NERINGA, Lithuania - Tourists first started coming to the Curonian Spit in 1840 and its first large hotel was built in 1865. Visitors enjoyed what were then the spit's very young forests, the charm of its small scale fishermen/resort towns, Nida and Juodkrante, and, of course, the vast dunes. Sigmund Freud came through at some point.
And Thomas Mann, one year after winning the Nobel Prize, set up a home here where he spent the summers of 1930, 1931, and 1932 working on his great late work, "Joseph and His Brothers."
But nothing is eternal on the Curonian Spit (see story Page 16), and some unfortunate pieces of architecture appeared in the '70s and '80s that disturbed the scale of the towns. One 20-year-old monstrosity still dominates a good part of the coastal front of Juodkrante. Nida still has a bizarre red-brick hotel complex. And so the small vintage wooden houses - one has a new sign noting the date of its construction, 1926, on its side - have taken on the dull uncharming character of the protected and preserved.
"We tell the people that German and Italian tourists will come to the spit," says Ina Marciulionyte, Lithuania's ambassador to UNESCO. "[Locals] could build nice concrete houses but [tourists] can get that anywhere in the world. But they can't find a place with nice wooden houses without concrete buildings anywhere else. If they build these things the German and Italian tourists will stop coming."
Nida has a Lutheran Church and a sparsely populated cemetery that is currently undergoing restoration. The weathervanes in Juodkrante are new, copies of originals, but they are pretty. Some trappings of modernity are unavoidable. The towns would have to get paved roads eventually. And there's a stone path alongside the coast in Juodkrante that's important for the cyclists.
Despite the official air of the older parts of these towns, and despite the newer uglier elements, these towns are not bad places to be. They may not be nearly as beautiful as the coastal resort towns on the Dalmation Coast in Croatia or the islands in Greece. And if they disappeared in a sand storm, as several villages on the land mass did in the 18th century, the Curonian Spit would still be a pleasant place to visit.
Yet, they still keep a tenuous hold on the past. They provide a record that this little place has been inhabited by real people for centuries, and that the Curonian Spit, for whatever reason, never existed "outside of history." It was always touched by the great saga of the Baltics.