11th November 2018
Juodkrantė and the Curious Curonian Spit
According to legend the Curonian Spit, a long, narrow strip of land that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea was built by a gentle giant known as Neringa. She was wooed by a dragon and when she spurned him the dragon began terrorising the fishermen when they took their boats out to sea. To protect them Neringa scooped up sand from the sea bed in her apron time and again and made a barrier that kept the dragon out. The spit is ninety-eight kilometres in length. Lithuania owns fifty-two kilometres and the rest belongs to Kaliningrad in Russia. Neringa is also the name of the town that occupies the whole of the Lithuanian section. Within this municipality are five distinct settlements – Alksnynė, Pervalka, Preila, Nida and Juodkrantė.
Map of Neringa on the Curonian Spit
Recognised as a world heritage site by UNESCO this area has some very unique attractions. Some of these can be found in Juodkrantė, in the middle of Neringa. Originally a small fishing village, Juodkrantė is surrounded by the largest crescent shaped range of sand dunes. These were once migrating sand dunes, shifted by the wind and the sea and are known to have buried small fishing villages on the spit. Pine forests were planted to stabilize these sandy hills and Juodkrantė is home to the Curonian Spit ancient forest. Visitors can explore this old forest by following the Dendrology Trail – an easy walk of 1.6 kilometres. There are sixteen stations along the way with descriptions of the trees and shrubs that are found there. A curious wooden structure in this forest that resembles a megaphone and is known as the Forest Megaphone, is a good place to pause and listen to the sounds of the forest.
Walking in the ancient forest of Juodkrantė
Amber Bay is close to the beginning of the Dendrology Trail on the shore of the Curonian Lagoon. Between 1860 and 1881, when the lagoon was being dug out to improve navigation amber lumps of raw and processed amber were discovered. This discovery attracted commercial interests and excavations began. These excavations resulted in the discovery of a large collection of amber that has become known as Juodkrantė’s Treasure. It is now on display in amber museums in Nida and Vilnius. Today Amber Bay has been restored to nature and the shore of the Curonian Lagoon in Juodkrantė is one long promenade peppered with benches.
The Sea Front at Juodkrantė
As I wandered through the town I had noticed an unusual number of cormorants bobbing on the lagoon or flying above it so I was not surprised to learn that Juodkrantė is home to both a heron and a cormorant colony. These birds have formed two separate colonies, the oldest and largest colonies of these birds, around Garnių (Heron) Hill. It is recorded that these birds began arriving here during the seventeenth century and by the nineteenth century they were part of everyday life. The herons arrived first and gradually the cormorants followed settling near their colony and taking over their nests. Eventually the herons moved on, and formed a separate colony nearby. But these birds are not the only inhabitants of the ancient forest. Witches, devils, goblins and giants are all said to be lying in wait for the unsuspecting human – just follow the sign to the Hill of Witches – if you dare.
The path up to the Hill of Witches in Juodkrantė
Many years ago this hill was used to celebrate midsummer an annual festival held every June. Known as Jonines (St John’s Eve) marking, it was a mixture of pagan and Christian festivities. Choirs and musicians would cross the Curonian Lagoon on sailboats from Lithuania and steamboats from Russia. It was an occasion of much merriment and dancing. At midnight the participants would go in search of the magic fern. The hill was thought to be enchanted – hence the name. This festival was abandoned during the First World War. A new forest park was created here in 1979 but the old name was retained. Several paths weaving their way through the forest-clad hill tell the tale of the Curonian Spit and other stories, legends and superstitions through a large collection of wooden sculptures. Others evoke a superstition. I walked through the gate of hell – and survived to tell the tale.
The Gate to Hell on the Hill of Witches in Juodkrantė
Originally all the sculptures were created by Samogitian folk artists but others have been added over the years. It is an extraordinary place. Leaving the sunny sea front I was soon deep in the forest with weird faces peering down at me. Visitors who would like to unravel the mysteries of these sculptures can book a guide through the Tourist Information Office in Klaipėda. Some of the structures provide places to sit and enjoy the eerie beauty of the place. I particularly liked the bench being carried by two wooden figures. I had this weird feeling that if I came back the next day this bench would be in a different place.
The Hill of Witches in Juodkrantė
It is an extraordinary place and a huge contrast to the sunny sea front I had just left. I was soon deep in the forest with weird faces peering down at me. There is a sculpture of a rooster, a symbol of the dawn and the coming of light when the ghosts, witches and devils disappear. As the shadows of the forest gave way to a sunny clearing I found a group of dancers with musicians. A happy story unfolds here. Looking closely, I could see that one of the dancing women was standing on the foot of her partner. The flatness of the shoe indicated that this was no ordinary dance partner but the devil himself. Aware that she was flirting with danger the woman kept finding excuses not to accompany the devil on his evil way. She needed a nice skirt to wear, then it was a pretty blouse, then a necklace to adorn her new clothes. She kept the requests coming until dawn broke when the devil disappeared.
Dancing on the Hill of Witches at Juodkrantė in Lithuania
I emerged from the Hill of Witches on the sea front. Here I found a collection of stone sculptures including a herd of sheep. This exposition entitled Land and Water, was created between 1997 and 1999. It features the work of sculptors from several different countries. During the summer months the stone sculptures are augmented by a display of sand sculptures.
Land and Water Exposition on the sea front of Juodkrantė in Lithuania
Art exhibitions are also popular events in Juodkrantė. These are displayed in the Exhibition hall of the Liudvikas Rėza Culture Centre. Different exhibitions of Lithuanian and foreign artists are on display here as well as a continuous historical exposition. Concerts and other events also take place here.
The Old Villa Quarter of Juodkrantė in the centre of town developed at the beginning of the twentieth century as Juodkrantė was transforming itself from a fishing village to a fashionable resort. A new style of architecture was celebrated in the form of villas cottages, hotels and guest houses. Some of these are still in use today. I had a coffee on the terrace outside one of them, the Vila Flora a historic nineteenth century wooden villa. It was renovated ten years ago but still retains the style and characteristics of the original building.
Vila Flora in Juodkrantė
Another well-established place in this village is the family-run Restaurant Žvejonė where I enjoyed a delicious lunch of fresh fish followed by apple strudel – a popular dessert on the Curonian Spit. I sat outside in its lovely gardens enjoyed a view of the sea front just across the road. It was a very pleasant end to my visit to Juodkrantė
Restaurant Žvejonė in Juodkrantė
I flew to Palanga from London Stansted with Ryanair. Air Baltic also offers flights to Palanga. From Palanga I got a taxi to Klaipėda where a regular ferry crosses to the Curonian Spit and a public bus service goes up and down the spit. There is also a car ferry for those who prefer to hire a car.