VILNIUS - Palanga, the busiest Lithuanian resort town on the Baltic, offers sandy beaches, a bustling nightlife, and a nude beach (if you're a woman). I decided to make the most of the seaside and try out all three.
I'd been to Palanga before, and noticed a curious sign for beaches near the pier: a man and a woman, with arrows pointing left and right, next to a woman with one arrow to the right. Sun cream and beach towel in hand, I headed to the right. I walked past Russian and Lithuanian families, a group of teens drinking beer, and a few Spanish tourists. The number of people dwindled as I got further from the pier. After half an hour of walking in the sand, I started seeing figures in the distance.
This was my first trip to a nude beach, so I wasn't sure what to expect or how to behave. I figured my tan lines would give me away regardless. Only a few women were around, with the average age near 55. After I saw the wide variety of figures, I stopped worrying about my body. This was a place of sanctuary, not judgment. I found a spot to spread out my towel and looked around for a changing box. Naturally, there were none, so I prepared for sunbathing out in the open.
I'd heard that the bushes in the dunes could hide a renegade man trying to sneak a peak, so I did my best to only face the water. Women have used this beach for many years, and the oldest visitors are quick to scold any man who gets too close.
Palanga also has a nude beach for men, but it's considered a gay beach. It's curious that the women's beach isn't thought of as a haven for lesbians. In fact, lesbians are discouraged from picking up women here. The regulars really try to keep it as innocent as possible, aside from the nudity, of course.
After a period of feeling uncomfortable and self-conscious, I was able to relax and enjoy the sun. The best part about the women's beach was the peacefulness. Although there are 18 kilometers of beaches in Palanga, many of them are crowded. But here it was quiet and I had plenty of space to myself. Unfortunately, the wind was high and the air was a little cool to be really pleasant for getting a tan.
I headed back towards town and got some quick lunch, indulging in the local treat: a hot waffle on a stick, dipped in chocolate. I strolled down Meiles Aleja (Love Alley) toward the botanical gardens, which were originally the Tiskeviciai Palace gardens before becoming a public park in 1960. The neo-Renaissance palace in the center of the park now houses the Amber Museum, which displays thousands of beautiful pieces of amber jewelry, one of the largest amber stones in Europe, and an explanation of how amber is formed.
I ended my day climbing up Birute's Hill, which stands in the garden. The hill got its name from the pagan priestess Birute, a sworn virgin taken by force as wife of Grand Duke Kestutis in the 14th century. After his death, she returned to the coast to continue serving the gods. I'm sure she would be one of the regulars at the women's beach if she were around today.
Palanga can be reached from Vilnius by bus only. The closest train station is in Kretinga, although minibuses from Klaipeda are much more regular.