Nida: Lithuania’s cutest holiday town

nida lithuania's cutest holiday town

The end of summer is usually more bitter than sweet, and this is nowhere more the case than in a beach town emptying itself out for the season. In Nida, the last stop on the line along the Lithuanian coast before the Russian border, bitter and sweet were clashing like enemies in early September. The summer visitors were thinning out. The campsite south of town was almost empty. Some guesthouses had unoccupied rooms. And, most tragic of all, the outstanding In Vino, Nida’s summer outpost of a much-loved Vilnius restaurant, was in its final weekend of seasonal operation.

Nida is the cutest village on the Curonian Spit. I don’t know this for a fact, but I did ride a bus down the entirety of the Lithuanian side of the spit and I did spy each of the other main villages. If a quick drive-by can be counted on, then Nida is certainly the most beautiful of these towns. Nida has been a tourism draw since the middle of the nineteenth century. It knows that it’s cute and doesn’t need bright lights or obvious attractions to lure guests to its pristine streets. As if the sea, the sand dunes, and the pines weren’t enough, Nida’s houses even follow a distinctive stylistic pattern: a dark red paint job with white and blue window and roof trim (see below).

The Curonian Spit is a 60-mile stretch of land, bisected by the Lithuania-Russia border. Very thin at between a quarter-mile and two-and-a-half miles wide, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Blanketed with sand dunes and pine forests, the Curonian Spit is a beautiful, windswept place that deserves its reputation as one of the Baltic Sea’s most captivating corners.nida lithuania's cutest holiday town

The Baltic is not the Mediterranean, no matter how assiduously the chefs at In Vino seduce their patrons with ‘nduja and other delicious things from southern Europe. In other words, the Baltic’s water is invigoratingly cold. When you emerge from a dip in the Baltic during the summer, you feel less like you’ve come to the surface of a swimming pool and more as if you’re undergoing a homeopathic spa treatment for arthritis. Your body tingles and attempts to adjust to the shock of the water’s temperature. Nida’s beaches are undeniably lovely, with long wide stretches of pale, almost silver sand. They are separated from the Spit’s main highway by thick pine forests.

What is there to do in Nida, really? There’s the beach, the cute village itself, the Thomas Mann House (Mr. Mann liked it here enough to have a house built; this house is open June through mid-September), the sand dunes, and the border with Kaliningrad, that odd exclave of Russia bordered by Lithuania and Poland. Many visitors rent bicycles, though some of the best excursions, across sand, cannot be done on wheels.

Lots of holiday spots feel anonymous. If people return year in and year out to such places, surely it’s out of habit or collapsed imagination. Nida doesn’t feel anonymous. It feels like a perennial summer destination. With just a handful of recognizable activities, it’s a place that can bask in its physical beauty and simply wait for visitors to return every summer.

Nida’s quite affordable, too, with a visitor base that draws strongly from the domestic market. Several small guesthouses offer en-suite double rooms for around €45 per night. Few restaurant meals will exceed €20. There is also a very well-stocked Maxima supermarket in town for visitors who prefer to self-cater.

Travel then and now: Travel to the USSR and GDR

travel to the USSRThis year is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and 21 years since the reunification of Germany. While citizens of the USSR and GDR were unable to travel abroad and restricted in domestic travel, foreign travelers were permitted under a controlled environment. In the early nineties, if you were a foreigner looking to go abroad to the Eastern Europe or Central Asia, you called your travel agent and hoped to get approved for a visa and an escorted tour. After your trip, you’d brag about the passport stamps and complain about the food. Here’s a look back at travel as it was for foreigners twenty years ago and today visiting the biggies of the former Eastern Bloc: the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

Soviet Union/USSR (now: independent states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldovia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.)

