ONBOARD WIND SURF- Today’s visit to Klaipeda marks a couple of firsts: it’s the initial visit to Lithuania for both Melinda (Mel) and me, and it celebrates my 149th country visited. The real milestone for me (150) comes
on Sunday, however, when we tie up in Tallinn, Estonia. No minor accomplishment, I suppose, in view of the fact there are 195 countries in the world as currently recognized by the United Nations. I’m getting up there in years so I’ll never see them all, but each new country I visit still excites me and spurs my curiosity.
So we were both excited and curious as we set out this morning on a rather unusual optional excursion, The Legends of the Hill of Witches. We boarded a coach, which in turn boarded a ferry for a short trip from Klaipeda across a lagoon to the Curonian Peninsula, also known as the Curonian Spit. It’s a slender 60-mile-long stretch of mostly sand dunes that has the distinction of being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There’s more to the UNESCO designation than unique geography and pretty scenery. There’s an important cultural consideration as well, and that’s what this excursion was all about.
We motored for about 45 minutes along the scrubby peninsula that in places has enough forest to shelter a herd of moose. Our sprightly young guide Kara told us the creatures sometimes venture onto the highway where they cause accidents. Fortunately we never encountered one although it would have made for an extraordinary story had we bashed into a Lithuanian moose!
Continuing south along the spit, we arrived at the fishing village of Juodkrante, where our guided walk up the Hill of Witches began. We were still pretty much in the dark as to what we would see as we marched up a path into the woods. Soon the sculptures appeared. Lining the path up and down the hill were totem-like figures, more than 80 of them in total, and many of them larger than life-size, artistically carved by native craftsmen from oak, representing witches, devils and fairy tale characters from Lithuanian mythology. The three-year project was begun in 1979 as a way of preserving the country’s culture and folklore during the Soviet occupation.
Kara enthusiastically related the story behind most of them, although it was difficult for me to follow the commentary and make photos at the same time, but it was a mystical and somewhat spiritual happening nonetheless. Many of the figures are strikingly expressive: a dragon, fierce and threatening; a fisherman, smiling and confident; the forester, strong and intent; a witch, crafty and beguiling, and the sneaky poacher, appearing frightened at being discovered.
Later, we visited a nearby amber museum/art gallery and a pretty little 1888 German Protestant church here the pastor noted that his church had been shuttered by the Soviets who used it to store farm equipment.
Our visit to the Hill of Witches was an experience like none we’ve ever encountered. But isn’t that the marvel of travel?
August 26, 2016
Photos by Dave Houser