Cruising The Baltic’s Amber Coast

amberCHANCES ARE YOU MAY NEVER HAVE HEARD OF KLAIPEDA. That’s because Lithuania’s oldest city was closed to tourists until Soviet occupation ended in 1990. Since then, Klaipeda has been quickly modernizing — all while keeping its heritage and beauty intact.

Klaipeda is an up-and-coming, quaint and charming seaside city that presents opportunities to explore cultural, historical and natural attractions. The region bills itself as “One port, three destinations,” and cruise ship visitors who have time will want to explore Klaipeda itself as well as nearby Nida and Palanga. Combined, the three destinations are “the jewels of Lithuania,” and all are worth a visit.

Klaipeda. From the new cruise ship terminal, the historical city center is only a few steps away. Visit the Old Town for glimpses of Germanic architecture (Klaipeda was part of Germany until 1923) and half-timbered, lattice-work buildings that reflect the city’s Prussian past. Stroll through Drama Theater Square, where Hitler incited fear into Lithuanians in 1939, or visit some of the city’s many museums.

Take a break at any of Klaipeda’s 300 restaurants and cafes. Adjacent to the terminal, the Castle Museum opened in 2002 on the foundation of an old castle. The museum features authentic 16th and 17th century exhibits. Throughout Klaipeda are reminders of the Soviet occupation that visitors may find interesting.

You’re likely to see antique automobiles from Russia and former East Germany. Venture out into the country side to experience Village Life Lapiai, a preserved collective farm where traditional ways are maintained.

wooden_statues

Nida. You’ll want to ferry across the Curonian Lagoon to visit the National Maritime Museum and make your way 30 miles south to the seaside resort of Nida. The drive itself is spectacular, as most of the route takes you through the Curonian Spit National Park, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site just five years ago. A ribbon of blacktop rolls over and along sand dunes, the highest in all of Europe (stop to walk out on the dunes and admire the views), to Nida and Lithuania’s border with Russia.

The German writer Thomas Mann lived here in a house commanding a view over the lagoon, and today, his home serves as a museum. Along the way, stop in the resort town of Juodkrante for a stroll up the Hill of Witches, where Lithuanian folklore and fairy tales are depicted through wooden statues.

Ample Amber

Palanga. Lithuania boasts more than 60 miles of sandy seashore exposed to the open water. Evenings in the resort town Palanga, throngs of people amble along wide pedestrian promenades, with cafes and attractions on each side, that lead out to the sea for spectacular sunsets.

You’ll want to amble over to the Amber Museum, housed in the 19th century mansion of Count Tishkevichius. There, you’ll learn that there are seven shades of amber ranging from white to black.

Millions of years ago, forests wept resin into the sea, giving birth to the amber that visitors today still find in galleries and museums. It boggles the mind how you can leave Lithuania clutching a piece of amber 40 million to 55 million years old, with “inclusions” of insects or even reptiles that were caught in the resin millennia ago. No place in the Baltic values amber more than Lithuania. Steeped in national folklore and fairy tales, “the gold of Lithuania” is much like Klaipeda itself — lovely to look at and so special that you’ll want to take a piece home.

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