Two months ago, if someone asked me to tell them about Lithuania, I probably would have lead with its geographical position and capital. Which is to say I knew basically nothing about it. But now I can rattle off a list larger than the country itself. Though that isn’t saying much.
Lithuania is pretty small.
The reason for this sudden flip in knowledge and perspective about this Baltic state was my two-weeks at the Summer Enrichment Program at UVA where I took a Math, Statistics, and Game Theory course from Simonas Cepenas (or Mr. Simonas to his 15 students). I could go on and on about how great the class was, but this isn’t about Game Theory, this is about Lithuania.
So, my teacher (Mr. Simonas) is from Lithuania, and he told us a little bit about his country of origin. One of the reasons I was so taken with his homeland was the accent that my teacher possessed. He sounded a little bit like a vampire, pronouncing “Ws” like “Vs”. This was quite fun. The fun accent didn’t convince me to travel to Lithuania, but it did make me curious about this part of the world I’d never much thought of.
So when I got home, I started to research. First I asked my parents what they knew about LIthuania. Turns out, not much. My mom knew nothing except for where it was, just like me, and my also dad knew that it had severed Russian ties in the not so recent past. For this, my dad was pleased with the country (he’s not a fan of Russia. Don’t get him started). My parents suggested that I learn more, from sources with more information and if I liked the country, to propose adding it to our around-the-world itinerary.
After being tasked with research (tip of the hat to my parents, appreciate it), I realized that we had seen the landscapes of forest and grassland before. It turned out that it felt familiar because we’d spent far too much time playing a game called GeoGuessr.
Yes, I spelled it correctly.
GeoGuessr is a game where you are dropped via Google Earth onto a random place, say Rome, and you have to guess where you are. We had been dropped in all three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) many times, and it had resonated with all of us as being pretty gorgeous. With this newfound connection, my research started to leave the realm of looking up random pictures to actually researching places to go and things to do in Lithuania.
I soon found that the capital, Vilnius, was beautiful, but not exciting. There’s just not much to do. Besides, the cost of Airbnb’s is astronomical. This steered me clear of Vilnius, and on to the next city I saw on the map, Kaunas. Kaunas is a fairly small city with about 300,000 people (a bit larger than Richmond, Virginia). This is a fairly good size for a city, so I started to do the thing that anyone who just found a good place does. Spend an hour looking at pictures and falling in love with a town I’ve only known for about an hour and a half. Oh my goodness this town is something else.
With a modern downtown and a Medieval old town, Kaunas seems a perfect balance. Not only is the city itself gorgeous, but it had not one, but two castles, four minutes away from each other and each quite famous.
And living prices, oh the living prices. For one night at a beautiful home with 2 bathrooms and 4 beds, you could stay for only 21 USD (〜63 LTL, Lithuanian Litas). This would already be amazing, but the house overlooked the Neman River, a spectacular river that runs through Lithuania and Kaliningrad Oblast, a small annexed part of Russia below Lithuania.
Just like that, we had our first stop, Kaunas, Lithuania! I presented my findings to my parents, and they didn’t seem too excited. I could see why. With only one spot to visit, Lithuania in no way stacked up against any other country we would visit. Demoralized but not destroyed, I continued my research with far less gusto and a bit more concentration. Finally, I landed upon an idea that would be fun for me and would make my parents want to go. First, some backstory.
The Democratic State of Lithuania lies below Latvia and above Kaliningrad. Being the southernmost Baltic State, it is a bit warmer than Estonia or Latvia. It has a Polish influence, though the culture is primarily Norwegian, and they have two currencies, the Euro and the Lithuanian Lita, which is unusual, but not unheard of (Lithuania is in the process of phasing out the Lita and introducing the Euro, as they only recently joined the EU). Their official language is, shockingly enough, Lithuanian, which is similar to Germanic or Slavic languages, with a Latin alphabet (and a buttload of accents…it’s insane). Here’s where it gets interesting, and more relevant to us. As Lithuania borders the Baltic Sea, there is a spit of land titled the Curonian Spit which connects Lithuania with its southern neighbor, Kaliningrad Oblast (again, part of Russia but not connected to it). This spit has forested beaches, sandy beaches, rocky beaches, cliffed beaches, forests, forests, and more forests.
Originally, I thought it would be fun to take a ferry from the mainland to the spit, as there is a small canal cutting off Lithuania from the spit, and drive down it, but that didn’t sound exciting enough, driving on a road. Then I thought we should walk halfway, but that would take around 10 hours, which is too adventurous for me. Finally, after careful deliberation, I came up with a master plan.
My plan is to take a train from Kaunas, where we’d stay, to the port city of Klaipėda, which takes around 4 hours, give or take. Once in Klaipėda, we can rent bikes for about three days and take the ferry to the village of Smiltynė (population 48) which is on that Curonian spit, with water on both sides. From there, we can bike all the way from Smiltynė to Nida, a much larger town (population 2,385), about a 4-5 hour bike ride at a length of about 45 km. Thankfully, we won’t ever have to bike on a road, as there is a designated bike path along the spit.
Along the way, we can visit gorgeous beaches and towns, such as Prevalka (19 people), and Preila (205 people). All of these towns, though minuscule, offer delicious seafood and places to stop and rest. All the beaches are rated four and a half to five stars and are full of beautiful dunes and beach grass. After our wandering bike ride down the Curonian spit, we’ll lock up our bikes in Nida and take a bus down to the city of Kaliningrad in Kaliningrad Oblast. For a teeny tiny taste of Russia.
We can spend the night in Kaliningrad and take the bus back the next morning to Nida, grab our bikes, and take the ferry straight back to Klaipėda (rather than biking back up the spit) and train back to Kaunas!
When I walked my parents though this plan, I expected them to look at each other and say, “I don’t think so, honey,” but instead, my mom got very excited and we talked about it for a long time. My dad was mildly excited. But I was just surprised he didn’t shut it down immediately since technically we’d spend the night in Russia. But that didn’t seem to bother him. Much.
All in all, I’m amazed and excited, and I can’t wait for August 2020!