Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Klaipeda Calls! First Stop - Palanga!

Klaipeda Calls! First stop the Palanga!

Our next trip within in a trip is to head to the Baltic Sea and the cities of Palanga and Klaipeda. This will be another overnight trip as Klaipeda is a three hour drive (216 KM) from Kaunas. Egidijus, Gvidas’s son, has generously volunteered to not only drive us there – but to find us a place to stay for the night. Luckily for us – Egidijus works for an office supply company that has an office in Klaipeda and the people who manage it are friends. They allow us to stay the night in their apartment while they and Egidijus spend the night at their Soda.

A Soda is basically a small little cottage on about an acre of land of land or so that many people in the city go to in order to get fresh air and tend their gardens. Far from a status symbol, most Sodas are very small and were granted to the families during the old Communist days. When independence came about, the families were allowed to keep the Sodas. Now they will pass from generation to generation.

For us, this is a very generous offer and we are humbled by the willingness of Egidijus’ friends, Aronita & Povilas to give up their home to total strangers.

Egidijus (Egi for short) arrives promptly at 9:00 AM on Tuesday, August 16th to start the trip to Klaipeda. First – we will travel to Palanga, THE resort by the Baltic Sea of all the Baltic States. You might think of it as their Wisconsin Dells – without all of the hokey amusement attractions – although as I will later recount, they are starting to build up in that direction.

Egi has his wife’s car today as his is in the shop; neat little hatchback BMW that we all fit very comfortably into. The sun is out – the air is warm, the sky is a brilliant blue; an excellent way to start a trip to the sea. It is nearly the end of the season here, so we are not expecting very large crowds. While the days are still long – generally the sun is just starting to set around 10:00 PM, it is not completely dark for another 45 minutes after that – the weather is beginning to feel the sting of fall. Temperatures around this time of year hover in the 60’s and 70’s. This weather will not disappoint as the forecast calls for mid to upper 70’s the entire week.

With Palanga our first stop and some 216 KMs away we are expecting a three hour drive or so. Egi assures us that we will be there in two; I begin to understand the logic of this as he hits the open road at a smooth 120 KM/HR. The BMW purrs and the ride is smooth. As we are headed down the highway we are surrounded by open fields of hay, rolling hills of grass with grazing cows and the occasional farm house dotted in-between. Every so often a road-side restaurant or cross will pop up with a variety of cars parked outside. Egi informs us of the good ones and the ones to stay away from. People casually walking along side of the highway are not uncommon in this country – a few are hitchhiking and one woman is particular – dressed for business (wink, nudge) is “working” as Egi tells us. More universal truths!

With the road humming quietly beneath us – Egi talking with Lisa’s father, I figure this is a good time to catch up on some Blog writing – which I do, I am able to get two entries done and even published as the GPRS is able to pick up a signal strong enough. Technology is so cool!

We arrive into Palanga near lunch time. The town is small and really geared to tourists. Bike rentals, tour guides and little sidewalk vendors dot the street that leads up to the long main pier that leads out onto the Baltic Sea. We park in front of a local store (it is amazing – you can park virtually anywhere as long as you do not block anyone or anything in) and begin to stroll to the pier. We stop and look at various vendors selling hand made Amber bracelets, necklaces, and other assorted items – all containing Amber in some sort of fashion. While I have never been a big fan of Amber – I am told it is quite the catch back in the States. I know that Lisa’s family enjoys it as well as our neighbor (who has asked us to pick some up for her). It is considered a precious stone and comes almost exclusively from the Baltics. Amber is the fossilized resin of ancient trees which forms through a process that is very similar to the formation of diamonds. Most of the world's amber is in the range of 30-90 million years old. If you find a piece with an insect or plant in it – the value increases by ten fold. If you remember your movies – the scientists in “Jurassic Park” were able to remove dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes trapped within Amber.

Turning around a bend in the road, we begin to head down a long street – no traffic allowed here, only pedestrians and bicycles – that will eventually lead to a pier that crosses out in an “L” shape into the Baltic Sea as well as leads down onto the beach.

