Curonian Spit
Curonian Spit
Cultural Lithuania,russian Federation Europe And North America Klaipeda Region, Neringa And Klaipeda (lithuania);Kaliningrad Region, Zelenogradsk District (russian Federation)

The Curonian Spit is an outstanding example of a landscape of sand dunes that is under constant threat from natural forces (wind and tide). After disastrous human interventions that menaced its survival, the Spit was reclaimed by massive protection and stabilization works begun in the 19th century and still continuing to the present day.

The Spit is a peninsula that separates the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon in a slightly concave arc for 98 km from the Kaliningrad Peninsula to the town of Klaipeda. The largest settlements in the Lithuanian part are Smiltyne, Pervalka, Juodkrante, Preila and Nida. Dune valleys divide the ridge into separate dune massifs, and capes are generally formed in front of these valleys.

Formation of the Spit began some 5,000 years ago. Mesolithic people whose main source of food was from the sea settled there, working bone and stone brought from the mainland. In the 1st millennium CE West Baltic tribes (Curonians and Prussians) established seasonal settlements there, to collect fish, and perhaps also for ritual purposes. The centre of Kaup is the last unexcavated large proto-urban settlement of the Viking period. The invasion of Prussia by Teutonic Knights in the 13th century was gradually driven out, but armed conflict continued in the region until the 15th century. The Spit had great strategic importance, and in consequence the knights built castles at Memel (1252), Noihauz (1283) and Rossitten (1372). They also settled German farmers around the castles, building roads and clearing woodland for agriculture.

Baltic peoples set up settlements on the Spit and the population increased, however, as their main activities were fishing and beekeeping. In the 16th century a new process of dune formation began and settlements became buried in sand. The works took the form of the construction of a protective bank of sand to prevent further ingress of dunes (a process that took most of the century) and the stabilization of dunes by means of brushwood hurdles, accompanied by reforestation.

The most significant element of the Spit's cultural heritage is represented by the old fishing settlements. The earliest of these were buried in sand when the woodland cover was removed. Those that have survived are all along the coast of the lagoon. At the end of the 19th century more elaborate buildings - lighthouses, churches, schools and villas - began to be erected alongside the simpler vernacular houses. This was partly due to the fact that the Spit became a recreational centre: Juodkrante became famous as a health resort as early as 1840 and Nida, Preila and Pervalka were given official recognition in this category in 1933. In the centre, Nida, the largest settlement on the Spit, has a linear plan based on a single main street that runs parallel to the lagoon and which developed spontaneously in the 19th century.

The most northerly part of the Spit, Smiltyne, was not settled until the mid-19th century, when a health resort was created. It is the point where ferries from Klaipeda on the mainland arrive on the Spit. The surviving buildings of cultural significance are the houses of fishermen built during the 19th century. In their original form they were built from wood and thatched with reeds. A homestead consisted of two or three buildings: a dwelling house, a cattle shed, and a smokehouse for curing fish. These were located to one side of the long narrow plot, leaving space for a kitchen garden and for drying nets. The houses were constructed at right angles to the street. In the 20th century the fishermen's houses were enlarged and new ones built with their long sides to the street. As a result, the appearance of the settlements was radically altered.

Other buildings are the sturdy lighthouse at Pervalka and the neo-Gothic Evangelical Lutheran churches at Juodkrante and Nida, both built in the 1880s. The cemeteries of Nida, Preila, Pervalka and Juodkrante are of interest.