NIDA - LITHUANIA June 22nd - 28th

Just before we went, my daughter asked me where Lithuania was. “The Baltics” I replied. There was a distant look. “Go to Sweden and turn right across the Baltic Sea”. That was better - just. To be truthful, I wasn’t exactly sure myself and a quick glance at the atlas proved that I’d have been better to say Denmark than Sweden, as Klaipeda – the nearest city to where we were going, is just about the same latitude as Copenhagen – or Newcastle upon Tyne.

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The Neringa Festival based at Nida on the Curonian Spit was our destination. This is a wonderful place; a National Park built on shifting sand dunes creating a narrow spit enclosing a lagoon from the Baltic Sea. The lagoon – a sea within a sea, it is not particularly saline and is abundant with freshwater fish such as Bream. Pike, Perch and Zander (a Perch – Pike cross) etc., which we found available smoked in most restaurants - along with lots of Herring.

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We have had many years association with Kursiu Ainiai – the Lithuanian Song & Dance group who were our personal hosts at this 7th International Folklore Festival in Neringa. ESMM first met the group at another festival in Estonia and we later hosted them for a Tour in Suffolk in 2003. Many friendships were struck then, and it was natural that a return invitation to visit Lithuania should include our Partners.

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Thursday. Ryanair has been good to ESMM. Our spring trips have been on the back of cheap fares booked at first posting on the Internet. But it seems now the hay-day is fading with complicated luggage charging regulation. Confusion! How many suitcases have we paid for? What weight? Has anyone tried sharing a case with a woman – and achieved a weight limit? What about the Sticks? Nevertheless, Ian sorted us out & we all got on the ‘plane.

At Kaunus we met Jonas – who was to be our “language facilitator”, and we took two mini-busses to Klaipeda (217km) and a ferry to the Spit. Then, the last leg of the journey, on a bus dressed as a thatched cottage to Nida (50km) down the Spit and half an hour from the Russian Border (Russia has an enclave in Lithuania – probably with ageing silos pointing to the West!).

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The accommodation for couples was in a chalet hotel – of mixed facilities, whilst the single men shared a flat in town kindly offered by Daiva - one of the Kursiu Ainiai team. After introducing ourselves to the hotel bar we hit the town for dinner and then an early night – Lithuanian time (2 hours ahead).

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Friday. Breakfast - a generous Continental breakfast with pancakes and boiled eggs. Then a tour around Nida hosted by the Festival organiser Ausra, and Jonas, our translator. Here we were introduced to the area’s signature – fishing boat mast-head weather vanes, like heraldic shields, identifying the families fishing and trading in the area.

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Ausra outlined our commitments for the day; We had been asked to perform during a Lithuanian live TV show – something like a TV dial-in Folk talent show – we were the “novelty” turn between acts. Then there was the Festival opening ceremony and a procession to Tylos valley. TV show eh, better get our act together!

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For the TV engineers, we had to rehearse for sound checks at mid afternoon, but In fact we didn’t go on live TV ‘till 8:10pm by which time we had introduced ourselves to the harbour bar behind the TV stage where the live TV broadcast was playing.

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We made the Festival opening, where each of the participating groups gave a short performance.

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Hanging around for the TV meant we missed the Festival event at Tylos Valley for herb gathering, sorcery and the ceremonies of the sunset on the top of the sand dune We met people coming down and did a swift sword dance at the foot of the dunes, then joined the procession to the Festival stage passing through the Midsummer Gate – a bower arch (for good luck).

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Having missed the sand dune packed supper, we were hungry & some of us peeled off to a café serving smoked fish – which is a delicacy in these parts. The fish was mainly fresh-water; bream, Zander etc., and could be heated over an open barbecue. Afterwards – due to the female influence, we went for coffee and gateau at a nearby café.

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The climax of the evening – after the TV competition was over, was the lighting of the Bonfire – symbolising the continuation of light through the short summer solstice night. The event was preceded by fire-eating and the lighting of a giant butterfly on the harbour wall accompanied by local Druid singers.

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Afterwards we adjourned to the harbour bar whilst the locals held a “dance-cotheque”. There we were later joined by the TV crew and the band who had played for post show dancing staying singing & dancing until about 2:30am - by which time it was dawn!

Saturday. A fresh and bright day. Our start was a boat trip around the bay for lunch and sight-seeing accompanied by an 50 strong thoroughly nice & pleasant US group from Brigham Young University at Utah who were reading International Cultural Studies and were there as part of their Baltic tour to dance at the Festival. More later. The boat was laden with delicious ethnic foods and local beer, but being Mormons and American, our companions were unable to take advantage of the beer and couldn’t cope with whole fish – least of all smoked! Their loss.

