As the three of us walked along the Curonian Spit, facing west out across the white capped sea, the soft white sand sinking under our feet with each footfall, we inspected the shoreline for pebbles and rocks that we understood to resemble amber. We inspected rocks of all sizes, small and large, oblong and squarish, trapezoidal and triangular, but then, we didn’t know what to look for, we just grasped at all the little stones we found on the shore that were orange and yellow. As we bent down to examine the suspect pebbles, a wind whipped off the Baltic Sea, a warm, spring air, with the slightest chill brought on by the intensity of the breeze.
The Curonian Spit, a 98 kilometer long sand dune which separates the Baltic sea from the Curonian Lagoon, is shared–in the loosest term imaginable–by Lithuania, on the northern half, and Russia, on the southern half. To reach this spit of land, which thinly stretches, like a long, spindly, bony finger of sand, you must take the ferry from Klaipeda, a five minute adventure on a small car and passenger transport, which holds about thirty average sized vehicles. Once on the spit, you drive down narrow roads, just wide enough for two cars passing each other going opposite directions, like visiting any barrier island on the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, a spine of white and pink eroded rock, which protrudes from the blue brine sea. Lining the road, where sand spilled onto the black pavement, pouring from a shattered time glass, the white grains flooding from the jagged clear shards across the oily asphalt, small trees of stunted growth reached for the sky as their roots burrowed into the barely fertile soil below. Amongst the white sand, like patches of soft, cold, snow drifts, were scraggly, contorted scrub pines, withered witches reaching out their arms toward the road, to grasp at passing cars.
In each direction we were alone on the soft sand beach, the waves lapping at the shore, the small pebbles spread across its grainy, windswept skin. Behind us, a large dune capped with tall grass loomed over us, like a sentinel on the shore, guarding us from the tumultuous sea. We searched this beach, scouring stone after stone, in search of Baltic amber which just washes upon the shore, remnants from an ancient forest, now buried in its salt water grave at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. This amber, found by beach combing Lithuanians and Latvians, are later turned into beautiful pieces of polished and unpolished Baltic amber jewelry, and peddled in shops and by street vendors all through these countries. Unbeknownst to us, this amber comes in a whole array of shapes, sizes, and colors, ranging from greens to browns, yellows to oranges. This ancient tree sap, fossilized and floated upon the waves, is thrown onto the shore by tempests and Neptune’s paroxysms, and has bubbles and small imperfections, which add to its beauty and allure.
Driving south down the Curonian Spit, you pass through small towns, as you head to one of the two main attractions on this island. Aside from bike trails which offer outdoor recreation, the spit offers a true wonder of Europe. Boasted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Curonian Spit is a natural wonder of sand dunes with the average height being 10 to 20 meters, with some reaching the awe inspiring height of 60 meters. The town of Nida, sits nestled against the shallow lagoon, only a few hundred meters away from the mammoth Parnidzio sand dune, which is mounded at the Russian-Lithuanian border on the spit. Against the waters of the calm lagoon sits a massive carved chair, resting like a throne, a monolith gazing out across the blue lapping waves. As if the chair must compare in size to the dune, it sits in silent testament to the shifting and evolving nature of this sandy natural wonder. As the wind slowly eats away at Parnidzio’s humpback, grass covered body, one small grain at a time, the chair too will rot, till there is nothing left of it as well, but merely memories and images captured by humans, in the efforts to preserve what we all know, can, and will be lost. As I sat in this large chair, and looked out upon the lagoon, a dead stagnant water–as if the wind did not affect its body–I had my image captured, with a natural wonder of impermanence looming in the background.
We climbed the Parnidzio Dune after leaving Nida, and took each steep, wooden step, one at a time, as we ascended to the top of this scenic site. Atop this large prominence of sand, the Baltic Sea to its west and the Curonian Lagoon to its east, we stared out onto a mathematical absolute horizon, where the sun always rises and sets across a body of water, the perfect location for a sundial. The Nida Sundial, towering erect into the blue sky of that day, runes carved into the sides of the smooth grey stone, read two o’clock on that sunny afternoon, casting its long shadow across the smooth stones with numbers etched into their surface, telling the position of the sun in the clear sky. Atop this hump of sand, set between two blue bodies of water, both stretching into the vast horizon, we stared south to see in the depression between two sand dunes, someone brazenly had signed their names in the sand, a large heart wedged between the two lovers. See out there, just south across that sand valley, where those lovers carved theirs names in the transient sand shifting with the wind and rain, two signatures as fleeting as the future of their relationship, lay Russia, Kaliningrad, a forbidden zone, fraught with the danger of imprisonment.
Walking along the surf-line as the waves crashed against the shore, bending down to pick up rocks, of which we knew nothing about, we didn’t find any amber. Although we did not find anything of value, we explored a picturesque location with many wonders to see. And on this spit of land, we found another wonder, Raganu Kalnas, The Hill of Witches, a site of wonder and amazement, but that is for another post, for another day.