By June Molloy. LITHUANIAN HERITAGE July / August 2021
The last few years have been difficult for us all. The Covid pandemic has left no one untouched, impacting all walks of life in every corner of the globe. People have been forced to work from home, or to suddenly home-school their kids without anyone showing them how. But the biggest impact, I feel, is being kept away from friends and family. We are social creatures, and the very idea of “social distancing” is at odds with our natural desire to be with the people we love. The result is a world of weary souls, all looking for a way to revive and rejuvenate.
Here in Lithuania we had a long and difficult winter. Strict rules on movement within the country were introduced just before Christmas, meaning many people could not spend the holidays with their families. In January, temperatures dropped to –4 degrees and remained there until spring. Tough restrictions were implemented again for Easter, with police checkpoints on county lines. Even getting out to take wildlife photos was a challenge. I have perhaps been impacted less than others by the Covid restrictions. I already work from home and I live in a small Lithuanian village where social distancing is relatively easy, but being confined to one place is difficult for most people, particularly for nomads like me. So, when a friend asked me if I would like to spend the summer floating down Lithuania’s longest river on a house boat, I didn’t have to think twice about the answer. Three months of gently floating along the crisp, calm waters of the Nemunas, surrounded on both sides by thick forest teeming with wildlife, watching the sun rise and set over the water – this is my idea of heaven.
The Nemo raft was built by Druskininkai native, Renatas Žyla, who had dreamed of building a such a boat since he was a small boy. His father was the captain of a cargo ship, and although his father passed away when he was just one year old, he feels the spirit of a life on water was passed to him. In his youth, he would watch the adventures of Tom Sawyer and his friend Huckleberry Finn as they happily floated down the Mississippi on a homemade raft. This spirit of freedom touched him deep inside and, despite many people telling him his ideas and designs were not viable, he persisted in pursuing his dream. A reluctant emigrant to first the U.S. and then the U.K., Renatas returned to Lithuania in 2014 with a clear vision of the raft he would build.
The result is the most amazing house boat – the largest of its kind in Lithuania, stretching to over 1,800 sq. ft. Downstairs, there is a large outdoor deck, smaller shaded deck, living space for eating or just relaxing, kitchen, toilet, hot shower and ten 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’s also an onboard sauna, and a two-hour Baltic-style steam sauna. 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 traditional 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.
The Nemunas is Lithuania’s longest river, meandering north-east for over 200 miles from the Belarusian border to the Curonian Lagoon on the Baltic Sea. It travels past towns and villages and forms part of the border between Lithuania and Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast. The beauty of the river is hard to describe. The banks are lined on both sides with thick swathes of pine trees, broken only here and there to allow access to a town or village. The gentle current pushes us ever-forward, or ripples softly past the boat when we are moored in the evenings. The skies above us are alive with birds, from tiny song-birds to large sea eagles. As the sun sets, a chorus of frogs erupts to lull us gently to sleep. 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 the Huckleberry Finn that first inspired Renatas, my feet are bare and scruffy, my hair is wind-swept and unruly, and my skin is brown and dusted with freckles. It is liberating to be this lackadaisical. 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’s 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 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. As a way to revive and rejuvenate, it’s hard to beat.
June Molloy is an Irish writer and wildlife photographer who has been living in the Lithuanian countryside for the last eight years. 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. You can find more about June and stories from her life on her blog, www.junemolloy.com. For more information on the Nemo raft, see www.riverworld.lt.
All photos by June Molloy, except the photo of Renatas as a young boy, which was taken by his mother and is used with permission.