Europas unbekannte Mitte: Litauen

„Kiel! What on earth are we doing in Kiel?“ My friend Thomas is astonished. „What does Kiel have to do with Lithuania, the Baltic states, and motorcycle trips?“ – „Well“, I reply, „for me Kiel is the gateway to the Baltic states, for each of our motorcycle trips to Lithuania and further east.“ Many years ago I chose this relaxed way of travelling by ferry as start. Instead of driving through Poland for days on country roads the 22-hour journey on the Baltic Sea is the ideal way to start a trip to Lithuania, the other two Baltic states or to Russia. Today we stand in Kiel’s harbour, together with other motorcyclists, waiting to board the  VICTORIA SEAWAYS. Finally we can get going, rolling along the ferry’s loading platform into the area where we can park our bikes. The first drivers want to fasten their bikes themselves but the members of the crew do this job and  secure the bikes professionally and safely. I’ll watch what they are doing: very well done, I have to admit. I’ve experienced that differently. With our hand luggage we go straight to the bar: before we go to our cabins we have our traditional „Stiefelbier“ (“boot beer”) – the first beer we drink while still in our riding gear, still in the boots. Cooling down, relaxing, talking, and chatting with our fellow cyclists, enjoying the journey. Our holidays have finally started. The 22-hour journey was marvelous. Without problems – due to Schengen – we can leave the ferry and enter Lithuania. We leave the port Tarptautine Juru Perkela and drive 15 km into the centre of Klaipeda. First we check into our hotel and then we paint the town red. In the evenings on summer weekends everybody is having a great time. Many young people are enjoying themselves in the centre of the former hanseatic town. You can hear music from all the pubs and old warehouses along the river Dange/Dane. Before we get going we have Saltibarsciai, a delicious local vegetable soup and Didzkukuliai, minced meat with potato dumplings, stuffed with curd / cottage cheese. So we can manage several glasses of Svyturys, the famous local beer, in the course of the evening. It is brewed here in Klaipeda, the former Memel, according to the German brewing tradition since 1784. Drinking grog is also very popular in one of the wineries in town.  Unfortunately, we have to do without as we plan to start early next morning. And we have to consider the legal limit of 0,4 per mille. So that evening we get into bed relatively sober and early.
We are heading South East, first to Vente in the direction of Windenburg, to a stretch of land in the „Kurisches Haff“ (Courland Spit). Next to the prominent lighthouse is an ornithological stop which was established 1929. Birds are caught in huge nets, examined, ringed, and then set free again. We cross the Nemunas delta, reach the Nemunas river which in Germany is known as Memel and follow it. At the border to the Königsberg region, time seems to stand still. On our way there are hardly any cars, every now and then we come across horse carriages, and we see lots of storks. When reaching the road to Tilsit/Sovjetsk the density of traffic is increasing. On our left hand side on small hills on sandy heath land we can see castles and manor houses through the tree tops. We are following this road of castles into the old Hanseatic-town of Kaunas. There are lots of churches in the old city of Kaunas, and of course many young people, who spend their evenings – also on an ordinary working day – in pubs around the centre and in the pedestrian areas. Kaunas offers two devilries to its visitors: one is the devils museum, in which you can see a great number of representations of the devil, mostly in humorous form. The second devilry is a really nasty, disgusting place: Fort IX. In this exhibition you get information about the place where Nazi-Germans and their Lithuanian helpers murdered about 80.000  people: Jews from the ghetto of Kaunas, deported prisoners from other countries as well as Russian prisoners of war.
