In search of... Amber in Lithuania

Those chunks of fossilised pine resin can cost a fortune. Not, says Anna Goldrein, if you're prepared to travel to the Baltic

The sea has sent amber to the Baltic shores for thousands of years. Lithuania is also a stone's throw from Kaliningrad, where Russian mafiosi control the amber mines. It's a ridiculously cheap place to visit, has gorgeous food, friendly people, beautiful rural landscapes (if you like it flat and forested) and a cosy capital city.

The sea has sent amber to the Baltic shores for thousands of years. Lithuania is also a stone's throw from Kaliningrad, where Russian mafiosi control the amber mines. It's a ridiculously cheap place to visit, has gorgeous food, friendly people, beautiful rural landscapes (if you like it flat and forested) and a cosy capital city.

What is amber?

According to Lithuanian folklore, Perkunas, god of thunder, got angry when sea goddess Jurate and drop-dead gorgeous fisherman Kastytit got it together. Whipping the sea up into a frenzy, Perkunas chained Jurate to her underwater amber palace and smote it, bringing it down around her. Now, when the goddess cries, the sea becomes upset and stormy, washing her amber tears and fragments of her destroyed palace on to the beach. That is why amber is best gathered after a storm.

Pull the other one

OK, scientifically speaking, amber is the fossilised resin of pine trees that died more than 20 million years ago. There are several varieties – Baltic amber (succinite) is at least 30 million years old.

Red, amber, green

The amber rainbow spans black, green, red, many shades of yellow and brown, blue, milky white and near transparent. The darker the amber, the more impurities in the resin, though amber also darkens with age and modern heating techniques.

Not just a pretty fossil?

Gintaras (Lithuanian for amber) comes from "ginte" (meaning to protect). Amber is said to cure all manner of ailments from arthritis to epilepsy, impotence, Black Death, goitres and sore throats. My guide vowed it cured her daughter's earache. Wear amber close to your skin to ward off evil spirits and protect from drowning.

Take me to the heart of amber

Fly to Vilnius, Lithuania's comfortable little capital; a pizza-base of Soviet-style architecture with Baroque and Orthodox church toppings, best viewed from the heights of the hilltop Gediminas Castle. As soon as you step into your hotel lobby, you are greeted by a gorgeous blond Lithuanian and a glass case of polished goodies – your first taste of amber. Take a stroll to the market, where among wool and ex-communist relics, linen and wooden crafts, you'll find strings of rough amber necklaces. Barter and your litas will go a long way. Head for the Gates of Dawn, where a gleaming Madonna draws pilgrims from afar, then stop for a coffee break and explore Lithuanian cakes at Skanaus patisserie (Ausros Vartu 9). Next door, there's pricey, posh amber, from heavy, polished beads to carved sculptures at Ausros Vartu 9 (00370 2 22 19 88, www.cci.lt/amber). For the non-aficionados, they can check out Vilnius's Amber Museum-Gallery and boutique at Sv Mykolo 8 (00370 2 62 30 92; www.ambergallery.lt), for a cellar-full of Baltic gold. I was heading west to Lithuania's Brighton – Palanga.

Ambered Out

I arrived at night and went straight to my snug cabin to sit before its open fire. Lulled to sleep by the distant play of the waves on Palanga's sandy shore, I dreamt of amber. In the morning I saw 25,000 pieces of the real thing – including one enormous hunk, the third largest in the world. Not to mention hairy spiders, creepy cockroaches, dragonflies and forest fauna that met their sticky end some 30 million years ago. Or amber jewellery recovered from ancient burial grounds, amber topped spindles (designed to keep bad spirits from knotting up the threads) and jewellery from Neolithic to contemporary times. Palanga's amber museum – probably the largest collection in the world – is housed in Count Tiskevicius's 19th-century mansion surrounded by botanical gardens (Vytauto 17, 00370 36 53501) designed by the French landscape artist Edouard André.

A girl cannot live by amber alone, so I ate my way down Basanaviciaus Street, choc-a-bloc with cafés and bars, sampling cepelinai (potato dumplings), balandeliai (meat-stuffed cabbage rolls), saltibarsciai (cold beetroot soup) and blynai (fine pancakes with cottage cheese). All washed down with Lithuanian beers (try Svyturys, Utenos and Kalnapilis) and a shot or two of degtine (Lithuanian vodka). And a sip of sparkling Alita wine. I weaved down Palanga's simple wooden pier for some fresh air.

Getting crafty

Recovered, I sought out craft secrets from Sigitas Mickunas, who is president of Palanga's Guild of Amber Masters. At his workshop (Lauku 8-2A; www.omnitel.net/ambercoast), the amber is polished, carved, strung and even heated. It's a controversial issue: heating it makes amber go sparkly (or splits it in to pieces when things go wrong). Heated amber is coveted by tourists (I have heated amber wrapped round my wrist as you read this) but is condemned by purists, who will tell you that "you can't produce a chicken from a boiled egg". During the communist era, Lithuania's jewellery was factory-made to only one design. Since independence in 1991, Lithuanian craftspeople (some 40 per cent are women) are relearning age-old traditions.

Mine, all mine

I aimed for the amber market (open in summer Tuesday, Friday and Saturday). Here I found all types of amber, sold by the kilo, as well as souvenir key rings, chokers, sculptures and insect inclusions. I could even buy a sack of rough amber to polish for myself at home. Yeah, right. I spent some litas in Palanga before succumbing to the charms of the beautiful specimen at the airport – huge chunky beads flecked with gold.

How do I know it's not plastic?

In Lithuania, it's easier to mine amber from nearby Kaliningrad than to embark on the complex process required to imitate amber's natural beauty. But to make absolutely sure, put your amber under UV light – real amber glows – or rub your jewel on wool; the real deal emits a faint scent of resin.

How much should I pay?

Not much. My fat amber ring cost £10 and beaded necklace £40. Back home in London, I nipped into John Lewis's jewellery department to find amber prices five times higher than in low-cost Lithuania, and puny sized lumps. But even in Lithuania's ideal hunting grounds, you get what you pay for (and the best quality necklaces will fetch around £300). Large, antique or shaped beads, white amber or amber with insect inclusions fetch more litas.

An amber is not just for Christmas. Just like our delicate skin, amber needs protecting from harsh sunlight to keep its youthful good looks. Store it in the safety of your jewellery box.

Amber can dull with wear, so give it back its sparkle with a seasonal rub with silver polish and a soft cloth. Amber can break when dropped. Be gentle!

Be faithful to your amber and in return it will protect you. Allow your amber to get intimate with other skins, and all benefits will be null and void (according to folklore). So keep your hands off my amber and go get your own!

How do I get there?

I travelled with Lithuanianholidays.com (0161-286 0830; www.lithuanianholidays.com) which offers a variety of weekend packages from £329 for a three-night stay. Lithuanian Airlines flies direct from Gatwick to Vilnius and offers fares from around £270 (01293 579 900; www.lal.lt). In Vilnius, I stayed at the Centro Kubas Hotel (00 370 2 66 08 60; www.centrokubas.lt) where a double room costs from £64 per night, and in Palanga at the Pusu Paunksneje Hotel (00 370 36 49080) which offers apartments for rent from £150 per night.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
football
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
News
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel
travel
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform