Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Ups and Downs of the Curonian Split

One of the oddest geographical features in Europe is the Curonian Spit. If you look at a map of Europe it looks like a long piece of string connecting two parts of the coast of the Baltic Sea. It’s almost 100 km long but very narrow, only 400 meters wide at its narrowest and 3.8 km wide at its widest. It runs, pretty much from the coast north of Kaliningrad to (almost) Klaipeda where there is a narrow sea channel as it does not connect to the mainland. Today was the day I was going to travel almost its entire length, by bus, from Russia, north east, back to Lithuania.  

Kalinigrad to Klaipeda - hardly spitting distance

So, day 26 begun with me waking up, appropriately for a holiday around the 2018 Russia World Cup, in Russia. My biorhythms still seem to have echoes of Aussie time and so it’s usual that by 6:30 in the morning I wake up anyway. It’s always a good opportunity to write up the blog post from the day before, especially if I have no traveling to do that day.  My key goal was to find the bus station and make sure I didn’t miss my bus. If I could get a bit more site seeing in too, all the better.

The bus to Klaipeda from Kaliningrad is a daily one and it leaves at 4:30 pm. Presumably, it comes from Klaipeda early in the morning and then goes back again. So, the good news was there was no early start, but the bad news was I was going to miss three games, including the eagerly anticipated Germany v Sweden.

So, not much to report today. I had a nice breakfast at the hotel for 400 rubles. Plenty of fish in there, some egg, salami, cheese and a half decent coffee. Check out was simple. Just a nod and “Spasiba, Da svidanya” and I was off to face another grim, rainy day here.

The trolleybus fare was 25 rubles, as I’d overheard, and it took me a different route but to the same city center destination near the fan park. Sat next to me for most of the journey was this dear old babushka and the cutest little girl on her lap. I strained to try to listen in to the endless questions the little girl kept asking but I couldn’t really make anything out.

In my mind, I started imagining she was asking about Kaliningrad’s history.

“So, why do we live here, granny?”

“It was the right thing to do. Your grand-dad, when he was young, wanted us to move from the poor village we lived in near Stalingrad. We were given the chance to move, so of course we did.”

“Who lived here before we did?”

“The war was horrible, sweetie. Terrible things happened. It’s all in the past now.”

At one point the old lady turned to me to ask me if I wanted to get off the bus (I think.)

I shook my head but I did (with the help of Google Translate) say that I thought she was a very clever little girl.

The old lady’s face beamed and she nodded. “Very”. She gave her the warmest hug.

When she got off, she thanked me and said goodbye.

I got off the stop after her and followed some of the same trail I did last night, past Kaliningrad Cathedral.

I went past a massive war memorial where I bumped into another tourist taking selfies and photos. We chatted for few minutes.

“Where are you from?” He asked

“England originally but I live in Australia. And you? Japan?” He had an East Asian look and I presumed he was, like me a football tourist.

“No. China”

“Ah Engrand. I like. I fan. I Manchester United.” I smiled and told him I was a Forest fan.

“Ah… second division now”. He knew his stuff.

He told me I was the first English-speaking person he’d met since coming. I said many England fans were scared of Russia.

“Everyone scared of Russia” he replied.

Rainy day for Kaliningrad Site-seeing

War Memorial

Anyway, after taking some pictures of him in front of an impressive monument to a ship, I decided I needed to make my way to the bus station to make sure everything was OK. I didn’t want any last minute scares, not here.

The plaque by the ship monunent

Thanks again to Google maps, it was easy to plot a course along what seemed like a busy main road along to a famous site called “Brandenburg Gate”. It’s not quite as impressive as the one in Berlin but it is one of the few lasting legacies to the hundreds of years that the city was part of Prussia. Not for from that site is the street on which the bus station was on. Good plan.

My walk through Kaliningrad to the bus station

 Anyway, eventually I got to the Brandenburg Gate and it was a lovely, if a little sad-looking site, surrounded by towering Soviet-style apartment blocks. Bizarrely, part of it was now used for a marzipan museum. Now I love marzipan but I wasn’t quite in the mood.

I went through the gate and turned left on to the road the bus station was on but didn’t find what I’d expected. My silly fault. It was just a bus stop, not a station, that was marked on Google maps. Never mind, the bus station was just a little further on down the road, past a statue of Kalinin and a MacDonalds. Hey, another one, I thought, close to the bus station. I could spend a couple of hours there. Too blady easy!

