The low-lying, marsh-dotted eastern side of the Curonian Lagoon (Kursių marios) could be the end of the world. Tourism has scarcely touched this remote rural and isolated landscape where summer skies offer magnificent views of the spit’s white dunes across the lagoon. In winter ice-fishers sit on the frozen lagoon – up to 12km wide in places – waiting for a smelt to bite.
The gateway into the extraordinary Nemunas Delta (Nemuno Delta), where the Nemunas River ends its 937km journey from its source in neighbouring Belarus, is Šilutė (population 21,000), a sleepy town an hours’ drive south of Klaipėda. The cluster of islands forms a savage but beautiful landscape protected since 1992 by the Nemunas Delta Regional Park (Nemuno Deltos Regioninis Parkas; www.nemuno delta.lt). One-fifth of the park is water – which freezes most winters, exposing hardy residents to extreme weather conditions. Rusnė Island, the largest island, covers 48 sq km and increases in size by 15cm to 20cm a year.
Boat is the main form of transport; villagers travel in and out of the park by an amphibious tractor from March to mid-May, when merciless spring floods plunge about 5% of the park under water. In 1994 floodwaters rose to 1.5m in places, although 40cm to 70cm is the norm.
From Nida there are seasonal boats across the lagoon to the delta settlement of Mingė (also called Minija after the river that forms the main ‘street’ through the village). No more than 100 people live in Mingė – dubbed the ‘Venice of Lithuania’ – and only a handful of people still speak Lietuvinkai, an ethnic dialect of Lithuanian distinct to the delta. The 19th-century riverside houses are made of wood with reed roofs and are protected architectural monuments.
A good way to explore this area is by bicycle; from Mingė a cycling track runs around Lake Krokų Lanka, the largest lake in the park at 4km long and 3.3km wide.