There is Dionysian Rausch and all that, or else a walk through Jardin du Luxembourg at night, reciting the “Ode to a Nightingale” loud enough to know what the French (that live nearby) think of the English… but there is better: there is Lithuania. It is a blessed spot for overcomplicated beings who need a relief from relativism.
The people there are simple, kind and (optionally) happy. They neither suffer from relativism nor from lack of it. Most of those lovely old women who sell you blueberries at the market do not know what this silly notion is. They are generally kind-hearted, and take the world as it is, naively wondering at what is wonderful, without trying to explain it. Girls are astonishingly pretty and of lovely naivety, without being thick for all that (as many of one’s university acquaintances can be)… I somehow think that the recollection of Lithuanian summers is the one thing that both causes and sustains my happy bachelorhood during the harder seasons of the year. ——
Besides, the landscape is enchanting, with pine-covered dunes coming to five meters of a fine sand beach. Food is simple and fresh, and you would probably need to go to a god-forsaken Sicilian village to taste tomatoes like those. No matter where you buy them in highly civilised Western Europe, and no matter how much you pay, they taste like plastic… And those blueberries, and wild strawberries, and wild raspberries and wild girlsberries..… ——
Palanga is the biggest summer resort of the country: it is located on the Baltic Sea, close to the Russian border. The centre is bustling, and extremely loud at night. At about eight in the evening, the main street, which leads to a mole, becomes entirely flooded with people. They go to the sea to watch the sunset and then drift back, between a never-ending string of bars and restaurants in fierce competition with each other as to who will play the loudest live music. Nothing unusual, except a particular candour, a certain absence of pretence, an immediacy in the enjoyment of the summer evening that has always fascinated me. ——
You have to stay in a hotel that is a couple of kilometres away from the very centre of Palanga. If your room faces the sea, and if you do not draw the big curtains, you will be awaken at about six by the warmth of the sun on your face. Even though you feel sleepy, after a few minutes you are so hot that there is no solution other than to get up and run to the sea. You have to cross a pine wood growing on the dune and after about three hundred meters you are on the beach. The breeze never fades on that beach – it is very rare to have a perfectly quiet sea, as flat as a plate. The water is cold but delightful and the beach is usually desert at that hour. If you stay in the water for longer than five minutes or try to swim, you will go back and eat the hotel’s weekly provision for breakfast. If you get out of the water fast, the establishment has a chance to survive. ——
After breakfast, sated and dreamy, you drift back towards the beach. The wood has been warmed by the sun and stands in languorous immobility. Sometimes a light wind comes from the shore through the trees, very fresh and slightly salted, charged with the resinous odour of pines. When the path turns and the wind suddenly drops, the still air becomes filled with the dry smell of blueberries, moss, and herbs. If you are sufficiently attentive, you might catch floating above it all the perfume of the wild eglantine, soft and sweet, of infinite, silky delicacy. ——
The Lithuanian Riviera, by analogy with the Côte d’Azur or La Costa Smeralda is sometimes called the Amber Coast. All kinds of jewels, toys and sculptures made of this fossilised pine resin are sold all around Palanga. Amber can be opaque or translucent, ranging in colour from the very light yellow a cheap dessert wine, to the deep and warm golden brown of an old cognac. It can be milky white in colour with veins of blue and green: that is royal amber and the most precious. But the most beautiful amber is sun-yellow and transparent, with an unpolished side. It catches the light that comes inside the stone and somehow melts it. And when you hold a piece of amber against a lamp, you discover that the summer is still inside, with the sullen murmur of the sea and the warm scents of noon. ——
In the 19th century a Polish count commissioned a French architect to build a mansion near the shore and designed a vast English park around it. Behind the mansion is a small rose garden and on the warmest evenings of August a chamber orchestra plays on the veranda. A century later a villa was build for Brezhnev, in that unmistakable style of the ‘70s whose ugliness is sometimes strangely attractive. It has now become possible to rent one of its six suites and enjoy the most perfect isolation, a deliciously obsolete decoration and the unobtrusive thoughtfulness of the service that was once reserved to high-ranking officials of the Soviet regime. ——
I realised what, I believe, makes the unique charm of that Amber Coast when speaking with a friend about Saint-Petersburg. The essence of Petersburg’s beauty, he said, is the contrast between its warm, baroque architecture and the cool, crystalline light of the North. The same can be said of Palanga: there a sober northern nature is bathed with a surprisingly warm and rich light. ——
An aspiring poet comparing the glamorous, shimmering sophistication of the French Riviera or the mysterious magic of the deep, velvet nights of the Orient to the innocent and fresh evenings of Palanga would inevitably conclude that those are enchanting and demanding mistresses, expert in the art of loving, whereas the Baltic shore is the sixteen-year old girl that you once, long ago, kissed on the cheek. My more practical soul seldom soars to the heights of poetic emotions. To conclude, I would like to point out that beer in Lithuania is delicious and cheaper than carbonated water.