Pretty Brandenburg Gate

Anyway, as I got closer, of course, I realised I was just coming back to the train station I’d arrived at yesterday, logically, positioned right next to the bus station and, of course, the maccers I went to right at the beginning of my stay.

I entered the bus station, having gone through heavy security, like at an airport, just to go and ask if I was in the right place for the bus and to ask which platform it left from. The girl behind the counter was very friendly and told me it would leave from platform one and I should come back half an hour before the bus leaves at 4:30 pm.

Bus station

Klaipeda wasn't on the departures list - but no problem

So I went back to maccers, where my Kaliningrad experience began, and ordered a big mac and a large Coke Zero. It was chucking it down outside and, frankly, I didn’t fancy traipsing around doing more sight-seeing carrying my bag on my back in the rain. I did a couple of hours of that already and my feet were aching and a bit damp. So, sitting in the dry at a table with an opportunity to type up the stuff I had done so far that day before I forgot the details was most welcome. As I frantically typed away I was surrounded by what I assume of three generations of Kaliningraders. A young boy is eating his chips and nuggets as enthusiastically as any boy anywhere. His attractive mother is talking to her mum (presumably) and here I am, a fly on the wall. I wonder what they’re saying.

A few minutes ago a group of young men, Serbians, a little drunk and noisy, just left the restaurant and the boy must have asked “who are they” because his mum answered “Serbians”

See, if it wasn’t for football, I wouldn’t have understood a single word.

Michael (the boy, we were on first name terms by the end) liked football but what he was good at was singing. He’d just been picked up from the station after a trip to Karelia where he performed in a local boys choir. His mum proudly played the recording on her mobile after I plugged in with my earphones. Very sweet.

Michael gave me a badge from his concert in Karelia
 Anyway, the thing that was going through my mind, at this point, was how children are loved everywhere and Sting’s song about Russians came to mind as I walked back to the bus station with the rain threatening to come back.

After a few unnecessarily anxious moments worrying about the Klaipeda bus not being listed on the departures screen I found some other guys who’d been to the football who were doing the same trip. Sure enough at 4:20 pm the bus arrived and we all got on. At 4:30 on the dot the bus set off into the now not so bad Kaliningrad traffic.

Platform 1 waiting for the Klaipeda bus

I had already missed Belgium's impressive 5-2 win against Tunisia. Kind of makes England's 2-1 last gasp win look a but pathetic. I could feel my willy shrink as I heard the score.

Soon we were leaving the city and driving through countryside. I checked on my GPS – yes, heading north, towards the Baltic Sea. Next to me was sat a dear old Russian lady but she did seem to want to try to have a conversation.

Heading to the Spit

At a small town on the coast called Zelenogradsk. The bus stopped to pick up and drop off one or two passengers. The lady prodded me and said something about bread or food and asked me if I wanted some.

Not really understanding and not really feeling that hungry after my big mac, I kind of shrugged.

She got off anyway and came back 5 minutes later with a kind of warm croissant filled with some potato savoury stuff in a bag. She gave it to me and refused any money for it.

“You are our guest” she said twice, and went to the front of the bus where her husband was now sat alone as someone had got off the bus who was next to him.

I must say it was delicious. 

Last stop at a Russian town before the Curonian Spit - Zelenogradsk

Russian lady kindly got off to buy me a delicious snack. "You are our guest." - Спасибо!
 As we motored along I had chance to simply relax and catch up on some of the many podcasts that had been accumulating at every WiFi stop.

Only 61 podcasts to listen to. Love Tim Harford and "More or Less"
Aah... the BBC

After that we were off and headed out onto the actual Curonian Spit. It’s a very strange structure, 98  kilometres long, kind of like a piece of string connecting Klaipeda to Kaliningrad. One the inside is a long fresh water lagoon called the Curonian sea. On the outside is the Baltic Sea. Where the two meet, near Klaipeda, the sea gets saltier, obviously.

Narrowest point of the spit
However, as you drive along you’d never know that because you’re surrounded by quite dense forest. I remember having the same experience when I drove here with my daughter Zemyna in 2008.

In the whole journey this was the only glimpse I got of the fact we were surrounded by water on both sides...

