Gateway to the World
Once considered a forgotten corner of Europe, Klaipėda is today a thriving business and tourism centre
A white cruise liner with tourists crowding the deck slowly passes the quayside cranes and enters the port. Once called Memel, Klaipėda used to be the northernmost city in the German Empire. Today it is Lithuania’s only gateway to the world, the northernmost ice-free port on the east of the Baltic Sea, and the country’s third largest city, with a population of almost 200,000.
The port is Lithuania’s economic link with the world, investment and ever-strengthening ties with the countries of the EU. Klaipėda is no longer the province it was under German rule. It has won three awards from the Council of Europe for international cooperation.
At first you may not notice any signs of the city’s German past. All you can see are the grey facades of the Soviet-era shipyard, the cranes and the slightly more optimistic sight of construction sites. But once you get closer to the Old Town and reach the River Danė, the cityscape starts to change. A romantic sailing ship, used as a floating restaurant, appears, as do streets similar to those in northern German cities.
Tourists on Theatre Square admire the symbol of the city, a bronze statue of Taravos Anikė, standing on a granite pedestal in the middle of a small fountain. The monument was lost during the Second World War and was returned only after the restoration of Lithuania’s independence. The square is busy, with street vendors selling souvenirs, mostly amber, and matryoshka dolls, including some with the sad face of the Russian president Vladimir Putin painted on them.
The history of Klaipėda divides into two parts. The city would like to join them. This is why it is now looking for its roots, knowing that history could be turned to its advantage. It has an impressively long port, and straight streets in the Old Town. Due to restorers’ work, the newer a house looks the older it is. The new generation of residents do not share sentiments that are popular with people in Poland, and are not as sceptical as the Czechs. However, they have no doubt that Klaipėda is a Lithuanian city.
Despite the fact that during the Second World War, Klaipėda was badly damaged, a strong feeling from other times survives: in the half-timbered houses, which you will not find anywhere else in Lithuania, in the strict architectural styles of the Old Town, in the small courtyards, and in the tiny spaces recalling those of the Hanseatic cities of northern Europe. This otherness that Klaipėda has attracts enterprising people.
If you take a walk through the narrow, straight streets of the Old Town, you will soon come across a small cafe. Klaipėda has more restaurants per capita than any other Lithuanian city.
“After taking a close look at the architecture, I see now how it reflects all the historical and political changes,” says Emilio d’Alesio, an architect and photographer from Florence.
“You can find relics from the Soviet era, as well as elements of the new economy. Some are marvellous, some are controversial and of little artistic value, while some are repugnant. The city seems to be stuck between the past and the present. It is undergoing changes, and is trying to find its true face …
“I’m also interested in colours. In Italy, most buildings are grey or yellow, and there are no red brick buildings.”
The Klaipėda of today is a swinging city, full of energy and spontaneous joy. Its cultural life is centred more and more around the yearly jazz festivals, which feature international stars such as Billy Cobham, Maynard Ferguson and Toots Thielemans and attract thousands of jazz enthusiasts from all over Lithuania.
“I am glad that in recent years Klaipėda has earned itself the name of the New Orleans of Lithuania,” says Vytautas Grub-liauskas-Kongas, the organiser of the festival.
“This is thanks in part to the Pilies d˛iazo [Castle Jazz] festivals that have been held for the last eleven years and the jazz club at the Kurpių Restaurant, the only club in the city with live jazz.”
Klaipėda is Lithuania’s only port, and in this respect Lithuania differs from all the other countries on the Baltic Sea, because they all have several ports. Vilnius, the capital, belongs to the family of multicultural cities of Central Europe. Klaipėda, however, is a northern port with a Baltic tranquility and the remnants of German orderliness. Its geographic location and its past make it similar to Gdansk (Danzig) in Poland, which was also for a long time under the cultural and political influence of Germany.
For some Klaipėda may look like a city without character, without suspense or uncertainty, without the breath of the past, without seductiveness.
Despite all this, the city has its attractions. Maybe because of the closeness of the sea. Maybe because over the years the sea has instilled the spirit of freedom in the people who live here.
They are not afraid to admit that the roots of their city are not Lithuanian, and they use these historical links. The label on the bottles of the popular Švyturys beer that is brewed in Klaipėda states that the brewery dates back to the year 1784, when the city was part of Prussia, not Lithuania.
Ebelhardt von Seyn, a vice-master of the Livonian Order, built a castle and founded Memel in 1252. Today it is the oldest self-governing city in Lithuania, the first to receive Lübeck rights.
All that now remains of urban settlements that existed in Lithuania in the 13th century are names in chronicles.
Klaipėda, on the other hand, still stands where it stood then. Due to the constant threat of attacks from Lithuanian tribes and the rivalry between neighbouring ports, Klaipėda never joined the powerful Hanseatic League, the association of merchants that developed with its administrative headquarters in Lübeck. Therefore, unlike Gdansk or Riga, it never earned a great fortune from trade.
