Curonian Spit

The Curonian Spit situated in Lithuania and the Russian Federation is an impressive spit in the Baltic region (98 km long and 0.4-4 km wide). It separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. The dunes shifted and settlements disappeared covered under the sand since prehistoric times. Only the efforts of the people residing there managed to overcome this problem, combating the erosion of the spit by stabilizing the dramatic process. The spectacular sand dunes and forest area with their unique ecosystem, and traditional fishermen villages characterize an outstanding cultural landscape. The Curonian Spit was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2000.

The unique and fragile landscape of the Curonian Spit has been created by man in his constant fight against natural wind and water forces. In the 15th century the whole Curonian Spit was wrapped up in a green forest mantle: there grew majestic mixed forests of oaks, firs and pines and small villages were to be found close to the lagoon. Later on people started to intensively fell the trees. Forests especially suffered during the Seven-Year War (1756-1763). Destroyed forests freed sand masses, and west winds brought additional sand from the seashore to Nerija: the sand, driven by the wind, moved across the peninsula towards the Curonian Lagoon. Immense dunes have buried on their way more than one littoral fishing-village. Several generations had to work hard in order to bridle the sand element and to create the pleasant landscape of the today‘s Curonian Spit.

Within the 18th century, the shifting dunes buried 14 villages (Old Nida, Preidynė, Lotmiškis, Agila, Karvaičiai, et al.) under the sand. The settlement of Nagliai had to change its location even several times...

It is not only tragedies that are associated with the settlements buried under the sand – Karvaičiai and the Naujieji Nagliai were the native places of the poet, writer, scientist and folklorist of Lithuania Minor Liudvicus Jedeminus-Rėza (1776-1840). In 1816 this Professor of Keningsberg University published the first Lithuanian Bible, and in 1825 he issued the first Lithuanian collection of songs that became known far beyond the territory of Lithuania.

In the second half of the 18th century, a ridge of massive dunes reaching from 4 to 6 meters in height was formed by the constantly blowing winds. In the second half of the 18th century, a belt of dune valleys and crests stretching along the entire Spit, called the Great Dune Ridge, was formed. The average height of the Ridge is from 25 to 30 metres, its width varies between 400 m and 1200 metres.

The highest peak of the Great Dune Ridge is the Wetzekrug (Senosios Smuklės) Dune reaching 67 metres height.

The most complex stretch of the Great Dune Ridge – the so-called grey, bare or even dead dunes of stationary sand.                     

To this day, there has survived a stretch of travelling sand in the Great Dune Ridge. It constitutes dunes blown up to 66 meters height and one of the biggest and most complex capes – the Grobštas Cape. It is the most devastated part of the former natural landscape and a stretch of dunes that have been most severely blown through.

Greenery first started to be planted on the dunes of Denmark and Holland. However, work of littoral dunes‘ stabilization and planting on such a scale in the Curonian Spit is unique in the world. Greenery in the Curonian Spit has been constantly planted for two hundred years now. People have shaped the protective seashore dune ridge and stopped the moving sand by planting forests. For generations the Curonian Spit has been an example of man and nature‘s harmonious coexistence. It is a unique relation between a man and the peninsula‘s sand, the ability to adjust oneself to nature without damaging it.

Historic sources and place names indicate that the sttlements were inhabited by Lithuanians and Curonians.

The dominating occupations for men on the Curonian Spit were fishing, crow-catching and timber production, while the women, apart from looking after the house, all through the 19th century, were mostly enganged in the stabilisation and forestation of dunes.

The principal livelihood of the inhabitants on the Curonian Spit was fishing. Therefore, fishing boats and their decorations was an inseparable feature of the settlements there. The largest and oldest fishing boat on the Curonian Lagoon was Kurėnas, known from the 12th century. Kurėnas was 8 to 10 metres long and 2 to 3 metres wide and could take aboard 4 to 5 fishermen at a time.

From 1844, every fishing boat had to hoist on the mast such distinguishing signs in the form of a flag-like weathervane. The weathervanes were carved out of tin plate and coloured in bright colours to make them stand out against the greyish sky and be distinctly visible from a distance.

