Yesterday was all about biking the Curonian Spit. Of course, that begs the question, “What’s a spit?” Well, apparently it’s a narrow land formation connected to the coast at one end and sticking out into the sea. This one lies a short ferry ride from Klaipėda, Lithuania. When I started to understand what a “spit” is, though, I saw that Park Point in Duluth is a spit, and thought to be the largest freshwater spit in the world. OK, now I know what they are!
The bike ride didn’t go quite as planned. We rented bikes on the mainland, took a ferry boat across the Curonian Lagoon, and headed off. About 10 minutes after starting, I heard that sound that bicyclists hate … “Psssttt…” and in seconds my front tire was flat as a pancake. Not to fear, though, the bike rental place had provided a tire repair kit, a new tube, and a pump. OK, I’ve fixed a lot of flat tires in my day, so I can handle this.
(True story: While I’ve fixed a lot of flat tires, the one ride I didn’t get a flat on was when I rode from New York to California. Yup, I rode 3,800 miles without a single flat. It was bizarre.)
Except the pump just absolutely didn’t work. I tried various things, and nada. Nothing to do except to walk back to the ferry – it takes about an hour to walk as far as you can bike in 10 minutes – catch the ferry, go back to the rental place, replace the tube, get a new pump, and start all over again. Two and a half hours later I was back on my bike.
I met up with Mark about 22 kilometers from the ferry terminal in Juodkranz for lunch, and then we rode back. Notwithstanding the kerfuffle with the flat tire and failed pump, it was spectacular, fully worthy of the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation it has. Not much to say except pretty much a perfect bike path.
Amusingly, the Curonian Spit is described in Wikipedia as a common destination for Lithuanian and German vacationers. Mark didn’t need Wikipedia to tell him that, though. As he was sitting in a little town waiting for me to catch up after my flat tire fiasco, he heard a bunch of commotion. Sirens. A motorcade – and there was German President Gauck, again. We saw him arrive in Riga for a state visit there, and saw online when we got back that he was in Lithuania now. We didn’t expect to run into President Gauck not once, but twice.
With that, we took off this morning by bus for Kaunas, a city in south-central Lithuania en route to Vilnius. While checking out the area on a map I realized how close we are going to be to the Belarusian border. Visas aren’t easy to get, but we may just decide to go to the embassy in Vilnius and see if we can get in for a few days. Stay tuned! (Mikalai – any suggestions?!?)
Finally, one last note before leaving Klaipėda. This picture is the spot in Klaipeda where one Adolf Hitler stood to declare the annexation of Lithuania into Germany. It turns out that’s not quite as awful as it sounds at first blush. The area, you see, was long part of Germany, and in fact at one point it was the temporary capital of Prussia. To me it’s so obvious that this is Lithuania, but over many centuries it was fought over by a bunch of armies. Should we consider these borders now fixed? Is the era of countries fighting over borders and taking cities away over? I’ll admit – I’m not an optimist.
Interestingly, that tiny history of Lithuania – is it Russian? German? Something else? – helps explain another oddity about the Curonian Split. While the northern part, the section we biked, is in Lithuania, the southern section is in Russia. You see, there’s a small part of Russia called Kaliningrad south of Lithuania, not connected to the rest of Russia. How did that become and/or stay part of Russia when other areas swallowed up by the Soviet Union became independent in the early 1990s?
Well, there’s an answer. Kaliningrad was long an important part of Prussia, which became Germany of course. Russia had long lusted after the relatively warm water port there, which stayed ice-free most years. So after World War II they took just it; most German residents escaped to Germany and a bunch of Russians moved in. To a large degree, then, the people who live there now never had a separate national identity like the Latvians and Estonians and Lithuanians did; they were transplanted Russians living in part of what had been part of Germany, and they wanted to stay Russian. That’s why there’s an oblast (essentially a province) that’s separated from the rest of Russia.