Endless forest flashing by on both sides

We were making very good progress and the thought occurred to me that maybe I might be able to watch the Germany game after all. Once we'd crossed the border to Lithuania, surely there'd be other transport to Klaipeda so if I could get off somewhere I would be able to find a bar and watch it there.

As I'm a bit of geography enthusiast I love to track my position as we went along the spit towards the Russian border. When I came with Zemyna in 2008 I drove to it from the Lithuanian side, just to have a look.

Almost at the border
Soon we were at the border and my first impression, as a cheerful Russian border guard came aboard and checked out passports, was that this was too easy.

Yes. Much too easy.

It seemed to teach me a lesson for my complacency, as we then all had to get off the bus and take our bags with us. The bags had to be scanned and then we had to go through the border guard interrogation routine. It was a bit intimidating but the staff were all very friendly, smiling and pleasant.

“Did you like Kaliningrad?”

“Very nice”

“Why you go to Georgia and Armenia?”

“I am a tourist”

“Why you stay so little in Russia?”

“I am going to St Petersburg”

Whilst waiting I struck up a conversation with my fellow football fan travelers.

There was a Frenchman, a Brazilian and and Englishman (with a Lithuanian dad, German-Romanian mum, who lives in Australia.) There were other Lithuanians too.

"Of course, everyone says England have a chance. But they have been promising that for years" said the cool, bearded Brazilian.

The Frenchman smiled and looked at me.

"Well you never know. One day. England always seem to get the bad luck. The Hand of God, et cetera." I pleaded.

The Frenchman was wearing a T-shirt with a big mug shot of Diego Maradona on the front and a big picture of a hand on the back under the slogan "In (the hand of) God, We Trust."

I am a bit remiss that I forgot to get a photo of him and me with this. Come on, Bongo! Get yer act together!

Anyway, I must say I often find it quite uncomfortable talking to football "experts", especially international ones. In the end I just resort to nerdy stats. Brazil, Germany and Italy - 7 World Cups, the rest of the World 6. I just want that to get a bit more balanced. The Lithuanian fans, in particular, seemed strangely surprised why I would want that.

"But the best will always win."

As if there is something genetically or culturally programmed into those three nations making them "better". Pah! Rubbish. Football is 50% luck anyway.

Anyway, soon we were back on the bus. 100 meters down the track, we were all off again and doing the same routine at the Lithuanian side of the border. Same thing. But no questions and no smile this time.

By now we'd heard that Mexico had beaten South Korea 2-1. So there was about 45 minutes before the kick off of the German v Sweden game.

I asked one of the Lithuanians who spoke good English, and who'd been on this bus journey before, whether we'd stop at Nida, thinking I might get off.

"No" we are straight through to Klaipeda now." He confidently replied.

Oh, well. So much for that idea.

But wait. The bus turned right at the Nida junction just after the Russia border.

"So we are going to Nida. Could I get off? I want to watch the match." 

"No, we are just going this way for a quick look." He parped.


The bus did stop and I did quickly got off with a bunch of others.

Another Lithuanian, with his son, got off with me who had overheard the BS artist.

"You can watch the game in one of these bars here. There is a Jonines concert there, and you can get a shared taxi ride to Klaipeda here" smiling knowingly, as he pointed to a taxi rank with a big bus parked waiting for a few more passengers.


The Jonines concert, always around misdummers day, is an event rich in folklore. There were hundreds (well scores, at least) of Lithuanians in national costumes. I'd get to see some traditional folk singing and dancing after all!

I quickly went down to the shore to take a look at the beautiful Curonian Lagoon and then turned back to find a bar to watch the one match I was keen not to miss.

How good was this? 

The first Kavine had no TV but the second did. It was almost full but there was a single table positioned right in front of the tely just waiting for me. I asked for a menu and, there it was, at last...


I ordered an unfiltered beer and got ready for the match to start.


Sometimes on these journeys, things go wrong, but sometimes they go very very well.

Lucky stop

Beautiful Curonian lagoon

Nida - last Lithuanian town before the Russian border and the widest part of the spit

Folk ensemble getting ready for the concert

Lauzas ready to be ignited

Balandeliai were delicious

Germany started like a team of tigers and could have been 2-0 up in the first few minutes, Sweden did create a couple of chances though to maintain the belief that they had a chance.

Then after half an hour, the unthinkable happened and Sweden took the lead...

(I think he said "scheisse!")

