The History of Juodkrantė as Remembered by Its Old Villas
Amber Road travellers are invited to visit Juodkrantė and pay attention to the old villas built back in the 19th century. You might be wondering how the villas are associated with amber. There is no direct link, but Juodkrantė should be grateful to amber for helping it become one of the most attractive resorts on the Baltic Sea coast, and the old villas remind us of the transformation of a small fishermen’s village into a famous resort.
Tourism to the Curonian Spit before the discovery of amber
Recreation on the sea coast became an international phenomenon in the whole Baltic region and a sign of good social standing for the middle class and wealthy Europeans in the 19th century. Some people compared the Curonian Spit to the desert, while others were attracted by its rather harsh scenery, which was punctuated by small fishermen’s villages. At that time, this territory belonged to the German Empire, one of the leaders of industrialization and modernization in Europe. This resulted in excellent connections from Königsberg (East Prussia, former German Empire city) to Klaipėda (former Memel) by railway, and steamboats shuttled from Cranzbeek (East Prussia) to the Curonian Spit. That led to the transformation of small fishermen’s villages into famous resorts.
Yet there was one major drawback. Although it was easy to arrive to the Curonian Spit, in the 19th century, there were only small fishermen’s villages there and they lacked basic comforts. Arriving by steamboat, on which they enjoyed various amenities and danced to the sounds of Strauss music, travellers hoped for high culture at the resorts, but in the first half of the19th century, the infrastructure was still underdeveloped and there was a lack of accommodation and entertainment.
The Role of Amber in the Growth of Juodkrantė
A breakthrough took place around 1860, when the Stantien & Becker company began operations in Juodkrantė. The Germans performed the dredging of the fairway in the lagoon here, and in return they received the right to excavate and sell amber found at the bottom of the lagoon. The discovered amber-bearing vein was huge, so Stantien & Becker settled in Juodkrantė for decades and created many new jobs. The town began to grow by leaps and bounds – from 170 inhabitants in 1860 to 851 in 1885, and Juodkrantė became the largest settlement in the Curonian Spit at that time.
Stantien & Becker’s role in the development of Juodkrantė and making it famous was not limited to newly created jobs. The company not only excavated amber but also sold raw materials and various amber articles around the world. Insightful management helped the company to become famous itself as well as spread the message about the Curonian Spit and Juodkrantė. The most impressive was the collection of ancient amber articles found during the excavations. An important part of this collection was the Juodkrantė amber treasure described above – a collection of Stone Age amber jewellery. The Stantien & Becker amber collection was exhibited in Berlin, St. Petersburg, St. Louis, Chicago and London. This was a priceless advertisement for Juodkrantė and the whole Curonian Spit.
Not surprisingly, with the growth of the population and the spreading fame of this culturally unique resort of unusual beauty, the number of tourists grew. Hotel business representatives became interested in Juodkrantė, the infrastructure of the town was significantly improved and walking promenades, taverns and hotels were constructed.
Just then, at the end of the 19th century, a whole block of villas was formed between the marina and the cemetery: two hotels, a number of private summer houses and furnished apartments. To date, only the authentic Villa Monbijou has survived, which now houses the local administration of Juodkrantė. Furthermore, one of the most beautiful buildings in Juodkrantė, Villa Flora, has been resurrected using private funds, and a hotel with a cafe of the same name has been operating for a long time in the reconstructed outbuilding of the summer house.
They seem to be nothing special – some beautiful old buildings. But they evidence the remarkable transformation of Juodkrantė. The next time you pass by these villas, think that at the end of the 19th century there was nothing more but a tavern-post office, a school and nine fishermen’s houses. And only after the discovery of Nordic Gold in the Amber Bay, in only a few decades, a small fishermen’s village turned into one of the most attractive seaside resorts in Europe.