Trip duration: 3 days for the hike more if you want to explore Kaliningrad | Approx cost: £250 + flights | When: May – Sep
Doinit factor: No one does this, you’ll be one of the few who walks the entire spit!
The Curonian Spit is a 98km long thin stretch of land separating the Baltic Sea and Curonian Lagoon. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site which covers the Russia exclave of the Kaliningrad Oblast to the south and Lithuania to the north. The narrowness of this massive geological phenomenon hasn’t gone un-noticed by ‘Team Doinit’ so after trying and failing to find any documented accounts of someone walking the Curonian Spit we assembled an eight person team to see if we could do it.
Our journey actually begins a fair way from the Curonian Spit. We start in the lovely city of Gdansk, Poland for no other reason than there are relatively cheap flights available. A flight to Kaliningrad would have involved a much longer flight to Moscow, and a layover; not exactly an efficient use of time on a short trip. We’ve a few hours in the evening to walk into Gdansk’s medieval old town, grab a beer and some dinner, before we retire in to our ‘capsules’ in our hostel which feel more like hot coffins!
It’s the 6am bus from Gdansk to Kaliningrad we’re on. We’re hoping for approximately a three and half hour transfer but deep down I know with the boarder it’s going to be longer; I just didn’t appreciate how much longer – we’re leaving the EU and entering Russia, albeit an exclave, – there’s no forgetting that fact. The boarder process takes over two hours and the summer heat has become very uncomfortable as we sit in an non-air-conditioned bus. Finally, when we’re allowed to proceed, it’s a further hour or so before we arrive in the city of Kaliningrad.
Above: After checking into our hostel and chucking our bags in our coffin sized bunks we have a few hours in the evening to wander around Gdansk
So what’s in the name?
- Konigsberg : Name of the city between 1255 an 1945.
- Kaliningrad: Name of the city from 1946.
- Kaliningrad Oblast: The region which is now part of the Russia Federation.
Kaliningrad is an interesting place with a long history. Originally named Konigsberg, it served as the capital of Prussia during the Middle Ages, then it formed part of the German Empire before suffering heavy damage during the Second World War; finally being given to the Soviet Union in the post-war negations. The city was promptly renamed Kaliningrad in 1946 in honour of Mikhail Kalinin, one of the original Bolsheviks, and any remaining German inhabitants were then expelled. Now Kaliningrad forms part of the most western region of Russia, whilst largely still grey, there are traces of its past as well as new developments (thanks to the World Cup).
Just outside our hostel, along one of the city’s canals, is moored a soviet era submarine, some anti-aircraft guns, and a massive military sea plane. This all forms part of the city’s ‘Museum of the World Ocean’, which makes for a pretty cool little visit, particularly if you’re a fan of soviet military engineering. Walking around the city can be a bit of a trick on the traveller’s senses. I’m clearly wandering around a Russian city with the stereotypical soviet style grey concreate blocks wherever the eye can see, but every so often you pass something old and rather charming, something from the days of the Konigsberg.
Traces of Konigsberg remain, the city has a number of old red brick fortifications or ‘gates’ and of course there’s Kant Island with its impressive old cathedral having been restored to its former glory. Here, centuries ago, ancient kings were crowned and more recently, well in the 1804, German philosopher Immanuel Kant was buried. Close by is an area of the city called the ‘fishing village’, it’s a pleasant area by the water which has mostly been re-created in the old Germanic style with a 33 meter lighthouse which, after climbing 133 steps, gives great views of the city and Kant Island close by.
However, impossible to miss, is something from the modern era, the House of the Soviet; nicked named ‘The Monster’. This is a huge building located pretty centrally in the city, it stands abandoned, never used due to being structurally unstable. The rumour is that a mystery owner refuses to sell or demolish it.
Our night in Kaliningrad is spent in Tetka Fisher, a restaurant which describes it’s self as a German Bar with Russian soul – a fitting end to our day in the city.
Above: A day spend exploring Kaliningrad – from The Königsberg Cathedral to military heritage to soviet monsters | The main bus station proved tricky to navigate
Walking the Curonian Spit
The morning sees us catching a bus to the Curoinin Spit. There’s a handful of villages on the narrow bit of land but truth be told we’re not really sure where to get off, so we take our chance jump off. Looking around there’s nothing really around, simply a road leading through the thick forest, so after spraying ourselves with tic repellent we start walking North. As long as the sea is to our left and the lagoon to our right – what can really go wrong, I tell myself.
There’s no immediate sign of a walking trail so it’s along a road we have to make our way. Rather frustratingly, after over an hour’s walk along the road, avoiding the odd truck speeding past, I pretty much give up on the much hoped for secluded forested trail. I guess there was a reason prior to the trip I couldn’t find any record of people walking this route! I also get a sense of scale, whilst on a map a sand spit looks really narrow, the reality is that Curonian Spit, in some parts is over 3km wide, so much for my idea of walking along with water
Above: The bus drops us of on the main road before we find a path through the woods
It’s not too much further before we come across a sign indicating a turn for the ‘Dancing Forrest’. I hoped our journey would take us here, but I wasn’t entirely sure where it was – it’s definitely nowhere near where Google maps mark it! Here the pine trees twist and bend in peculiar ways forming rings and spirals. Apparently the cause isn’t fully understood. It’s an unusual sight and makes for a nice break before we pick up our back packs and continue our walk… along the road.
Above: Trees grow in a strange and eyrie way in the Dancing Forrest
It’s another hour when we come across a packed car park with a few huts selling refreshments and much awaited signs indicating beach access. It appears we’ve come across a popular local hot spot. It’s unanimously decided it’s time to cool down, first with a cold beer, and then with a dip in the sea, just 2 minutes away as the forest gives way to sand dunes.
