Couple of bits of background are going to be needed here… The first is that my friend Monika gave me, for my birthday, a book of 100 places to visit in Lithuania and a red stuffed goldfish with the admonition that I had until my next birthday, July 13th for those of you keeping track, to take a picture of the fish in as many of the 100 locations as possible. She gave her brother the same book (in Lithuanian) and a yellow crab with the same directive.
The second thing you need to know is another friend, Annie, whom I have known for almost 35 years, is visiting from Australia with her partner Brad. The started their trip in Torino, Italy, where Brad was participating in a Beach Volleyball Tournament and then headed up to Kaunas earlier in the week to hang out and visit and see Lithuania.
The first few days, Annie, Brad and I hung out in Kaunas, basically just catching up. I don’t know how long it had been since I’d actually seen Annie in person, but it might have been as far back as her wedding before she moved to Australia. So it seemed like a good idea to talk and find out what was going on (and to meet and get to know Brad). We wandered a bit, drank a lot of coffee, met up with Monika a couple of times and generally being chill.
This all changed on Friday when we decided to go to the Curonian Spit, a unesco heritage site and a really beautiful place to visit. Specifically, I wanted to take them to Witch’s Hill in Juodkrante, which is a mystical spot in the hills where a number of local sculptors have created wonderful wood carvings of first, on the upside of the trail, representations of the myths and legends of Lithuania, then, on the downside, representations of the Lithuanian devils (different than the christian one) and witches. First, of course, we had to get there.
This is was not as easy as it might have been. We tried to rent a car, but unfortunately, in the height of the summer season, the three cars available for rent in Kaunas were already reserved. Next was to take the bus (no train goes directly to Klaipeda and we were headed to Klaipeda, a port city, since that’s the gateway to the Spit). We tried to book online the night before, but international credit card issues prevented this. “No problem,” I’d said. “We’ll just get up early and go down to the station.” There was a problem.
We did get up early and got to the station in plenty of time, however, in my great egotistical view of the world, I neglected to take into account the fact there might be other people wanting to go to the coast on a friday morning. There were two places left on the early morning bus and three of us. So instead of heading over at 8:30, it was the 9:30 (and also incredibly full) bus which took us to Klaipeda, where we caught a cab to take us to the ferry which would take us across the water. The ferry itself is a 5 minute ride across an expanse of water narrower than the length of some modern cruise ships (and while cheap enough for people, costs almost twice as much for pets). On Neringa (the Lithuanian portion of the spit – and here I should explain that a spit of land, does, indeed, connect with the mainland, in this case, where it connects is in Kaliningrad, which is still part of Russia and so, effectively, the Lithuanian portion is an island) there is one bus which traverses the whole of the land, from Smyltine, where we landed, down to Nida (from where, yes, you can see Russia) and it takes about an hour. And it only runs once an hour. Not really the best use of time during the tourist season. The next time I take tourists there, if we can’t rent our own car, I’ll know better how to make a more effective use of time.
I had figured going to Nida would be fun and a good start, then work our way back up towards the ferry terminal and end with a walking tour of Klaipeda itself before our bus back. This was not to be. Due to timing and transportation schedules, we spent a very quick 45 minutes in Nida (part of which was in the Maxima, getting lunch fixins) then headed back to the Hill (Raganų Kalnas in Lithuanian). The walk through the sculptures was nice and I got to show off my knowledge of the folk tales, which was fun. By this point, though, we were on track to get back to the mainland, walk through the sculpture park on the way back to the bus station and head home.
The next day, Saturday, however, was going to be a bit different. Instead of worrying about public transportation to get to Trakai Castle, our destination for the day, we were going to ride with Monika’s brother, Simonas, who has a car. The plan was to meet up around ten, drive to Trakai, spend some time at the Castle and then check out this place called Žvejų Namai (Fisherman House) which Brad had read about. We were out the door around 9:30, stopping at Caif Cafe (not my beloved Coffee Inn because they don’t open until 10 on weekends) and waited for Simonas to join us. At 10:20 or so, after a brief stop for some souvenirs, we were off.
Now, remember I said both I and Monika’s brother had been given the books? Well… Simonas had taken a look and realized that if we went the longer, more scenic route to Trakai, we could actually knock a few places off our list. This made perfect sense to us. So our first stop was in Prienai, home of an old paper mill and a beautiful river and old church. We stopped and walked around, taking a little longer than we had anticipated. While beautiful, we had two objectives for the day – The Castle and the Fish – so spending too much time in any other places might take away from that. But we were still good on time, so we saw a few things here, then continued on, stopping also at Birstonas, home to an old sanatorium (Lithuania is, evidently, known for it’s therapeutic waters). After this, we were heading for a small village called Nemajunai, home to the only wooden Neo-Gothic Sacral building in all of Lithuania. Naturally, this was a must see! On the down side, we weren’t quite sure where it was and it was getting towards early afternoon. So while Simonas plugged the address into the GPS, I looked up opening times of Trakai Castle. This is when we discovered Trakai was only open until 3 in the afternoon so it was decided Nemajunai would be our last extraneous stop.
