I stand where Europe‘s last pagans once worshipped and wonder whether to offer a token prayer to appease the spirits of nature, for it seems they are unhappy. Wild, green waves from the Baltic rush over the pale sands beneath my feet and a sharp wind cuts through me.
I‘m in Sventoji, a coastal village on the edge of Lithuania, which looks as if the colour has been blown clean out of it. From here, Lithuania‘s coastline - 60 miles of soft dunes held in place by creaking, wind-battered pines - snakes down to the Russian border at Kaliningrad. Storms are frequent visitors here.
And today is no exception. Fuelled by high winds, mammoth waves of opal and grey split open against the shore and offload their saltwater booty. There‘s the usual flotsam and jetsam, but alongside the seaweed and driftwood, golden pieces of natural magic are also washed up. From Sventoji to Kaliningrad, amber is the coast‘s special treasure.
The Baltic Sea, like a great briny patron, has provided the world with 90 per cent of its amber. The Romans recognised its appeal 2,000 years ago and decided to obtain their 'northern gold' direct from its source; the trade routes they established from this coastline snaked over Europe to the heart of their empire in Rome.
This Roman route began where faded Sventoji now stands and I am determined - with the help of my Lithuanian guide, Sakalas Janavicius - to follow the amber road as far as Kaliningrad. From Sventoji, we drive a few miles south through coastal pine forests to Palanga, home to the world‘s first and largest amber museum. As we motor through the town, the housing on the tree-lined streets catches my eye.
Bavarian-style cottages, painted candyfloss pink and pistachio green, that look as if they‘ve been fancily carved out of ice cream, share postcodes with functional, high-rises; grey leftovers from the days of Soviet control. Here Mr Disney and Mr Stalin are neighbours. The architectural pick and mix gives Palanga an unworldly, surreal feel.
The town‘s Amber Museum looks solid enough though. A former 19th-century palace, it bears all the marks of a stately coastal residence, with grand windows that overlook sculpted grounds running down to the sea. An amber cornucopia, it holds thousands of ancient pieces and artefacts. Like tiny time machines, some segments contain perfectly preserved, prehistoric flora and fauna.
Looking at these is like looking into miniature museums within a museum - history, Russian-doll style. When we leave, Sakalas suggests we drive farther down the amber road to the wild and windy coves around Karkle. With the winds picking up, we may see amber catchers braving the waves. As the sky turns granite, we pull up close to the shore and open the car doors to a fierce barrage of wind; a place where pines point permanently inland, subservient to the storms that push against them.
By the water‘s edge, figures in yellow oilskins stand out against the grey backdrop of sky and sea. We are in luck. Four amber-catchers are out with their nets, knee high in waves, swagging amber like underwater butterflies from the tide.
We watch them for half an hour and, just as we start to battle the winds back to the car, one of the amber catchers approaches us. He opens a waterproof pouch and empties the contents into my hand. Six honey-coloured pieces, fresh from the sea, are mine to keep. Leaving the storm behind us, we head for Klaipèda, Lithuania‘s third-largest city. From here, we take the five-minute ferry crossing to the Curonian Spit, a sandy spindle of land separated from the mainland by a lagoon on one side, and buffeted by the Baltic on the other.
As we approach the Spit, my guide‘s eyes light up. And I can see why. This thin wedge of sand - just under two miles at its widest point - is a beguiling natural alchemy of dense evergreen forests inhabited by wild elk, boars and hares, towering, empty sand dunes and fishing villages that remain largely untouched by modern life.
At the village of Juodkrantè, fantastical wooden carvings of life-size figures from Lithuanian folklore look down from the forest at the red, blue and brown wooden houses that circle the lagoon from where more than two-and-a-half million tons of amber was dredged during the late 1800s. Farther up the Spit, at Nida, pagan burial grounds are preserved and amber vodka is made to toast Neringa, the Lithuanian goddess credited with creating the Spit.
The dunes between the villages and forests take my breath away. Thousands of years old, they have an eerie beauty and strange history. Here, the wind whips the grains through the air to build dunes nearly 200 feet high. I look around this empty landscape, conscious that the ground is far from empty: beneath us 14 villages from the 1800s are buried.
A few centuries back, Spit‘s forests were chopped down for timber. This means the giant staples that held down the sand became unhinged and a slow vanishing act ensued. In its wake, entire villages, each one like a mini sandy Atlantis, became subterranean. Since then, intensive reforestation programmes have been implemented.
These have been largely successful, but the dunes that Sakalas and I are standing on - the ones with villages in their insides - are still on the move, sliding back to the sea at a rate of 11 inches a year. In the meantime, up here on the dunes, a short distance from Kaliningrad, it feels as though time is standing still.
With the Spit protected by Unesco World Heritage status and much of the coastline designated a seaside regional park, it has felt like this most of the way down from Sventoji. Lithuania‘s amber road exists in a twilight zone where strange and fabulous landscapes are preserved - in amber, so to speak - by a country proud of its pagan past, its evergreen forests and its close relationship with the sea.