"It doesn't look like rain today – let's leave the Thomas Mann Museum for tomorrow and head straight for a walk on the Baltic Sea shore," we decide when the local Mare bus drops us around noon in Nida, the main village on the Lithuanian side of the Curonian Spit. From here, the border with Russia's Kaliningrad Exclave (formerly called Königsberg) is just a few kilometres away, as the "Kyonig Awto" express bus brings to mind. The whole of this strangely shaped island just off the Baltic coast – a narrow strip of sand dunes 100 km long and just about 1 km wide! – once belonged to Germany. Nida was a popular Prussian sea resort that also housed a sizeable artists' community in the 1920s and 1930s. The German writer Thomas Mann first visited in 1929 and spent the next three summers here with his family. He even had his own holiday house built on the outskirts of Nida, where each of his six children could have a room of their own – and nobody would disturb the master composing his monumental novel "Joseph and his brothers".
Like all villages on the Curonian Spit, Nida is situated on the interior side overlooking the lagoon. We have to cross the about 50 m high dunes, passing a lighthouse, to get to the Baltic Sea. Without any buildings or other interruptions, this is just one enormous stretch of sandy beach, over the whole length of the Curonian Spit. If you are lucky you can find amber on these beaches, we read, but we didn't (admittedly we didn't look very hard for it).
The next morning we take the 10 am bus as far as the Nagliu Dune, a protected area of moon-like white sand dunes with some rare plants clinging to the sand in sheltered areas. Buried in the sand lies the village of Neegeln that was gradually encroached by the ever moving and growing dunes until in the 19th century the inhabitants had to leave the last houses and settle elsewhere. Read (or watch) Abe Kôbô's "Woman in the Dunes" to see why we found this a quite creepy spot.
The Eurovelo 10 cycling trail passes the dune and we just followed it towards Pervalka, a small village almost entirely consisting of holiday apartments built in the traditional style. In November, the place is deserted. Hunting for a café or bar to warm up we end up in the village shop. "In winter, we have just 29 inhabitants," the owner explains. "Let me see, 9 of them are senior citizens, and 10, school children." In summer, she says, the village has a population of up to 2000.
Aiming for the afternoon bus, we have a lot of time and take a detour over the ridge of the dunes to the next village. Once we pass something resembling a pile of large green olives and conclude that it must be animal shit – but what sort of animal shits green olives? The views from the top of the dune are fantastic, both towards the lagoon and to the open sea, but there's a cold wind and we huddle in a sheltered place between the trees to have some tea from the thermos flask.
When we turn back onto the path there's an elk standing right down the path, looking at us. Isa, with the camera still round her neck out of sheer laziness, takes some photos and only then opens her mouth in bemusement as the elk disappears in the bushes. We had read that a few dozen elks are living on the Curonian Spit but hadn't expected to see any (in fact we even saw two more from the bus on the last day). So that's where the "olives" came from.
In Preila, the smallest of the villages on the Curonian Spit, the one and only bus is scheduled to pass at 2.50 pm. At 3.10 pm it still hasn't arrived although Lithuanian buses have so far been extremely punctual, and we start walking towards the (not exactly busy) main road to try and hitch a ride back to Nida. But then we meet the bus whose driver easily recognises us and picks us up.
The Thomas Mann Museum, it turns out, is closed for the next two days (Sundays and Mondays), but never mind. We had great nature walks on the Curonian Spit, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site, good weather, and memorable encounters.
Is the Curonian Spit worth visiting?
We thoroughly enjoyed our two-day stay in Nida and around. As it was late November there were almost no tourists there, which was fine. But on the other hand all the cafés, restaurants and shops (the guidebook said there are nice amber shops) were closed, too, and public transport is limited. So if you want to have a somewhat livelier atmosphere it might be better visiting during the shoulder seasons in autumn or spring. Summer must be awfully crowded.
How to get there?
To get onto the Curonian Spit from the Lithuanian side you have to take the ferry, as there is no bridge connecting the Spit with the mainland. The whole length of the Lithuanian side is serviced by bus and there are also busses directly from Vilnius and Kaunas that go on the ferry. In summer there is also a boat connection from Klaipeda to Nida.