June Molloy grew up in Wexford, but has been living deep in the Lithuanian countryside for the past eight years, where she is an English teacher, writer and photographer. She has written two books - one about Lithuanian food and a novel for older children about Lithuanian wildlife. She grows her own vegetables and makes most of her food from scratch using local ingredients. This summer, she is travelling the length of Lithuania's longest river, the Nemunas, on a raft and blogging about the trip
The world has grown weary. We’re tired of it all. Tired of working from home, of not seeing friends and family, of not socialising. And now that summer has begun in earnest, we are frustrated that we cannot travel.
I have fared pretty well during this pandemic. I already work from home, and live deep in the countryside, where social distancing is not a problem. But, like Ireland, we had strict restrictions on movement over the winter months, which kept me from my friends, most of whom live in Vilnius. Christmas plans to go back to Ireland had to be cancelled at the last minute - a moment which marked the beginning of a very long winter. Snow fell in January, and temperatures dropped to about -20, where they sat for nearly three months. Even without Covid restrictions, travel is difficult in those conditions. Snow does bring some spectacular scenery, though, so armed with my jeep and my camera, I still managed to get some beautiful shots.
Being held in one place for long periods is not comfortable for any of us, but particularly for nomads like me. So, when a friend asked if I would like to spend the summer on a raft, sailing down Lithuania’s longest river, I didn’t even need to think about the answer. Three months of being mostly outdoors, floating gently past deep forests and hidden villages, falling asleep to a chorus of frogs and waking to a chorus of birds - this is my idea of heaven.
The Nemunas river rises in central Belarus, enters Lithuania at its southernmost tip, then winds its way north-west to reach the Curonian lagoon on the Baltic Sea. Our three-month odyssey began in Druskininkai, a beautiful spa town in southern Lithuania. The raft was built by our captain, Renatas Žyla, who grew up on the banks of the Nemunas and who had dreamed of owning such a boat since he was a small boy. After years working abroad, he returned to Lithuania to build an incredibly impressive raft. Downstairs, there is a large outdoor deck, smaller shaded deck, living space for eating or just relaxing, kitchen, toilet, hot shower and 10 single bedrooms, which can be converted to doubles or triples as required. Upstairs, there's a grassy deck and tented accommodation for six more people. There is also an on-board sauna, and a two-hour Baltic-style steam sauna with our resident sauna master, Egidijus, is a feature of each cruise on the Nemo.
Over the summer months, the Nemo offers two-day, three-day and five-day cruises. Our resident chef, Daiva, serves delicious Lithuanian food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Guests can bring their own snacks and drinks, but tea, coffee and fresh drinking water are always available. On the first evening, we welcome a musician and friend of the Nemo, Mantas, to entertain our guests. Days are peppered with stops along the banks of the Nemunas to visit various places of interest or just to take in a stunning view. On the second evening, guests enjoy the therapeutic benefits of a sauna, jumping into the Nemunas at regular intervals to cool off. Without exception, guests emerge from the sauna feeling relaxed and rejuvenated from deep within. Most would say it was the highlight of their trip.
I can’t believe my luck that I get to experience this life for three whole months. Already, I feel different. Calmer, freer, the shackles of the winter months well and truly thrown off. The weather at the moment is glorious, with blue skies and temperatures in the low 30s. The water is shimmering and wildlife is teaming all around us. The steady flow of the river carries us along, or gently ripples past while we’re banked-up in the evening. There is no traffic here - just the wind in the rushes, the splash of a fish or the soft call of a bird overhead. It is a peacefulness that is hard to describe. I have never experienced anything like it before.
Like Huckleberry Finn, my feet are bare and often scruffy, my hair is a tangled mess and I am lackadaisical about my clothing choices. It is liberating to be this insouciant. I wake early to catch the morning light and generally fall into bed just after sunset, tired and content.
I had worried that the constant motion of the boat might make me dizzy, but now it feels strange to go ashore. It is almost jarring, like the moment at the end of a night out when the music is turned off and the lights come on. I have grown accustomed to the gentle bobbing and think I will miss it when my time here finally comes to an end. As I sit here with my laptop, sipping my mid-morning coffee with my dog panting softly at my toes, I can’t think of anywhere I would rather be.
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