The road is lined with restaurants, bars, discos and little stands selling souvenirs. Artists dot the pier as well – selling portraits and caricatures to all who will sit still for five minutes or more. Ice-cream stands, juice stands and snack stands are peppered through-out the pier along with Money Exchanges and cigarette booths (that come complete with Turkish Pipes for that quick draw as you walk to the beach – I hope with a shudder that there are at least covers that are exchangeable on the pipe) as well as balloon vendors with their colorful delights tied to the wrists of giggling children. There is a lot for families to do – from renting bicycles to renting battery powered, ride-able toy SUVs for the kids. There are trampoline’s set up – the jumper wears a harness that helps him or her twist, turn and get even higher. In the US such attractions would be a lawyers dream! There is also a Launch Ball – an interesting little device hung from two cranes that are across from each other. Large rubber bands hang from the cranes and attach to a metal ball with a seat in it. The ball is stretched to the ground putting tremendous tension onto the bands. The idea here – sit in the ball and be launch upwards at incredible speed only to come crashing downward, saved from a Wile E Coyote splat by the bands. It looks fun – not too safe – but fun. We decide to pass at this time as I have no desire to spend the rest of my life on a ventilator.

We pass through this carnival to come to the wooden pier that leads out to the Baltic Sea. As we pass over a hill to get to the pier we are immediately hit by a blast of cool sea air. The temperature drops a quick 5 or 10 degrees with the ocean breeze, coming in steady and stiff from the water. The waves are high today and surprisingly there are people jumping into the water – their desire to set foot in the Baltic over-riding their desire not to catch pneumonia. The beach is not too crowded – a mixture of people watchers, sun bathers and volleyball/soccer players. Some walk along the shoreline stopping here and there to collect shells and search for Amber. Others sit on the beach – bundled up – staring out into the Sea – several ships float in the distance – most likely headed to Klaipeda, Lithuania’s main sea port (and reason why Russia did not want to let it go).

The wooden pier out over the sea is a couple of blocks long and a turn to the right is an “L” shape – recently extended this is one of the longest piers on the Baltic Sea. The view is stupendous! Water – a grayish, blue because of the cold, as far as the eye can see. To your right, miles and miles of endless beach – to your left – the same. Yellow and red tents dot the beaches in both directions – these are the little caf├ęs and bars along the way. There are beaches for women only, for men only, for families only and for nude sunbathing. We don’t head for the beach today – we’ll leave that for Klaipeda tomorrow.

After several wind blown pictures, we are heading back to the shore – the breeze now to our backs, the sun warming and bright. Amazingly as we cross back over the hill that separates the wooden pier from the concrete the wind disappears and the temperature once rises. Now it is mid-afternoon and we are starting to get hungry and although there are quite a few places here, Egi has promised a place that is totally unique to Lithuania and something that we will absolutely enjoy! We hope so as our stomachs are growling loudly at this point!

Egi could not have been more correct! Once we returned to our car – it was a short 20 KM ride to a restaurant on the outskirts of town called: Pas Juozaba.

Pas Juozaba is a very unique restaurant – it is designed as a full blown, authentic Lithuanian village. The restaurant, (actually restaurants, there are several buildings, lean-tos and umbrella covered places to eat), is built entirely devoid of modern materials (save for the units inside to actually cook the food). There is a small village surrounding the massive grounds of the restaurant – Egi tells us the village is almost entirely employed by Pas Juozaba. The grounds of the restaurant is home to a fantastic park that is populated with home-made rides that would never be possible in the litigious USA. There is a maypole with a large wheel at the top. From the wheel hang five ropes with a wooden handle that hangs horizontally; the object, grab hold of the handle, run full bore in a circle and when you get up enough speed – lift your legs while doing a chin up. The person who does this is whipped in a circle and sometimes – thrown clear of the stone gravel pit the wheel is housed in. Tamer is a full basketball court with four baskets – a tribute to Lithuania’s obsession with the sport. There is a horse stable with an outdoor ring and for $100 LTs you can ride the horse of your choice for 30 minutes. The horses inside are wonderfully kept and beautiful. There is a large pen of exotic chickens from around the world that you can buy and take home. In another area is the usual bar fare of video games and dance floors. Pas Juozaba is also home to its own brewery where they make fresh, unfiltered, un-pasteurized beer of several different types; fresh that day ready for you to drink. I order one to try and am surprised at how good it tastes!
The food is nothing short of incredible. It takes awhile for it to come as it is cooked fresh, made to order – but it is worth the wait. As usual I order Kolduni and I am not disappointed – they melt in my mouth and fill my stomach happily!

Stuffed, we head back to the car for the next leg of our journey – onward to Klaipeda!

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