Of course, nothing is ever easy, is it? Nemajunai proved to be slightly difficult to get to from our current location.. well, not exactly difficult if we were driving a military-suspensioned humvee, but for an old beater… the mud ruts and bottoming out were enough to put us on our guard. We also knew if we had to go back out the same way we were getting in we’d never make it – but we’d gone too far to stop now so we plowed forward until we found a paved road which led directly to the church we wanted to see. We hopped out, took our creature pictures and got back in the car, ready to figure out a possibly less direct, but certainly more even, road to Trakai.
We made it to the Castle on the Island in short order, but when we got there, parking seemed to be at a serious premium. I’ve never really been there in the height of season, at least not by car, so I was a bit unprepared. But then I saw what part of the problem was: They were holding the finals of the junior world championship rowing competition on the lake and so there were teams from all over the world there. It was packed! In the end, after circling twice, we dropped Annie and Brad at the entrance and went off to find a parking spot. After circling three more times, we eventually found a place about 1.5km from where we needed to be so we left the car and walked back. Simonas and I had already decided we’d just hang out and wait while the other two explored the castle proper.
We walked and meandered, looking at the various stands set up as if there were a festival going on. There was a stage with traditional lithuanian singing and dancing, there were crafts and girls giving away free ice cream cones. And there were lots of people.
Lots of people!
So many people it was actually a bit surprising to just bump into Brad on the bridge leading up to the castle. Seems they had decided to just walk the grounds without actually going inside (again, too many people!) so, reunited, we all checked out the wares, buying wooden utensils and fur-lined hats and, as we headed back to the car, we also sampled some kibine. Kibine, as Brad described it, is a pasty mixed with dim sum. It’s a meat filled pastry created by the people who originally inhabited the area around Trakai and the various restaurants still boast ages old family recipes. We had to get a taste!
Now is when things get complicated. See, the fish place we wanted to go, Simonas had never heard of it and we couldn’t quite figure out where it was from the description on their website… but it was worth trying to find it, so we forged on (sensing a theme yet?). I seemed to remember it was near Vievas so we headed in that direction. Simonas thought he saw a fishing sign, but wasn’t sure so we kept going. Eventually we turned around and retraced our path and sure enough, there it was. It wasn’t well marked at all, but after looking for a minute we did find the proper sign so we headed in to park.
The whole deal with this place is that when you get there, they give you a fishing pole and you catch your own dinner from their stocked trout pond. Their cooks will then prepare your fish in one of seven different ways and serve it up fresh, all for the low price of 49 litas per kilo. (on a side note, they don’t take credit cards, so if you’re going, bring cash. Lots of cash). We got there and Annie and I each grabbed a rod and a basket of bait between us and proceeded to try and get us dinner. After losing a fair amount of bait, I eventually landed a 1.5 kilo trout and handed my pole over to Simonas. He, too, eventually hooked a fish and I ended up with a second. Brad, whom I thought was into fishing turned out to prefer sitting on the grass being our “Master-Baiter” and Annie did her level best to make sure the trout were all well-fed and fat for others to catch.
With three fish, we had them prepare it three different ways and (eventually) enjoyed a wonderful repast. Okay, to be fair, while the fish was delicious, the rest of the food (fries and salad) was a bit lacking and the service was absolutely abysmal (but relatively normal for the area). That all said, this would be a great place to bring a date. They even have ice fishing for the winter months.
While we were eating though, we could see dark storm clouds gathering in the distance. Not knowing which direction they were in, we didn’t concern ourselves overly much, but that was to change on the ride home.
We were about 70km from Kaunas and as it was getting late, we had decided to forego anymore creature stops and just head home. Good idea, too, as we were heading directly into the storm. It was really rather eerie as the sky grew darker and darker. It was only around 8pm so the sun was theoretically still out, but the sky was the color of a Grimm Fairy Tale.
Then the rain started. At first, it was just a few drops and we considered ourselves lucky. Then it got a little harder and we were grateful we were on our way home rather than trying to find some obscure village to take pictures in. The the skies opened and we quite literally could not see the road in front of us. Lightning was illuminating the skies and ground and we could tell it was close because the thunder would shake the car, but the lightning itself was only seen as a water-diffused flash, glowing for a second then vanishing again into the dark.
We were terrified. Simonas was rock steady, keeping the car on the straight and narrow, no matter what the weather (or the car in the next lane) was throwing at our windshield. It was about 20 minutes of pure horror, scarier than anything in any of the last three Saw films, and then the rain started to slack, the skies opened a little bit and we could see sunlight sneaking in behind the clouds – not coming through yet, but backlit like an overwrought Spielberg film.
Eventually we made it home safe and sound, with the rain fading away into a beautiful evening.