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Published: September 1st 2022
There’s a very distinct German flavor to this port city, Lithuania’s third largest (formerly known as Memel), which was part of the old Prussian Kingdom until it achieved autonomy in 1923. Located in the northwestern part of the country and 193 miles from the capital Vilnius, Klaipeda has a population of around 150,000. It is Lithuania’s only port on the Baltic, and its heart is beating steadily together with the sea. The locals proudly proclaim this affinity with annual summer Sea festivals, biennial Tall Ships regattas, a Sea Museum, a Sea Faculty in the local university, numerous beaches, and major stevedoring companies. What was your first clue these locals worship water? A Little Bit of History: a settlement of Baltic tribes (ancestors of modern Lithuanians) along the estuary of the Dane River, is believed to have existed since the 1st century. In 1252, The Livonian Order of Teutonic Knights built a fortress now known as Klaipeda Castle.
The city is comprised of two main sections: Old and New Towns. As can be expected, Old Town is definitely the most attractive and interesting, whereas New Town bears the scars of WWII and Soviet Occupation, side by side with modern
glass and concrete structures. Buildings in the compact cobblestoned Old Town are constructed in the German style - that is the distinctive half-timbered facades. Beyond the orderly historic center, New Town sprawls into an industrial forest of cranes and shipyards, both sections sliced in two by the Dane River as it meanders into the Baltic Sea.
Old Town is simply a delight to wander…. strolling on the straight narrow streets is an experience of stepping back in time. This neighborhood is notable among other Lithuanian cities for its abundance of German and Scandinavian architecture. One of the most popular places here is The Theatre Square, which hosts a variety of concerts, the Sea Festival, International Jazz Festival, and many others. Look for the Taravos Anike sculpture depicting a youthful barefoot girl. This was erected in the memory of the poet Simonas Dachas and perpetuates one of the poet’s described heroes.
Pay attention to the numerous tiny side streets in Old Town. Many are adorned by numerous small playful statues built in 2006. Among these is a bag of money, a canine “Guardian of Old Town”, a small mouse that supposedly makes wishes come true, and a dragon climbing
up a wall. Don’t forget to wave to the Chimney Sweep sitting atop one of the buildings. They revitalize Klaipeda’s urban landscape and remind visitors of some aspects of the city’s past and folklore. You never know what you will encounter in a back alley - I should know - I’ve been down dozens around the world! Under Soviet rule, all the imposing Old Town churches were torn down, and many were replaced by new plain ugly concrete structures. In the former Castle moat, prestigious yachts are moored today. These small ships exit to the Dane River by passing through a 19th
century manually powered pedestrian swing bridge. Each hour is broken down into a 15-minute slot for passing ships and the remaining 45 minutes for pedestrian traffic - don’t be surprised at the iconic sight of two dockworkers pushing the bridge into place. Two Fun Facts: Klaipeda is the northernmost ice-free port on the eastern Baltic Sea coast. The official language is Lithuanian, but many citizens are muti-lingual with English, German and Russian being the most prominent. Lithuania is ranked among five EU countries with the highest percentage of people speaking at least two foreign languages.
Baltic Sea coast has been a source for the amber trade since prehistoric times. Neolithic artifacts made of amber were discovered in nearby Juodkrante during the 19th
century, but unfortunately these disappeared during the 20th
century. Located 18 miles from Klaipeda, Palanga is the home of “Baltic Gold” - Amber
. Here the famous Queen Amber Museum is housed within the restored 19th
century Tiskevicial Palace and is surrounded by the Palanga Botanical Gardens. In 1897 a member of an old Lithuanian noble family built the Neo-Renaissance style palace. This magnificent building fell into disrepair during the two World Wars, but was restored in 1957, and it reopened in 1963 as an amber museum with a small collection of about 480 pieces.
Amber workshops appeared in Palanga during the 17th
century and by the 18th
century, the town was the center of the Russian Empire’s amber industry. In the years leading up to WWI, about 2,000 pieces of raw amber were processed in this city annually. Currently the museum’s collection comprises about 28,000 pieces, of which 15,000 contain inclusions of insects, spiders, or plants. Generally, about 4,500 pieces of amber are on exhibit at any one time. Exhibition areas open
to the public include 15 rooms; a chapel connected to the palace houses temporary displays. The museum is thematically divided into the scientific and cultural/artistic aspects of amber.
This museum holds Europe’s 3rd
largest amber specimen, known as the “Amber Sun” or “Sun Stone”, weighing in at 7.77lbs. This unique piece has been stolen twice so far! Amber from various other parts of the world is also part of this marvelous collection. Other cultural and artistic exhibits include a 15th
century ring, a 16th
century cross, and amber jewelry from the past 4 centuries. The missing artifacts I mentioned earlier, have been reconstructed by archeologists.
Despite Lithuania being the first Baltic nation to secede from the Soviet Union and declare independence, the city has retained an item for historical purposes, and it is now a popular tourist destination. Located in Zemaitija National Park, with lush green forests and deep clear lakes, this beautiful nature reserve is the perfect place to hike or kayak, but it hides a dark secret. Buried in this beauty is a former Soviet Nuclear Weapons Base, constructed by soldiers, secretly in the 1960s. The site originally housed 4 silos which contained the R-12 surface-to-surface
missiles. Those missiles were targeted at the largest European cities, and the site was used to launch the missiles for the Cuban Missile Crisis. The site was closed in 1979. Recently reopened to the public, now you can see its corridors, the main operations room, engine room, and tunnels, including the 100’ deep silos - an eerily poignant reminder of the Cold War. An Interesting Fact: immediately upon seizing independence from the USSR, the Soviet symbols depicting a hammer and sickle were removed from all Lithuanian flags. Today’s flag is yellow, green and red. Yellow for the sun; green for the land; and the red represents the blood of its people.
For those visitors arriving via cruise ship, its an easy walk of about 10 minutes into the city center. The local currency is the Euro and English is widely spoken. Taxis are available both at the pier and throughout the city, with the majority of taxi drivers speaking at least some English. Cash is always king anywhere, but credit cards are accepted by most.
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