Formed over 5000 years ago, the Courland Isthmus is a marvel of geology, a 70 mile long Sahara that’s never more than a mile and a half wide, separating the Baltic Sea from the Courland lagoon. The isthmus is broken in the North by the Memel straits, the outlet for the tributaries of the Neman river delta. This magical place, also known as the Neringa peninsular, was listed as one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites in the year 2000. The peninsular is fascinatingly flat, yet its Parnidis sand dune is the second highest in Europe after Pyla in France.
The southern part of the peninsular still belongs to Russia and has the oblast name of Kaliningrad. The entire isthmus, which has remained intact throughout the century, is now protected by two national parks, one Lithuanian and one Russian. During the times of the Soviet occupation the whole isthmus was closed to foreigners and could only receive the holidaying ‘Nomenklatura.’
Whether or not it was intentional these protection measures have ensured that hundreds of species of vertebrates have chosen the peninsular as their home. There are migratory and non-migratory birds (herons, gulls) and mammals (including foxes, pine martens, stoats, wild boars and even lynxes.) The forests consist mainly of pines; however you will also find spruce, birch, alder and oak trees. In the spring there is an explosion of nature with rampant lichens, flowers and mushrooms that Lithuanians love almost to the extent of worshipping.
You can put your suitcases down in the little seaside resort of Nida which is highly regarded by both Germans and Lithuanians. The immense white sandy beach (which has the environmental blue flag status) of this old fishing village will delight lovers of wild, open spaces. You can also practice every kind of sail sport here. The German novelist Thomas Mann came to holiday in this resort with his family for two consecutive years and stayed in a house which has since become a cultural centre named after him. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir also stayed at Nida during the summer of 1965.
As well as walking, cycling remains one of the best ways to enjoy the Courland isthmus. Winding in and out of the pine covered dunes, old wooden houses and abandoned German cemeteries, a cycling path takes you from Nida to Juodkrante, passing through the villages of Preila and Pervalka.
With a bit of luck you might even find a precious piece of amber. The sea has been washing it up onto the shores of the isthmus for thousands of years.