Travel then: Before 1992, most tourists were only able to enter the Soviet Union with visas and travel itineraries provided by the state travel agency, Intourist. Intourist was founded by Joseph Stalin and also managed many of the USSR’s accommodations. Like North Korea today, visitors’ experiences were tightly controlled, peppered with propaganda, and anything but independent, with some travelers’ conversations and actions recorded and reported. Read this fascinating trip report from a Fodor’s community member who visited Russia in 1984 and a Chicago Tribune story with an Intourist guide after the glasnost policy was introduced.Travel now: UK travel agency Thomas Cook bought a majority stake in Intourist last year, gaining control of their tourist agencies, and many of the old Intourist hotels can still be booked, though standards may not be a huge improvement over the Soviet era. In general, the former Soviet Union now welcomes foreign and independant visitors with open arms. Even Stalinist Turkmenistan is softer on foreigners since the death of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006. Russia now receives as many visitors as the United Kingdom, the Baltic and Eastern European states are growing in popularity for nightlife and culture, and Central Asian states have a lot to offer adventurous travelers (including Azerbaijan’s contender for New 7 Wonders, the Mud Volcanoes). This year, Estonia’s Tallinn is one of the European Capitals of Culture. While a few FSU countries are now EU members, several still require advance visas, letters of invitation, or even guides; check the latest rules for Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan before you make plans.

German Democratic Republic/East Germany/DDR (now: unified state of Germany)

Travel then: After 40 years apart, East and West Germany were reunited in 1990. Like the USSR, travelers to the GDR had to deal with visas and an official state travel agency, the Reisebüro. Western tourists in West Germany could apply for day visas to “tour” the Eastern side but were very limited in gifts they could bring or aid they could provide (tipping was considered bourgeois and thus officially discouraged). Read this Spiegel article about the East German adventure travelers who snuck into the USSR to see how travel to inaccessable is often the most exciting, no matter where you are coming from.

Travel now: November 2009 marked the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Berlin is now consistently lauded as one of the world’s hippest and most vibrant cities. The city is full of museums, monuments, and memorials to document the time East Germany was walled off from the rest of the world, from the sobering Berlin Wall Memorial to the tongue-in-cheek DDR Hotel. Outside of Berlin, Leipzig’s Stasi Museum documents the gadgets and horrors of the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police. For more on life in the GDR, Michael Mirolla’s novel Berlin deals with cross-border Germany travel and the fall of the republic, and film Goodbye Lenin! is a bittersweet look at life just before and after the fall of the wall.

Gadling readers: have you traveled to the USSR or GDR? Have you been recently? Leave us your comments and experiences below.

[Photo credit: USSR flags and GDR ferry postcards from Flickr user sludgeulper, Berlin Wall by Meg Nesterov]

Schengen and the disappearance of European passport stamps

schengen passport
Creative new use for border crossing posts at German/Austrian border.

In the late 1980s, an American spending a summer traveling across Europe with a Eurailpass would see his or her passport stamped possibly dozens of times. With a few exceptions, every time a border was crossed, an immigration agent would pop his or her head into a train compartment, look at everyone’s passports, in most cases stamp them, and move on. Every Eastern Bloc country required visas, some of which could be obtained at the border and others of which had to be applied for in advance.

Today, an American can enter the Schengen zone in Helsinki, fly to Oslo and then on to Amsterdam, proceed by train through Belgium, France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, then by bus to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and then by ferry back to Helsinki before catching a flight to Athens and landing in Greece without once needing to submit a passport to a border guard’s scrutiny.

The development of the Schengen agreement across Europe has altered the geopolitical map of the continent in many ways. For tourists, the development of the Schengen zone has simplified travel by drastically reducing the number of times a passport can be checked and stamped as national borders are crossed.

The Schengen Agreement is named after the town of Schengen in Luxembourg. It was here in 1985 that five countries-Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany, and France-signed an agreement to essentially create borderless travel between them. A model for this agreement had been created years before by the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), which eliminated border controls back in 1948. The Nordic countries also did away with internal border posts, in 1958.

In 1995, the five original Schengen countries plus Portugal and Spain inaugurated the zone. In 1997, Austria and Italy joined. Greece followed in 2000 and the five Nordic countries joined in 2001. In late 2007, nine more countries joined the Schengen zone; most recently, Switzerland signed up in 2008.

schengen passport
Abandoned border crossing between Slovakia and Hungary.