This is the first time we’ve set our eyes on this Baltic beach and I’m stunned how picturesque it is. Smooth white sands line the dark blue waters as the clear blue sky completes the scene. I’m in Russia, on the Baltic coast, but I may as well be on a Caribbean island. Clothes are ripped off as we run in to cool down, jumping over the waves in true Baywatch style. Kaliningrad is the world’s largest Amber producer and i’ve heard that it’s not difficult find some washing up in the sandy beaches, so after my swim I go about digging with my hands to try my luck, and I’m amazed, as are my fellow travellers that I actually do find a small nugget of amber. A nugget which will form part of a ring, I’m informed by the wife.
Above: Oh yes – the beach is spectacular
Our driver, in his mini-van, arrives right on time and we head for the boarder, it’s probably only a five minute ride. The actually boarder process is relatively speedy, compared to that of the other day, it’s clearly a much less popular crossing, which works to our favour. It’s probably an hour of checking our passports before we’re on our way to Nida.
Nida is a charming little town on the lagoon side of the spit; it’s well-kept, has a hint of the Truman Show about it, and is well on the tourist trail, at least regionally. This is our final stop for the day, allowing us a chilled beer as we watch the summer evening settle in.
Above: Crossing from Russia to Lithuania in our taxi before arriving at our huts in Nida
Day two of our walk starts a bit late, we’ve popped into the local supermarket for some supplies, and grabbed a breakfast at a local waffle store. It’s another hot day as we set out on foot from Nida along the lagoon. The Lithuania side of the spit is a lot more developed then its neighbour, with cycling routes being very popular. It’s one of these paths which we follow (cycle route 10). Our route heads away from the lagoon, inland, taking us through the forests, which provide much need shade and have the incredible hot bark smell which reminds me of my youth in summer camp. Over the next 12 km we pass the picturesque village of Perelia, stopping off for cold refreshment on the lagoon fronted restaurant, before finally a late lunch break at next village of Pervalka.
Above: Lots of walking, parts over a well maintained cycle route others through tracks | Break and planning
From the Lagoon our route once again turns and heads through the woods towards the Baltic coastline, perhaps only a 30 minute walk before we head over the raised sand towards the sea. Just like the other day, the white soft white sands and refreshing but not cold sea proves too tempting not to warrant a dip.
It’s getting late and we’re not close to our planned stop for the day of Juodkrantė, the second largest settlement on the spit with 720 inhabitants – it’s still 14Km away, which is about three hours walk so its decided a bit of cheating may be needed. Earlier at lunch I grabbed a few taxi business cards from the restaurant in case of emergencies, so in order to make up time we agree we’ll have to call a taxi. Looking at the map there is car park about 40 minutes away – coincidently by some large sand dunes, the map marking them a point of interest so we decide we’ll make it here before we call in the Lithuanian motorised cavalry.
The Grey Dunes, as they’re called, are protected. Wooden paths twist and turn for approximately 1km through the dunes wind-swept landscape, it’s hard work as we gradually head high and higher, trampling sand to a final point from which you can see the lagoon below, and in the other direction, the forest, with the Baltic sea forming the backdrop as the sun begins to set.
Above: A visit to sand dunes in the late afternoon
After taking a few minutes to admire the landscape and take a few pictures, we descend to the carpark in time to meet out arranged taxi which whisks us to our digs for the evening. It’s only a 10 minute drive and we’re dropped off at a rather soviet looking accommodation block.
We’re in Jurandkrante, again it’s a lovely town, perhaps not including the place we’re staying in, which has a faint scent of grandma, or granddad; we can’t decide which. The taxi driver tells us that this is one of the most expensive property markets in the entire country – joking the local school football pitch is considered the most expensive football ground in the country. While still very pleasant, this village is noticeably quieter then Nida and we count ourselves lucky we find a restaurant which will serve our group of 8.
The next day we know it’s going to be a long one. There are no other settlements between where we are and the end of this spit – almost 20 km away. With that in mind, a stop at the local supermarket to get some packed lunch and plenty of water is a priority.
It’s another scorching hot day – well over 30 degrees C but again our route takes us along an established cycle route into the woods and eventually runs parallel to the coast – unfortunately, no water is in view as the steep dunes form a natural barrier, but there is a breeze which just about takes the edge off. It’s a long path as it gradually twists through the woods. We make pretty good time and about three hours in we stop for our lunch break and allow the whole group to come together for a rest. We say to ourselves we’ve broken the back of it, and it’s true, it’s only another 40 minutes or so when we come to our planned swimming break, as with other days, a mental and physical relief as we cool down. Here the beach has a few visitors, a telltale sign that we can’t be far from civilisation – and the end of our walk. At the car park, a beer tent and loads of bicycles certainly confirm that we must be at one of the main beaches the locals from the nearby city of Klaipeda go to for a swim.
Above: Out somewhat dated accommodation |More walking and more beach before we grad our pack lunch – I’ve had better sandwiches
The lady in the beer tent confirms the old passenger ferry (which we need to get to to take us to the mainland) is only a further 40 minute walk. It’s along a maintained road with loads of locals walking and cycling past. I feel a little sad as I know the end to our walk is imminent. The solitude of the forest, the tranquil lagoon and the revitalising sea are all in the past as we approach the ferry to crowds of holiday-makers heading back home across the lagoon to Klaipeda.
It’s been a great few days walking, and you can see the sense of achievement from the whole team, but also a relief – we’ve worked out that over the last 3 days we’ve walked approximate 80km on the Curonian Spit, which is probably more than any one of us have done in an intense period of time. We collapse in a circle on the deck of the ferry for our five minute crossing taking us into the heart of Klaipeda. I then inform everyone that our hotel is about another 25 minutes’ walk away…
Above: We did it – we walked the Curonian Spit