Cycling in Lithuania

The ‘Lithuanian Sahara’, as it’s been dubbed, is far from a desert. Sands, billowed by the winds that formed the dunes, press up against pine forests populated by elusive elk and wild boar. Great black cormorants and leggy, wading godwits can be seen all around the lagoon, a breeding hotspot for migratory birds. The so-called ‘Dead Dunes’ are anything but – instead, they’re smothered by lichen and moss.
Just as impressive are the “White Dunes”, huge drifting sand dunes – Europe’s highest – that reach as high as 60m tall. Entire fishing villages have been swallowed whole (very slowly) by the shifting sands of the spit, but now it is in danger of erosion. The heavy footfall of tourists who stray from the designated paths is displacing tonnes of sand, and further building plans are threatening conservation.
For five years, the Lithuanian government sought to tear down the houses on the Curonian Spit. This sublime strip of sand, 98km long and ranging from 400-3,800m wide, is the pride of the Baltic coast – divided 50/50 between Lithuania and Kaliningrad, Russia’s European enclave. Unlike Russia’s half, the entire northern portion, all 52km that belongs to Lithuania, is now a protected national park.
“It’s the only place in Lithuania where you cannot buy land, it’s state owned,” explains Saulius Ružinskas, owner of our Baltics cycle touring specialists, Baltic Bike Travel. That fact has not prevented new development though. Even in 2002, after the spit’s unique landscape earned it the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site, wealthy Lithuanians managed to procure building permits to build their seaside summer homes – issued illegally, the courts now contend.

While the cheaper Palanga resort slightly to the north attracts the most locals, the spit is popular for families with kids, and those seeking quiet summer holidays. “The nature there is really beautiful,” Saulius says of the Curonian Spit, “sand dunes, forests, the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon. It’s the highlight of a cycling holiday in Lithuania.”

Biking along the Baltic Sea

From Klaipeda, the closest city on mainland Lithuania, and the start and end of many cycling tours, the only access to the spit peninsula is by ferry. UNESCO experts ended talk of building a bridge back in 2015, firmly cautioning that, in addition to avoiding environmental damage, the ferry provided a natural filter system that prevented an influx of visitors.

“Cycle tourism itself is eco-friendly,” says Saulius. “It’s a way for tourists to experience nature and smaller towns, and to encounter local people.” He explains that cycle tours rely on local services wherever possible: booking into smaller, family-owned hotels, eating at small town restaurants or taking a packed lunch made from produce grown in this agricultural area. “In this way we help the local communities,” he explains.
Cycling along the Lithuanian coast takes you through fishing villages and along meadow-lined country roads where white storks, the national bird, nest in some of the highest numbers in Europe. From Šilute, a town with a name meaning ‘a pub in the pine forest’, you can cycle around Rusne Island, Lithuania’s only island. From here, if you stand on the bank of the Nemunas River, you can see the Russian oblast of Kaliningrad just 100m away. Fishermen’s houses, lighthouses, amber galleries and wooden carvings of Lithuanian folk characters all feature heavily on these trails.
The benefits of choosing a local holiday company, like our specialists Baltic Bike Travel, who have been running tours for 10 years, include expert knowledge of cross-country trails they’ve helped to design. “We know a lot about cycling,” says Saulius who, before working in tourism, used to organise non-commercial cycle trips in other parts of Lithuania and is a local coordinator for the EuroVelo project – responsible for the cross-continent network of trails you’ll use.
Like many eastern European countries, Lithuania is struggling with high emigration and has a growing older population. Travelling with a responsible cycle tour company that visits rural areas and employs local guides creates jobs in tourism and brings in additional income to support these coastal villages.

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Cycling holiday in the Baltics

Cycling holiday in the Baltics

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Practicalities

An eight-day cycling tour of Lithuania’s Baltic Coast offers a leisurely paced introduction to the largest of the three Baltic States. Note that Lithuania is also the steepest of the Baltics, with trails peaking at 110m, but cycling along the sea-level coastal routes means you won’t even encounter molehills. An average five days of cycling (daily distances from 30-60km) leaves you a few days free for sightseeing, swimming or walking along the rolling ribbon of sand dunes. Saulius is keen to stress that this route is suitable for anyone but, if you’re still worried about your stamina, you can always rent an e-bike.
Saulius adds that many travellers to Lithuania are often surprised to see such a well-organised cycling tour, and that many still imagine a country in the grips of the Soviet Union. “We pay a lot of attention to the quality of our services. We have very good bikes, which we produce ourselves in Germany to the specifications that we want.” In addition to providing your ride, and a local guide, Lithuanian cycling tours also include convenient luggage transfers from hotel to hotel.
Groups are kept small, typically between 10-16, meaning you can stay in the small town hotels and eat at local restaurants, and also ensuring everyone keeps on the trails through the national park. If you really don’t like crowds, Saulius recommends taking a tour in June or early September. “The peak season, when the Lithuanians go on holiday, is July-August, when there will be many people cycling around and the prices are higher than in June or September, when we have very nice weather but not so many people.”
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: Baltic Bike Travel] [All photos: Baltic Bike Travel]
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