Today, 22 European countries are part of Schengen. Every European Union country (save the UK, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus) belongs. Other members include EU holdouts Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland. The European microstates present a few complications. Monaco’s borders are administered by France, which makes the tiny principality a part of Schengen, while Liechtenstein’s accession, approved by the European Parliament in February, is pending. San Marino and the Vatican are de facto versus official members, while mountainous, landlocked Andorra remains outside of the zone altogether.

There are five EU countries not currently part of the Schengen zone. The UK and Ireland (as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) operate a Schengen-like agreement called the Common Travel Area. Neither country is obligated to join the zone.

Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, however, are all bound by treaty to eventually join. Romania has fulfilled all the criteria for joining Schengen and Bulgaria is close to fulfillment as well. These two countries will accede together, likely later this year. Cyprus presents a more complicated situation given the division of the island between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the largely unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north.

With the coming accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union, the Schengen zone will almost definitely continue to grow. Might it one day cover the entire landmass of Europe? Check back in two decades.

[Images: top image Flickr | Mike Knell; middle image Flickr | jczart]

Don’t piss off Ryanair: Disgruntled pilot transferred to Lithuania

RyanairThanks to OnlineTravelReview for this gem: A Ryanair pilot has quit after being transferred to Lithuania, allegedly in response to his remarks against CEO Michael O’Leary in the Financial Times newspaper.

Captain Morgan Fischer, a five year RyanAir pilot with more than 20 years of experience, is the first senior staff member to comment publicly against his employer. He wrote a letter in response to CEO O’Leary’s suggestion that a 737 aircraft only needs on pilot and a “trained flight attendant” to jump in in the case of emergency. Fischer, who is no longer with the company, is quoted in FT as saying:

“I would propose that Ryanair replace the CEO with a probationary cabin crew member currently earning approximately €13,200 net per annum,” Capt Fischer has written in a letter to the Financial Times, which reported Mr O’Leary’s comments last week.

“Ryanair would benefit by saving millions of euros in salary, benefits and stock options,” the captain said, and there would be no need for approval from the authorities.

Fischer, an American, was recently transfarred from his base in Marseilles, France to Kaunas, Lithuania after his based closed. Cooincidence? We’re not sure. But Fischer believes it’s more than just bad luck – other pilots were offered spots in Spain, France and Italy, he says. Fischer has since quit.

That will teach you not to argue publicly with your employer. Or not.

[Image via Flickr user Mielko]

Top travel destination countries? Canada is number one and Nigeria is. . .?

When asked the to respond to the statement, “I would like to go to visit this country if money were no object,” Canada ranked number one in a recent global survey conducted by Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brand Index.

Where was the U.S. in the mix of 50? Number 10. Harump!

Steve Stephens, the travel editor for the Columbus Dispatch offered up these tidbits last Sunday and provided the ranking for the other top five choices plus provided some reasons for the results.

From 2nd to 5th in that order:

  • Italy
  • Australia
  • Switzerland
  • France

What’s your guess for number 50? No, it’s not Nigeria.

Number 50 goes to Iran. The people who responded to the survey must not have read my post on how friendly people in Iran actually are or have seen the trailer for I RAN Iran or the video postcards film.

Nigeria is number 49 and lost a second to last place standing to Saudi Arabia.

Estonia was 47 and Lithuania was 46. Stephens begs to differ with these two small countries’ close to last place spots. Pointing out that both countries’ capitals have town sections listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, he vouches for their beauty and interest.

One theory for Estonia and Lithuania’s poor showing is that possibly people who took the survey knew nothing about them so skipped them altogether when checking off boxes for possible destinations.

I can vouch for Nigeria as a worthwhile destination if you can get parachuted in and airlifted out to avoid customs. Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful.

Why does Canada rank so highly? Its natural beauty for one thing.

If I could go anywhere in the world where money is no object, I’d probably pick Bolivia–or Peru. How about you?