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Curonian Spit

The typical Baltic coastal scent of mingled ozone and pine is at its headiest on the northern Lithuanian half of the Curonian Spit which dominates Lithuania's Baltic coast. This area is made up of four settlements - Juodkrante, Pervalka, Preila and Nida - none of which are more than a couple of kilometres from the coast. There's a magical air to this isolated 98km (60mi) thread of sand, which is composed of dunes and lush pine forests inhabited by elk, deer and wild boar. Savouring fish freshly smoked to an old Curonian recipe is a highlight of a visit here. In summer you can hire jet skis or paddle boats in Nida; ice fishing and drinking vodka are the principal winter pursuits.Check on the cleanliness of the waters of the lagoon and the spit before you dive in - they're often not fit for swimming. The dunes along the peninsula are delicate, and their continual steady erosion is of great concern to environmentalists. It's for this reason that you should only walk along marked tracks and should not pick flowers, since they help to stabilise the sand.Buses run along the spit from Smiltyné, at its northern tip. Ferries cross to Smiltyné from the mainland town of Klaipeda, which has bus and rail connections to Vilnius and other centres.

 
Druskininkai

This resort's status stems from its mineral springs, which have been in demand for their curative powers since the 19th century. Druskininkai is also well known as the birthplace of modern Jewish sculptor Jacques Lipchitz and the home town of outstanding romantic painter and composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, who is the subject of a large stylised statue and a memorial museum. In recent times, a new 'attraction' has hit the outskirts of town. Stalin World (officially the Soviet Sculpture Garden at Grutas Park) is described by the canned mushroom mogul behind its copnstruction as combining 'the charms of a Disneyland with the worst of the Soviet gulag prison camp'. Druskininkai is in southern Lithuania, on the Nemunas river, not far from the border with Belarus. The resort has direct bus and train connections with Vilnius.

 
Hill of Crosses

This two-humped hillock is covered in a forest of thousands upon thousands of crosses - large and tiny, expensive and cheap, wooden and metal. Some are devotional, to accompany prayers, others are memorial. It's thought that the tradition of planting crosses here may have begun in the 14th century. In the Soviet era the crosses were bulldozed at least three times, only to spring up again. It's an eerie place, especially when the wind blows and the silence is broken by the rattling of crosses and rosaries. The Hill of Crosses is 10km (6mi) north of Siauliai, 2km (1mi) east off the road to Riga, the Latvian capital. Siauliai is 140km (87mi) north of Kaunas and has good rail and bus connections with both Kaunas and Vilnius.

 
Palanga

This small city is quiet in winter, but in summer it's transformed into Lithuania's premier seaside resort, and accommodation is at a premium. It features a long, sandy beach backed by pine-covered dunes; a large botanical park with a rose garden; a hill thought to have been the site of a pagan shrine; and an excellent Amber Museum. Palanga hosts a grand opening of the summer season on the first Saturday in June; the closing of the season, on the last Saturday in August, is marked by a massive street carnival, market, song festival and pop concert.Palanga is 30km (18mi) north of Klaipeda and 18km (11mi) south of the Latvian border. Kretinga, the nearest train station, is served by daily trains from Klaipeda and Vilnius. Bus services abound. Motorists have to pay a small entrance fee to drive into Palanga.

 
Vilnius

Lithuania's capital city has an international flavour, partly due to the influence of the big Lithuanian diaspora and partly because it has always been exposed to influences from central Europe and beyond. In the 16th century, Vilnius was one of the biggest cities in eastern Europe; it played a part in Poland's 17th-century 'golden age' and became an important Jewish city in the 19th century. Germany, Poland and Russia have all played pass-the-parcel with Vilnius this century. Post-WWII, with the Poles and the Jews mostly gone, Vilnius developed into the chief focus of Lithuania's push for independence. Particularly dramatic and tragic events took place here in January 1991, when Soviet troops trying to destabilise the situation stormed the city's TV installations, killing 13 people and injuring many others.Vilnius lies 250km (155mi) inland from the Baltic Sea on the banks of the Neris river. It's in the southeast of Lithuania, just a stone's throw from the Belarus border. The centre of the city is on the southern side of the river, and its heart is Cathedral Square, an open square with the cathedral on its northern side and Gediminas Hill rising behind it. The Old Town, the largest in eastern Europe, stretches south from Cathedral Square. A church spire can be seen from every one of its winding streets, which, coupled with its countless hidden courtyards, make it intriguing to explore. Other landmarks include Vilnius University, the President's palace, an observatory and the old Jewish quarter and ghetto. Restaurants, pubs, nightclubs and cafés abound. Three Crosses Hill overlooks the Old Town and is a long-standing landmark. Crosses are said to have stood here since the 17th century in memory of three monks who were martyred by crucifixion on this spot.The New Town lies 2km (1mi) west of the Old Town and was mostly built in the 19th century. City hall is situated here, as is the Museum of the Genocide of the Lithuanian People, housed in the former Gestapo and KGB building. The guides here are all former inmates and will show you round the cells where they were tormented. South of the river there's a bronze bust memorial to American rock legend Frank Zappa. Vilnius' Soviet-era suburbs are north of the river. There are plenty of accommodation options in and around the Old Town; this is also the best place to nose out a good restaurant.


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