Klaipeda to Gdansk cycling tours

There are many military bases in Kaliningrad. This means, in some areas, you cannot go off-road. “We had one case when we had a couple of Germans travelling,” says Saulius Ružinskas of our cycle touring company Baltic Bike Travel. “They got into... problems. Probably they went somewhere, off the road, and they turned the wrong direction at the military base. And they were arrested.” He emphasises that, when it comes to Russia, cycling through militarised regions means sticking to the road. “It might be frightening for some tourists but... it might be interesting for others,” Saulius says with a grin.

The section of the Iron Curtain cycle trail that connects Klaipeda to Gdansk is relatively short, but has a lengthy history. Starting in the historic port city of Klaipeda, now a hub for Lithuanian cycling holidays, it follows the drifting sand dunes of the Curonian Spit south to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, where the German cyclists fell foul of Russian law. When asked if Kaliningrad is very different from the rest of Russia, Saulius says yes: “This region is more European, because it is very close to Europe. Many people are friendly, but the custom officers... they are not very friendly,” he laughs.
When World War II ended, Russia claimed the formerly German region surrounding heavily bombed Kaliningrad – then known as Königsberg – to retain an ice-free port on the Baltic Coast. Destruction of the once beautiful city continued under Soviet rule, when Brezhnev ordered that the remains of the Royal Palace be razed. “A new multi-storey building was built,” Saulius says pointedly. “It’s sad. The Russians don’t care very much about what is left. In some places you can even see the destroyed churches.”
Remnants of a less peaceful past can be spotted along the Iron Curtain Trail, in the war memorials and border watchtowers. In Gdansk, you can visit the shipyard where the 1980s solidarity movement first sprang up, heralding the fall of the Iron Curtain. But the trail is far from an eyesore; instead, cyclists will find beautiful beaches and pine forests populated by elk, beavers and boars. Although the Iron Curtain was no physical wall, much of the route was inaccessible for many years because it fell within military zones. In some places, it still does. Free from development, a wild corridor flourishes, leaving us with some of Europe’s most important natural landscapes.

What do Klaipeda to Gdansk cycling tours entail?

The Iron Curtain Trail begins in northernmost Norway and traces the Soviet geopolitical border south to the mountainous border of Bulgaria. But the bit that follows the curve of the Baltic Coast is not only short but, according to Saulius, fairly flat. It’s an ideal seven-day introduction to the three countries it crosses: Lithuania, Russia and Poland. The history here is complex, which is where having a local guide like Saulius comes in handy. Not only is he the owner of our Lithuania-based cycling specialist Baltic Bike Travel, but he is also the local coordinator of the EuroVelo project which maps the Iron Curtain Trail.
Few hills make the route accessible for even the most casual cyclists, who can also opt for an e-bike if they’re worried about their country-crossing stamina. Tours tend to run from June to September, but cool Baltic summers mean temperatures won’t get much over 22°C, ideal for cycling. Groups are kept small which helps protect the Curonian Spit’s fragile sand dunes, so easily eroded by careless footsteps. But it also lets you stay in small, family-owned hotels and eat local food in local restaurants that can’t cater to larger groups. Soups and dumplings are popular fare here, as Saulius says: “People who come to Lithuania have to try the cold beetroot soup (Šaltibarščiai) and Didžkukuliai – commonly known as zeppelins (cepelinai) for their shape.”
Also recommended is a non-alcoholic ‘beer’ called kvass, which originates from Russia. Saulius says Lithuanians produce their own kind. There’s no love lost between the Russians and their Baltic neighbours. “There’s a lot of propaganda against the Baltic States,” says Saulius. “But since last year, the situation has improved. It’s possible to get a free visa online to go to Russia, and that helps a lot of people.” It’s not just Lithuanians and Poles who benefit from the new eVisas; citizens of 53 countries, including most of Europe, are eligible to apply. However, everyone else, including British and US citizens, must visit a visa application centre.

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Highlights

Curonian Spit North

This 98km-long sliver of land is best known for its village-swallowing sand dunes which once moved as much as 15m a year (before reforestation stopped sands from shifting), and the golden pebbles of amber that wash up on its shore. Separated from the Baltic Coast by a wildlife-filled, freshwater lagoon, the Curonian Spit is split in two: half Lithuanian, half Russian. The Lithuanians have no land access to the dunes so, from the coastal city of Klaipeda, you’ll catch a ferry to make the five-minute crossing of the narrow northern strait. Cycling south, you’ll pass sweeping dunes and settlements before reaching Lithuania’s southernmost resort, Nida.

Curonian Spit South

Beyond the Russian border, the trail takes you past the contorted trunks of the ‘dancing’ forest, where trees grow in mysterious corkscrew shapes. Further south, the world’s first ornithological station, founded when the spit was still Prussian, observes the arrival of millions of migrating waterfowl and waders. Finally, the sandbar ends in Zelenogradsk, a seaside resort a little past its prime. There have been unflattering comparisons with Britain’s Bognor Regis, but Zelenogradsk presents a view of many of Russia’s forgotten towns: concrete and crumbling buildings sit alongside elegant seaside villas and old Art Nouveau houses.

Gdansk

If Gdansk seems different to other Polish cities, it’s because it is. Gdansk – or Danzig, as it is known in German – spent large periods of its complicated history under Prussian and German rule. Only after its independence, in 1919, was Poland once again granted access to the city and the Baltic Sea. Post-war reconstruction favoured Dutch Renaissance over any German styles so, architecturally, Gdansk looks more like Copenhagen and Amsterdam. From its pastel facades to the intricate figurines, a lot of love has gone into rebuilding these streets.

Kaliningrad

Just outside Kaliningrad Cathedral, visitors will find the tomb of Immanuel Kant. Kaliningrad’s most famous resident will be, for many visitors, its only well known resident, as is made clear by the many pun-themed souvenirs on sale. Kaliningrad Cathedral itself is the most significant building left in Kaliningrad. Badly burned during two RAF night raids, someone saw fit to restore its impressive turret-like spire to its former glory in 1998. But, as Soviet times slip further into the past, and following the city’s 800th anniversary, some residents are looking to revive the heritage of a city where Prussian kings were once crowned.

Frombork

In 2005, Nicolaus Copernicus’s body was found under the floor of Frombork Cathedral. Until then, the remains of the 15th-century mathematician, who formed the theory that the earth circled the sun, had remained a mystery. The small town of Frombork is known as the ‘Jewel of Warmia’ (a historical region in northern Poland) for its many historic sites, including an ancient wooden water tower (once worked by Handel’s great grandfather) and the Gothic red-brick cathedral itself. Removed from his unmarked grave, Copernicus received a belated hero’s reburial in 2010, this time within its walls.
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: Andrea Anastasakis] [Gdansk cycling: Dan Vel] [Cyclist: Victor Xok] [Curonian Spit: Petras Gaglias] [Gdansk: Andrea Anastasakis]
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