As one German chronicler put it in the Middle Ages, Klaipėda was too far away and only God could be responsible for it.
And then one day this God-forsaken corner became a capital city, not of Lithuania but of Prussia. After Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia, King Frederick William III, and his wife Louise, their children and courtiers, took refuge from the French emperor in Klaipėda in 1807. The royal family lived here for three years, and during this time the act for the abolition of serfdom in Prussia was declared.
After the departure of the royal family, peaceful provincial life returned. A Russian traveller who visited Klaipėda in 1814 wrote that it was “situated in a grim, sad plain washed by the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon.
Here you will find no gardens, promenades, green lawns or shady forests; all you can see is sand, sand and more sand, monotonous waters and the dunes of Neringa behind them.”
In 1871, Prince Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of Prussia, managed to unite Germany, and Klaipėda became the northernmost city in the German Empire, referred to in the first stanza of the national anthem.
After the First World War the name lived on in history textbooks in German schools. When the Russian army marched into Klaipėda in 1914, a German switchboard operator remained in the post office and for two days she sent the German military command reports about the Russian units marching down the central street.
Field Marshal von Hindenburg, who would later become president of the German Reich, after expelling the Russians from East Prussia, presented “Fräulein Memel” with a medal.
After the war, the French moved into the city, which had been taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. They were supposed to stay until a decision was made on the next owner of Klaipėda. The Lithuanians, however, decided not to wait for the decision, and in 1923 they gained control of the city. The district became an autonomous region of Lithuania.
Merchant ships were bought, the port was rebuilt and a railway line and a road connecting it with the rest of the country were built.
This is how one author in his memoirs describes the life in the city in those days: “The city of Klaipėda was impeccably clean. Not a single cigarette end or match could be seen on the pavement. And even if something was dropped, it was most probably done by travellers passing through.
“In the mornings you could hear the amazing sound of a bell. This was a sign that the milkman had arrived. He would stop his horse every five or seven metres in front of a house. Someone would come out with a bottle and buy some milk. Sometimes the milkman would come into the entrance hall of a house to check whether there were any empty bottles left on the windowsill. He would count the cents under the bottle and pour in the corresponding amount of milk. You come home from work, and there is the milk on the windowsill.”
The crisis came in 1939 when Germany issued an ultimatum demanding back the Klaipėda region. On 23 March, Nazi flags were hoisted on public buildings and private houses.
The situation changed radically again in the winter of 1945, when Russian troops entered the burning city. There were almost no residents left. At the end of 1944, on Hitler’s orders, about 40,000 residents fled the city and took refuge deep inside Germany, and when the Soviets captured it they found only six people.
By 1946, however, the population had increased to about 30,000. But was it a city in the true sense of the word? The new people kept chickens, pigs and cows. In the mornings cows would be driven out to pasture, and in the evenings they would be led back home again through the city’s main streets.
Russian migrants arrived, including party functionaries, army officers and blue-collar workers. The rate of growth of the population was the highest in the country. The Lithuanians who came here were more likely to settle than the people arriving from regions of Russia. They had no doubt that Klaipėda was a Lithuanian city.
For a long time, residents were not allowed on to the lagoon or the sea. There was no link with the Curonian Spit. There were no ferries or boats. The Russians were afraid that people would try to escape to the West, and closed the area to civilians.
Fishermen were allowed to fish in the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon, but it was not until the summer of 1950 that the first two trawlers were sent to the North Atlantic.
Russians accounted for 70 per cent of the sailors working on merchant and fishing vessels, and for all the heads of maritime organisations. Lithuanians were not trusted. It was difficult for them to enrol in naval schools or to be promoted to the rank of captain or navigation officer.
Often they were sent to remote parts of the USSR, and graduates of schools in Leningrad or Murmansk came to work in Klaipėda.
A Lithuanian by the name of Jonas Pleškys inspired Tom Clancy, the author of several bestsellers, to write the book The Hunt for Red October. In 1961 he was a submarine captain, and after his vessel set out from Klaipėda to Tallinn he ordered it and its entire crew to sail to Sweden. The Soviet authorities sentenced him in his absence to death by firing squad, but the CIA hid him, first in Guatemala and later in America.
Until the 1970s, Klaipėda was a grim city that inspired little affection. The new residential areas had no individuality, and the Old Town began to decay.
The city’s modernisation started in the Eighties. The municipal authorities, although faithful to the rules of the communist nomenklatura, proved that they were true patriots of their city, and not obedient cogs in the communist machine. The restoration of the 18th and 19th-century half-timbered and brick buildings, the warehouses, and the Neogothic post office was begun, the rebuilding of the Neoclassical building of the theatre was completed, and the Klaipėda Hotel was built.
