached by ferry from Klaipėda. Neringa boasts beautiful, seemingly endless, sand beaches and, from time to time, small resort or fishing towns. In 2000, the Curonian Spit was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage landscape.

The main tourist town in Neringa is Nida (Nidden). Nida was first mentioned in documents of the Teutonic Knights in 1429. Historically, Nida had been part of Prussia and later the German province of East Prussia. Prior to World War II it was a popular resort for German vacationers, including, in the early 1930s, the German writer, Thomas Mann (whose summer home has been preserved as a small museum). During Soviet times, Nida and other parts of Neringa were closed areas reserved for high-ranking Communist party officials. Today, Nida is a small-scale, family-oriented summer resort popular with Germans, Lithuanians and Latvians. There are a number of small restaurants and shops near the harbor, which contains pleasure boats as well as working fishing vessels.

The most popular souvenir in Nida is Baltic amber (fossilized tree resin), which washes up on Baltic beaches, particularly during storms. Baltic amber was once a highly prized commodity, traded far and wide even in prehistoric times. It was known to the ancient Greeks and the Roman philosopher and naturalist, Pliny the Elder (23-79), once complained that a small statue of amber cost more than a healthy slave. It was Pliny who also discovered that amber is actually petrified resin, which he deduced by burning it and recognizing the distinctive smell of pine. The Teutonic Knights, in later centuries, grew rich by controlling the world trade in amber (and put to death anyone who collected amber from Baltic beaches without their authorization). Among the offerings today in Nida shops are pieces of amber that contain perfectly preserved insects trapped millions of years ago in the sticky tree sap (bringing to mind Jurassic Park where scientists extracted dinosaur DNA from blood-sucking insects trapped in amber and used it to recreate a lost world).