For the rest of the half and the interval before the second, so for about half an hour, the thought started to cross my mind that this could be just one of those days that literally everything goes right.

But then Germany came back in the second half stronger than ever and got a deserved equaliser.

Here we go. So much for that idea.

But wait. Sweden continued to thwart Germany's attacks. Even when they hit the post and the rebound came back, Germany failed to score. Then Boetang was given a second yellow card and so sent off.

With Germany down to ten men, perhaps this was a step too far for even them.

The clock was ticking down. Five minutes of injury time was almost up. I started calculating. If Sweden and Mexico got a draw then Germany couldn't qualify. This could be it. They could be out.

But then Germany won a free kick on the left of goal. Toni Kroos stepped up and blasted it into the far corner beyond the Swedish goalkeeper who seemed to be out of position for the shot, perhaps expecting a cross.

Damn! Now Germany are back in the driving seat in the group. A win against South Korea (surely a formality) would certainly put them through, maybe even as group winners.

If that was a bit of a downer, I'd soon be up again as I walked over to the Jonines concert. I couldn't have timed it, or positioned myself, better.

Almost as soon as I got there a dance group performed the lighting of the fire dance. Wow! How brilliant that was. I even joined in with the communal dancing for a bit although it didn't feel right with my back pack on my back.

I milled around and took in the concert atmosphere for another half an hour or so but started thinking it was getting late and Klaipeda was still a long way away. I decided to leave Nida and try and catch a lift.

Unfortunately, nobody else seemed to be doing the same thing. Everyone there seemed to be staying in Nida. To take me to Klaipeda would cost me 65 Euros, the driver said. But he could take me to the nearer car ferry port for 50.

"Ok" I squeaked.

The bus fare from Kaliningrad to Klaipeda was just 11 Euro so I figured if I ended up paying 61 but had a fantastic stop off in Nida for the price, that was still good value.

So off we went. The driver (who's name I forgot) was interested in me and my background and we exchanged stories about Lithuania and travels. He was staggered that the British had voted to leave the EU. He was proud to tell me that in a recent survey of EU members, Lithuanians were the most 'Pro' whereas Greece were the least and the UK second least.

Taxi Ride

Anyway, he got me to the ferry just in time to catch the 12:30 crossing. The next one would have been in an hour. The crossing took all of 5-10 minutes. I was the only pedestrian but there were three cyclists and about a dozen cars. At the other end there was no-one there collecting money so I got a free crossing. 

Ferry crossing to Klaipeda

What I hadn't realised was that the car ferry port in Klaipeda is a fair way from the city center so I had a fun walk at 12:45 for about twenty minutes going to my hotel.

My hotel?

What was that? Oops. In all the excitement of the Nida stop I'd forgotten to use the Wifi in Nida to check the address etc.'s app usually loads the next one for you automatically but it wasn't showing anything for Klaipeda. The battery level on my mobile was approaching 25% too. This wasn't good.

A bit a challenge here then.

I found a petrol station and guessed, correctly, they'd have WiFi so I leaned against the wall and checked again. No. No hotel in Klaipeda. E-Mails? No. This was bizarre I was sure I'd booked somewhere. I got my lap top out and checked my "master" spreadsheet.

Yes. There it was. I memorised the name and the address and set off to complete the walk - about another 1.5 km.

When I got to Klaipeda town center it was still buzzing with revellers out partying - as this was Saturday night.

The Wifi speed wasn't strong enough to download a detailed map of Klaipeda but it did give me a general location for it in the city near the river. So it was a bit like a game of battleships trying to locate the street it was on with no streets marked on the map.

I bumped into some young dudes who were having a big night out. They were so helpful and literally walked me to the hotel.

At last.

But, my problems hadn't ended yet. I pressed the bell. No answer. I knocked on the door. No answer. I peered through the window. There was a TV on and a desk with nobody sat at it. I knocked, loudly, on the window. No answer.


So, I decided to try to find a hotel that was open and stay there.

Luckily there was one just around the corner. A wedding reception was rocking away so they were all up and ready for me.

What a relief!

My walk from the Ferry port last night

The Curonian spit is almost perfectly flat, which makes it a great place for cycle riding but for me, the emotional roller coaster of going along its length included some great heights and a few troughs too.

No sign of life at my hotel

What a journey

What a day!

(I'll do a World Cup summary tomorrow.)

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