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.

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