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On disembarkation, we joined the groups doing sand painting (the theme for the festival being “Sand returns to Neringa” – referring to the erosion and shifting sand history of the Curonian spit).

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Meanwhile there was informal dancing and then a session where different groups taught examples of their tradition. We did the Webley stick dance.

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By coach we were then transported to Juodkrante, a town up the coast, for a staged show at a holiday resort. This was not one of our best shows and caused us to think more about the stage management of later shows. We then had a light and rushed supper and then bussed back to Nida for the main event which went much better.

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The Americans featured at both the Juodkrante and Nida shows. They were very much fish-out-of-water, Their performance was Las Vegas showtime against the Festival ethnic ethos. I’m not one to judge US dancing – or their Eastern European sets, but their Irish segment was a poor imitation of “Riverdance” and had little to do with traditional Irish Music or Folk dancing.

A long day was ended by fireworks, a final drink at the Harbour bar and the mile-long trek home.

Sunday. Our reunion day with Kursiu Ainiai. We met at a café, drank beer, sang songs and renewed friendships until it was time to join the Festival procession across the sand dunes to the theme of “Where does the sand come from?”

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It was hot & the first segment was all up-hill to a Church where we paused for songs from our Latvian and Lithuanian colleagues. Billy signed autograph books.

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Onwards and upwards to the Lighthouse; more songs and dancing. Billy was getting tired. Then to Café Pas Feliksa set in a woodland clearing; more songs and dances. Billy was very tired Then an epic trek across the sandy beaches of the Baltic coastline to a sand dune clearing for lunch and insect molestation, Fish soup, bacon ribs and beer supplemented by a variety of local delicacies brought along by visiting groups. Then informal dancing until time to return to Nida.

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Back at Nida we paused for ice cream before the Festival closing ceremony. Each group did a set & ours was well received. This was more our style – in the square enclosed by the audience rather than on-stage, and I think we did a pretty good job – as the audience wanted more!

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On a high, we then went looking for supper & settled on a restaurant of good repute. Unfortunately the service was so poor most of us left without eating & returned to our café home-base to a much better reception. We sang mutual goodnights to the Austrian group with whom we had struck up good relationships, and David made a waitress cry by playing her song!

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Monday. Festival over, we had two free days in Lithuania. On Monday we took the service bus to Smiltyne and the ferry to Klaipeda where we were met by Ina from the Kursiu Ainiai and Goda – their translator when they visited England. They were our guide for the day to visit Palanga – a sea-side holiday resort, and then onwards to a party hosted by our friends, Kursiu Ainiai.

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At Palanga we all walked the pier and then some braved the Baltic Sea for a swim. Then, a fish lunch (yes Dave T is eating herring!) before returning to Klaipeda and on to Diana’s home for a party hosted by Kursiu Ainiai. More swimming in recently dug lakes, then a superb local buffet and dark ale.

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There is no doubt that Kursiu Ainiai and ESMM are soul mates. The evening ended with very emotional singing on “the hill” and goodbyes. Thunderstorms on the way back and a very cramped bus to Nida couldn’t spoil a wonderful day.

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Tuesday. Our last full day in Lithuania. Time to settle the bills. Panic – unfortunately credit cards are not widespread and we needed to adjust our finances to settle the hotel bills & transport costs. Some went off for cycle rides, others just hung around and completed last-minute shopping.

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We planned a final dinner at our favourite restaurant and spent the last night with good food, drink, and company. Daiva called by to arrange return of her flat keys. “Mine Host” joined in the final song-set before rubbing hands to the till. Our waitresses were great sports and we were grateful for their better knowledge of English than ours of Lithuanian.

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Wednesday. An early start. Mini-busses at 05:45. We asked for breakfast to be laid-out which it was for the Hotel guests. Ausra and Jonas came with us to Smiltyne and Jonas onwards to the Airport, A comfortable journey, thanks to light traffic and our last chance to appreciate the scenery – looking for storks and all. Uneventful via Ryanair & GM travel back to Suffolk.

A final thanks goes to Ian who took the major role in organising, managing and leading the tour. Thank you.

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Dick Thornborrow
July 2006

Those who went:
Cliff Marchant & Beryl
Dick Thornborrow & Julie
John Rayner & Cathy
Laurie Aitken & Pauline
Mike Palmer & Abi
Peter Kay & Diana
Tim Huggins & Judy

Dave Brewster
David Tydeman
Des Herring
Ian Meigh
Mike Barclay