On an island in Lake Galvé we visit Trakai, the only gothic moated castle completely surrounded by water in this part of Europe. Just a short ride and we reach Vilnius. We are impressed by the variety we find in Lithuania’s capital. The old part of the town, by now accepted as part of the world heritage, is a real jewel. The most wonderful ensemble in baroque style. Vilnius is historic and present-time at the same time. We go for a stroll through the narrow lanes, visit several small coffee bars. But my favorite place is the „Montmartre of Vilnius“. In 1997 artists and people, who deliberately opposed the spirit of the age and permanent consumption, created here the „Independent Republic Uzupis“ with its own constitution. It says that every man got the right to be misunderstood and to be unhappy – but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. At the headquarters of the board, in the pub Uzupio Kavine next to the Uzupio bridge, visitors can get a visa, stamped into their passports. The saint of Montmartre de Vilnius is Frank Zappa, even though he never visited Vilnius. Near to the republic, off the road, there is a monument on a small piece of green in front of a clinic. It is a delicate bust portrait on a metallic pillar. We are just leaving Vilnius on the A12, when we are stopped by the police. They are very friendly and want to see our papers and documents. But then: „You’ve got really nice bikes. I’ve got a bike too. Take care and don’t drive too quickly. Towards what you are looking for you have to turn next left.“ We follow the sign „Europos centras“ and after a short while we reach Europe’s geographical centre. Just a few steps away we get to an old erratic boulder where the coordinates are engraved: 25° 19′ Eastern longitude, 54° 54′ Northern latitude. Here is Europe’s geographical centre! In 1989 it was defined by the National Geographic Institute of France, defined and computer surveyed. It is the point of intersection of the axes North Cape – Crete and the Urals – Gibraltar. Close by you find a pompous pillar which has been erected later. I like the old boulder better. Moletai is surrounded by lakes. We have a cup of coffee in this charming small town. Let’s cool down – no need to hurry. We’ve got a lot of time.
A little further we pass the spa town of  Anyksciai, known as the „Weimar of Lithuania“ as many Lithuanian writers lived and worked here. We are crossing the hilly landscape of „Swiss Lithuania“. Some curves are coming up, smooth hills: that’s the country side we like when riding our bikes. We cross several smaller rivers and get via Panevezys to Siauliai. North of the town we nearly miss the unspectacular sign „Kryzius kalnas“. That is our next destination: „the mountain of the crosses“. Even though there are many tourist groups this „mountain“ is a very special, mystic place. A place of great spirituality, full of stories and legends.
We drive west through a somewhat unspectacular country side till we reach the coast and the popular spa town of Palanga. I am not so fond of spending my time on the beach. I’m much more interested in the amber museum.
It is located in a picturesque castle and here you find a remarkable collection of amber. Animals, insects and plants, enclosed in amber, conserved in resin have „survived“ like that till today. On our way to Klaipeda we pass the town of Nemirseta, which was – till 1919 – the northernmost point of the German Reich. Then we drive to Klaipeda to the little port where the ferries leave to cross the „Kurische Haff“ and to get to the „Nehrung“. The „Nehrung“ separates the „Kurische Haff“ from the Baltic Sea. It is a peninsular, 98 km long, and from 380 meters till 3,8 kilometers wide. The slightly bigger part belongs to Lithuania; the smaller one with the „Kaliningrad Oblast“ belongs to Russia. The local woods have been cut down for hundreds of years so that the „Nehrung“ consists of sand with huge shifting sand dunes, which have buried many villages and small towns in the course of time. The big shifting sand dune near the town of Nidden is the biggest in Europe. Since 2000 the peninsular belongs to UNESCO heritage sites and is a national park. We have to pay a fee and are allowed to enter the fishing and artist village of Nidden. Thomas Mann, the famous German writer had a cabin built here in 1930 which is a museum today. From this place you have a fantastic view across the „Kurische Haff“. After several stops we drive back to Klaipeda. Our last stroll through town, our last typical dinner. We don’t have too much time because at 10 pm we have to board the ferry to Kiel. Soon we will be back, definitely. But before we finally reach home our „Stiefelbier“ is waiting for us on board. On our way back with the DFDS ferry we have the chance to rethink our little adventures in the Baltic states and we are sure: we will definitely come back to Lithuania with its towns full of life, with the mystic destinations and the charming and deserted landscapes and all the unique places in these exciting countries. We will have to visit Latvia und Estonia. And we will have to follow – as the poet wrote – the call of the sky, the earth, the woods, the white birch-trees, the green moss and the encounters with the friendly people.

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