Both in the Middle and New Ages, every settlement had its own cemetery with mysterious grave markers known as Krikštai. The tradition to erect such grave markers dates back to heathen times. Krikštai are profiled timber planks decorated with flowers, hearts, birds‘ or horses‘ head, human silhouettes.

Juodkrantė (Schwarzort) – the oldest settlement of the Spit in terms of its permanent location (it has been situated in the same place since late 17th century) – is surrounded by 3-kilometre long old woodlands and 40 to 53-metre high parabolic dunes called Lybio, Lapnugario, Ievos, Garnių, Avino hills...

In 1860 to 1888, a treasure trove was discovered on the bottom of the lagoon near Juodkrantė consisting of nearly 500 amber artefacts (amber figuring, pendants, brooches, amulets and other adornments), the majority of which are attributed to the 3rd millennium B.C.

Juodkrantė is a typical church village with the Curonian lagoon fishermen‘s architecture; it has preserved almost unaltered original planning and the early 20th century architecture.

At the beginning of the 20th century, buildings of professional architecture – light-houses, churches, schools, villas, hotels, etc. – started appearing in the settlements of the Spit. A real construction boom started in 1933 when those settlements were officially recognised as resots and recreation centres. The construction of new luxurious hotels and villas and enlargement of fishermen‘s houses caused transformation of the whole structure and the environment of the settlements.

One of the villa quarter buildings of Smiltynė is now housing the Curonian Spit National park Administration.

Artists were the first to notice the beauty of the landscape around Nida. Some of them used to stay with fishermen, while others gathered into the Nida Artists colony, and settled in the Gasthof Hermann Blode hotel established in 1867. Nida attracted artists and intellectuals from various parts of germany who used to gather in the G. H. Blode hotel for long evenings of discussion and enertainment. The visits of T. Mann, A. Mygel, G. Palucca, C. Zuckmayer, B. Minette, H. Ruhmann and other celebrities added Nida a myth-like quality.

In 1930, the famous German writer, winner of the Nobel Prize, Thomas Mann built himself a summer house on Uošvės Hill.

Today Nida is the largest settlement both of the Curonian Spit National Park and the municipality of Neringa, its major administrative, cultural recreational and service centre.

Views of the sea and the lagoon were a favourite theme of the world-famous expressionist painter Pranas Domšaitis from Lithuania Minor. Before the First World War, Pranas Domšaitis participated in the activity of Mažųjų Kuršių (Kleine Kuhren, now Filino) Artist group, and visited Nida in the period between 1914 and 1918. Though fate decreed that he would live in the distant lands of South Africa, Pranas, Domšaitis never forgot his native country, which served as inspiration for many of his paintings and affected their colouring and composition. In one letter about his ancestry, Pranas Domšaitis wrote „but Lithuanian blood does not decieve, just as my paintings are truly Lithuanian.“

The greatest disaster for Curonian Spit in the 20th century was the disintegration of the ethnic Curonian community. During the war and in the post-war period, the majority of the inhabitants of the Spit moved to Germany, others were evacuated to Russia. The loss of the indigenous society undermined the symbiosis that had formed between the landscape and the ethnic community in the course of history. The natural process of the creation of values and their preservation was interrupted.

Settlements of Neringa are unique in their relation with the surrounding nature. The limit between the two is very subtle and invisible, though, perceptible. It is important not to overstep this bound because with the loss of natural surrounding the Spit may lose its charm. The words of the academician Vytautas Gudelis „The uniqueness of the Curonian Spit obliges us all to better protect its nature and landscape and to prevent it from any encroachment upon its ecological inviolability, despite whoever and wherever desired that or intended to do that“, - are of great importance today.

In 1995 a stone obelisk was erected on the top of parnidis Dune. Its demolition in the top of Parnidis Dune. Its demolition in the autumn of 1996 by Hurricane Anatolijus was a repeated reminder that man is far from almighty in this part of the Earth.