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The Curonian Spit
Ventspils (Latvia), July 16th 2013

The Curonian Spit is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Lithuania. It is a very narrow piece of land that separates the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon. On some places, the spit is only one and a half kilometers wide. The total length of the Lithuanian part of the spit is fifty kilometers. And if you also know that the spit is shared with Russia, whose part has approximately the same length, you possibly realize that this is a strange piece of land. A look at the map of Lithuania clarifies probably a lot.

This strange piece of land is the result of Mother Nature. For thousands of years, the sea and wind worked to create this spit and the resulting Curonian Lagoon. There is still a narrow connection between the sea and the lagoon, all the way on the northern tip of the spit, near the city Klaipèda. The lagoon is a blessing for the local fishermen who got a quiet place to fish. The ‘anger’ of the Baltic Sea is perfectly blocked by the spit. A local legend tells that some kind of a sea mermaid, named Neringa, helped the local fishermen by building the Curonian Spit to create a safe place to fish.

View on the Curonian Lagoon seen from the Parnidis Sand Dune

But things went wrong in the 16th century. The quest for wood was high, so people deforested the spit for the biggest part. The result was that the sand dunes started moving. The forests that kept the sand dunes under control, were gone, and the strong coastal winds had a massive impact on the dunes. The sand dunes shifted approximately 20 meters a year and in a period of three centuries, fourteen villages were swallowed by the sand. It was in this time that the spit got the nickname ‘Sahara of Lithuania’. In the 18e century local authorities realized that the spit would probably disappear if nothing would be done. In 1768 people started replanting the spit with goal to safe this important piece of land. And as of today, it is still an important task, presently done by the national park authorities, because the spit became a national park in 1991.

But there is a new threat: tourism. More than 1.5 million people a year visit the Curonian Spit, and the local authorities hope to increase that number; because the tourism Euros are very welcome. Most fishing activities have disappeared. Fishing vessels are replaced by tourist boats and the small lovely wooden houses in where the fishermen and their families used to live, are rebuilt to holiday homes. There aren’t many villages anymore on the spit; only four survived to be precise. And all four villages are tourist villages nowadays, completely focusing on the hordes of tourists that visit the spit during the holiday season. At this moment, most of the holiday makers that make it to the spit are local tourists, or people from neighboring countries (especially Russia). But that won’t be the future. As soon as the tourists in the western part of Europe realize that the Baltic States aren’t ‘dangerous’ or ‘scary’, and overcome their hesitation to come to this part of Europe, things will get busier. The pioneers of today will be rewarded with a beautiful piece of nature. But if it will stay that way is the big question.

Conquering a sand dune isn't an easy task

The most important tourist activities on the spit are hiking, biking, swimming or enjoying a beer on one of the many terraces. It is a holiday destination pure sang. There is enough to do for everybody. The main tourist hub is the village Nida, which can be described as a charming place. Nida is located on the foot of the Parnidis Sand Dune, the highest dune on the spit. Tourists from Western Europe (almost exclusively Germans) mainly hike and bike, while the local tourists and Russian (from nearby Kaliningrad) head to the beaches to defreeze from the cold Eastern Europe winter. The sand dunes are on everybody’s agenda because they are still the main tourist attraction of this weird piece of land.

The huge numbers of people that climb the sand dunes is the biggest threat for the future of the Curonian Spit. The national park authorities created paths which people have to use in the attempt to protect the other parts of the sand dunes. One calculated that every visitor that climbs a sand dune, pushes down several tonnes of sand. Besides that, by walking outside the trails, people are destroying plants that are crucial in the prevention of further erosion of the dunes. And that is killing for the sand dunes. Photographs prove that the Parnidis Sand Dune lost more than 20 meters of its height in just 40 years (from just over 70 meters in the 1960s to around 50 meters now). The park authorities placed rangers on the most popular dunes to keep people under control, but it is unfortunately not the solution. For some people the virginity of untouched sand dunes is too hard to resist as the hundreds of footsteps prove on dunes where people are not allowed to go.

The Curonian Spit has great hiking and biking trails
A former fishermen house
Weathervanes on top of local houses
The Parnidis Sand Dune seen from the base
Sunset over the Curonian Spit seen from Vente on the main land

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