Travels in Lithuania—The City to the Sea

Labas! This is how Lithuanians greet each other as I’ve learned since arriving in the capital, Vilnius, on July 15. I’m here to attend a two-week writing program sponsored by Summer Literary Seminars, an organization I know well; I attended its month-long program in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2004 and spent two weeks with SLS in Kenya in 2005. Third time’s the charm, I thought, when I started planning this break back in January.

I’m so happy that I did. Vilnius is a fascinating city. The old town is one of Europe’s baroque gems and because our classes are located in its center, I’ve had ample opportunity to explore its churches, courtyards, and museums. One night last week, I even had a chance to visit the home of Eva Tombak, the former editor of Ieva, the first women’s lifestyle magazine to be published following the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Eva and her husband, Viktor, live in the woods on the outskirts of Vilnius and I was enthralled by their stories about publishing during those upstart years. I spent the rest of the week exploring the city’s neighborhoods in between writing and photography workshops; my favorite is Užupis, an old Bohemian enclave that declared its (mock) independence on April Fool’s Day in 1997 and still retains its brash, artistic spirit.

Mikhail Iossel, the founder of Summer Literary Seminars, in Vilnius’ Old Town

I spent this past weekend in Nida, a lovely seaside town located on the Curonian Spit, a 60-mile sliver of land that separates the freshwater Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. A summer getaway popular among Lithuanians, Russians, and Germans, the region is distinguished by an enchanting landscape of sand dunes and pine forests; wild boars are said to run amok amid the trees.

Self-portrait at the Parnidis (“Great”) Dune

The shifting sands of Parnidis Dune, located south of Nida, on Lithuania’s Curonian Spit

Nida is an old fishing village—the smell of smoked perch wafting from homes along the shore is very much a part of the sensory experience here.

Fresh fish is a staple of life in Nida.

Nida is also the hub of the Baltic’s amber trade. I learned this on a visit to the Mizgiris Amber Museum, where Justas (Lithuanian for Justin), a friendly blonde local, gave me the grand tour.

Amber is the fossilized resin of ancient pines that grew in the Baltic region 50 million years ago, Justas told me. (The climate then was tropical and subtropical—hard to believe today, when the cool dry breeze makes scarves a summertime essential.) Amber’s biggest selling point is, of course, the inclusions containing plant and insect matter trapped by the sticky resin. Sometimes, whole spiders can be found in its golden lair.

Lost among the pines

The pine forests of the Curonian Spit

Although most jewelers envision the popular yellow variety when talking about amber, the organic gem comes in as many as 250 colors and shades. The rarest is blue amber, which accounts for just 2 percent of the supply. The blue color resulted when the sticky pine resin came into contact with iron dust. Although most amber is lightweight, blue amber feels like stone—the iron lending it a heft it does not otherwise have.

Amber up close and personal, at the Mizgiris Amber Museum in Nida

Other rare varieties include green amber—the product of resin mixing with plant material—and white amber, also known as “royal amber,” created when the resin came into contact with air (the resulting air bubbles explain why this variety is extremely light). Red and cognac shades of amber formed when the transparent resin was exposed to high heat; the hotter the temperatures, the redder the gem.

Practically every shop in Nida and scores of vendors in Vilnius’ old town sell amber in every finished style you can imagine: necklaces, earrings, bracelets, pins. I’ve got my eye on a red amber collar that retails for about $100. But I’m going to scope out the selection in Vilnius before making my decision.

The red amber collar I have my eye on

Tomorrow, I’m in for a treat. Gintare, a Lithuanian jeweler based in Santa Monica, Calif., (her name means amber in Lithuanian), has arranged for me to visit her family’s farmland, about three hours away from Vilnius near the town of Vilkaviskis. I can’t wait to report back on what I’ve found.