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Discovering Europe's best kept secret

  • 2000-12-21
  • Howard Jarvis
Few people think about visiting Lithuania's beautiful national and regional parks, because few tourist guides have referred to them. Until now. Howard Jarvis reviews 'Discover Nature,' a book that promotes the country's more isolated areas.The former British Ambassador to Lithuania Thomas Macan once told me in an interview that he didn't get out much. Besides a heavy schedule, he complained, one reason was that "when God created Lithuania, He chose not to give it hills."

If he had had the time to explore, he would have discovered that a flat country can still be enchanting. A trip outside the capital will reveal that Lithuania is most certainly what the current British Ambassador Christopher Robbins calls "Europe's best kept secret."

Mr. Robbins was one of a handful of ambassadors in Vilnius on Nov. 29 at the launch of a book that will hopefully give the natural beauty of Lithuania a wider audience. "Discover Nature" (Vilnius: Department of Forests and Protected Areas, 2000, 130pp) is an introduction for tourists to Lithuania's national and regional parks priced at 10 litas ($2.50). A Lithuanian language version was published in July.

Besides four national parks (Aukstaitija, Dzukija, Zemaitija/Samogitija and the coastal Curonian spit), Lithuania has 30 regional parks, four strictly controlled nature reserves and one historical national park, the island castle of Trakai. Together, these protected areas make up 11.4 percent of the country.

"Discover Nature" does not simply list and describe each park and reserve in the impractical and rather sentimental fashion typical of tourist guides published in Lithuania. It outlines the different types of landscape, wildlife, plants and cultural monuments (fort-hills, castles, manor houses, churches) and the range of tourist activities available in the parks.

A What To Do section suggests cycling, sailing, camping, fishing, horseback riding and hunting. For winter fun in the parks, propositions include sleigh rides and night-time skiing.

Practical reading

The book is part of the three-year, 5 million litas Hedeselskabet State Park Institutional Development Project, being run by the Danish and Lithuanian ministries of Environment. The project has drafted a strategy to develop Lithuania's system of protected areas, written a new set of regulations and improved staff management and training.

It is also busy establishing visitor centers, exhibitions and nature trails and promoting environmental education in Lithuanian schools. Hedeselskabet's project manager is Rimvydas Kriukelis.

"The main idea of 'Discover Nature,'" Kriukelis explains, "is not just to promote Lithuania for tourism. It's there to say something about our nature and our culture, and about their preservation, so that visitors can enjoy themselves.

"More tourists are exploring what lies outside the capital. This book is designed to tell them in a very simple way what to see and what to do, and what not to do."

Dozens of books have been published in Lithuania for foreign visitors, mostly in English. But few have escaped the mundane, scientific, complicated language of stereotypical East European tourist literature.

"Islands of Harmony," also published in English and Lithuanian, made an attractive attempt to introduce individual parks and reserves with glossy photos, but it is a souvenir rather than a guide. The earlier "Forests and National Parks of Lithuania", published by the Ministry of Forestry in 1994 in English and German, was plain, unappealing and wasted forests of paper.

"Discover Nature" avoids these mistakes. It is printed in a practical, pocket-sized format on recycled paper. Per Mikkelsen, an experienced Danish nature guide who has done considerable work in the management of information on the environment, helped write the text. He pushed for an easy-to-read style typical of the best books for tourists.

"It wasn't easy for the Lithuanians involved in writing the text to accept this style at first," Kriukelis continues. "It was a new way of interpreting nature for them. But later they understood how necessary it was."

Importantly, the book also has a native English speaker, Joe Everatt, as proofreader.

"If a book is not well written, nobody buys it. There are a lot of books that come onto the market and simply sit in the bookstores. Readability is one of the things that makes you buy a book."

Visually attractive

"Discover Nature" is visually very attractive. Stunning wildlife photography, paintings reproduced by the Vilnius' Contemporary Art Center, a smattering of poetry, nature drawings, and some playful little cartoon sketches all fit together well in a tidy, professional design. The cartoons, by Marius Zaveckas, show a family having fun pursuing the activities set out in the text.

A map shows the protected areas of Lithuania, and full contact information are given for each park and reserve, including e-mail and Web sites.

There are some fine old photographs from Lithuania's prewar period, and colorful quotations from a wide range of Lithuanian sources. One passage vividly retells how families defending themselves from a raid by the Teutonic knights on a fort at Dusia killed themselves rather than be at the mercy of their enemy.

"Discover Nature" is packed with advice and information. The isolated Krekenava regional park, which lies to the south of the city of Panevezys, has a European bison breeding center. About 20 bison are kept in two enclosures covering 50 hectares. More live in the wild.

Lithuania's national bird, the white stork, is a common sight today all over the country. Numbers have increased rapidly in recent years because their diet has improved. Fewer chemicals harmful to the frogs and other small animals on which storks feed are used.

The book tells where you can break in a horse at Kurtuvenai regional park, rent a yacht and crew in the Curonian national park, cycle between the islands and above the canals and flooded meadows of the Nemunas Delta regional park, and in winter use the ski lift in Dubysa regional park (there are hills in Lithuania.)

Occasionally, the self-evident language of the old-fashioned visitor's guide inevitably creeps into this one. Under a gruesome photo of a slain boar it says, "Hunting is no longer necessary, as it once used to be; now it is a form of recreation. Hunting is popular with people who want to live an active lifestyle and feel close to nature and wildlife. The hunter also has great responsibility, because he uses dangerous firearms and has to make decisions on whether an animal should live or die."

Some of the small-print regulations tucked into the corner of every page make it clear that the writers would rather state the obvious, and nip even the remotest chance of a tragedy in the bud. "If you are a non-swimmer," it advises firmly, "do not jump into deep water."

Swamps and dunes

All four of Lithuania's "strict state reserves" have bogs, swamps and marshes that are protected areas of international significance. The largest of these is Cepkeliai in the south, on the border with Belarus, which has an observation tower and 1.5 km trail. But even these are out of bounds during the nesting season (mostly wood grouse) from April 1 to July 1.

The unique landscape of the Curonian spit and lagoon makes up what is probably the country's best known national park. The 98- km-long sandspit measures just 350 meters at its narrowest point. With its wild dunes, pine forests and endless sandy beaches, Neringa (as the villages on the spit are collectively known) is Lithuania's most bewitching area of natural beauty, and one of its most popular tourist attractions.

The dunes of Neringa are constantly changing. In the 19th century, trees were planted across large areas of dunes to try to halt the shifting sands. But that didn't stop entire villages being swallowed up by sand during coastal storms.

The giant dunes are an extraordinary sight. They make a perfect visual advertisement for the unlimited natural beauty to be discovered around Lithuania. "Discover Nature" is the best handbook to the nation's natural and cultural treasures yet to be published.