Saturday, July 31, 2010

Short And Wide, Long And Narrow

From Ventspils I continued south through Courland passing the towns of Kuldiga and Liepaja on my way to Klaipeda in Lithuania. The former is a rather unremarkable, little provincial town were it not for its rumba. No, it is not the Baltic capital of raunchy Latin dancing - rumba is the Latvian word for waterfall. With a maximum height of only 2m it may not be particularly high - even for a country as topographically challenged as Latvia, but what it lacks in height it makes up for in girth, claiming the title of Europe's widest waterfall at 250m (and I have it from several reliable sources that girth, apparently, is everything). Kuldiga was also home to Jakob Kettler, duke of Courland, who in the 17th century not only managed to maintain the region's autonomy between the rival forces of Sweden, Russia and Prussia, but also got in on the colonial boom of the time, acquiring the island of Tobago in the Caribbean and and island at the mouth of the Gambia, making Courland probably the smallest colonial state ever. Liepaja, on the other hand, was strategically important for the Russians (both Tsarist and Soviet) who built a huge naval base, called Karosta, there. In Soviet times particularly the town almost doubled in size and yet, paradoxically, became a closed town, with non-residents requiring permits to visit family there. Today the naval base and its residential areas are a virtual ghost town, with half the buildings abandoned, empty, stripped, and returning slowly to the earth. To get an idea of what the world would look like after the Apocalypse Karosta does a pretty good job.

One of the many Tsarist barracks buildings left abandoned and boarded up in Karosta. Notice the trees growing through the roof.

From Liepaja it is a short jaunt across the border - there being no border controls anymore as the three Baltic countries joined the Schengen Area in 2007 - to the town of Klaipeda. For most of its history Klaipeda has been called Memel and had a German majority. Actually that has been one of the things that has surprised me the most during my Baltic travels: that for most of its history the region was under the influence of German rulers and trading elites. From about 1200 until World War II the Hansa, the Teutonic Order and Prussia have been dominant forces; and even when Imperial Russia took over most merchants and tradespeople were still German, whilst the peasants were local and tied to the land as serfs. Anyway, very little remains in Klaipeda from its pre-war days, especially Germans (except those of the tourist variety), but the town is also the gateway to the Curonian Spit.

The spit is some 100km long, yet only 2km wide, and is evenly divided between Lithuania and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Being so long and with water on both sides means that beach potential is maximised and the place is a magnet for tourists. However the place is also a national park with a fair chunk of forest and wildlife trying to hide from the people roaring through on their bicycles. This whole stretch of Baltic coastline is also famous for its amber, which is often found washed up on the beach, especially after a heavy storm. I, unfortunately, did not strike it rich (for that matter I didn't even strike it poor and found nothing at all), and will have to look elsewhere to make my big bucks. And although I didn't see any big animals either (there are supposedly elk and boar on the spit) I did encounter many smaller ones, so a piece of advice for those wishing to camp there - despite the fact that technically you are not allowed - tuck your trouser-legs into your socks and your T-shirt into your trousers and be very quick pitching your tent, as you will get closely acquainted with the local ant population that inhabit every square inch of land and are particularly inquisitive.

P.S. I have come to learn that I am not the only absent-minded traveller out there. A friend of mine, who is currently travelling through Estonia, also had his bank card swallowed by an ATM in Tallinn. So for those of you planning to visit Estonia, you have been warned...

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