Klaipėda’s position is unique. It is both a port and a large industrial centre. It is also a city that has some qualities typical of resorts. Nature itself has endowed it with many assets. There is the Baltic Sea and its easily accessible beaches. The Curonian Spit, the pride of Lithuania, has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. The area has spectacular landscapes and sand dunes. The Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann used to spend his summers here.
The coast is characterised by its fine sand, old pine forests and attractive summer houses that draw people for their holidays.
The inhabitants of Klaipėda understand that the quality of life in their city depends not only on the ambitious plans for economic development and for attracting new investment, the clean streets or the shining glass walls of tall buildings, but also on respect for the city’s history and the preservation of its traditions and cultural heritage.
The harmoniously intertwining remnants of Lithuanian, German and Slavic culture are what give the city its special charm.
“The sea has always attracted people, and Klaipėda is an open, multicultural city,” says Johanna Schicker, a representative of the Austrian parliament to the Council of Europe.
“The Old Town is especially charming, thanks to its cobbled streets. I never stop wondering how women manage to walk so easily on these pavements in high-heeled shoes.”
The French Marie Claude Morin, a 47-year-old expert in Nato logistic systems, also shares this opinion.
“I walked around the city as if it was a museum. It is as if one part of the city is in the past and the other is in the future. It has many unique features. A walk in the town is the same as a visit to a museum.
“I liked especially the cobbled streets. They create a particular atmosphere. The buildings here breathe history. I have visited many places, and Klaipėda will stay in my memory as a city that preserves its history at the same time as looking to the future.”
Visitors like to visit the Clock and Watch Museum and the Central Post Office, a 19th-century Neogothic red brick building on Liepų alėja. If you board the old ferry and cross to Smiltynė (or Sand-krug as it used to be in German) on the other side of the strait, you will find a promenade leading to the Sea Museum and the dolphinarium with its large collection of marine life. The dolphins from the Black Sea put on lively performances for audiences. They also help treat children suffering from serious disorders.
At the end of July, when the Sea Festival, the most important event of the year, starts, the city is hardly recognisable.
The festival marks the city’s birthday, as it was founded on 1 August 1252 by the knights of the Livonian Order. It is attended by hundreds of thousands of people. The city is visited by ships, music plays everywhere, exhibitions are put on, there are theatrical performances and handicrafts fairs and the beer flows freely.
The whole fiesta ends with a spectacular firework display.
Klaipėda is a city of active and enterprising people.
“A city of freedom, a city that is open to innovations and initiatives unlike any other,” said Eugenijus Gentvilas, a former mayor and now a member of the European Parliament.
“Last year a survey was conducted in major cities around the country to find what people expected from membership of the European Union. The people of Vilnius and Klaipėda said they would first of all like to have more employment opportunities. People in Kaunas, Šiauliai and Panevė˛ys said they hoped that membership would bring higher salaries.”
The year 2003 was the most productive in the port’s history in terms of cargo handled.
While times change, the location remains the same. The sea will always be nearby. With regard to per capita foreign investment, and with the plans for new construction projects and the rate of development, it is the second city after Vilnius. Philip Morris built a production line in 1992, and this is the most successful foreign capital investment since the restoration of independence.
Even though the city’s inhabitants account for only 5.47 per cent of the country’s total population, about 10 per cent of the industrial output of the country and 80 per cent of the output of the Klaipėda region is manufactured here.
More than 60 per cent of the workforce is employed in the service industry. Computer services and the entertainment industry are rapidly growing sectors of the national economy.
The sole free economic zone in Lithuania (of the three planned), with an area of 205 hectares, attracts new investors by offering tax incentives for companies to build new factories.
The joint Danish and Irish venture Klaipėda Business Park is one of the many investment projects being implemented.
With the construction of a ten-million-litas business centre, many new jobs will be created. It is also a real possibility that future enterprises will ship their cargoes through the port.
“We are investing in this free economic zone because we have favourable conditions for expanding our activities,” said James Clarke, the executive director of Baltic Real Estate Development, which is supervising the Klaipėda Business Park investment project.
This project was the third in 2003. At the start of the year Esperssen, a Danish company, completed the construction of a fish processing plant, and a local capital company announced the start of the construction of a new plastic packaging factory.
“Foreign investors emphasise not the cheap labour force in the region, but the whole spectrum of high-quality services that is essential for the establishment and development of new businesses,” says Raimundas Vaitekūnas, director of the Klaipėda Economic Development Agency.
“They come because of the excellent railway, sea and road transport services, the joint industrial structures that are being formed, and the constantly growing logistics system.”
Are the inhabitants of Klaipėda happy? Probably. A sociological survey that was conducted in 2002 revealed that the number of people who considered themselves happy was much higher than in other cities. Over 90 per cent said they were proud to be inhabitants of Klaipėda and would not want to move to any other city.
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