An un­likely time capsule

Rus­sia’s lit­tle-known Kalin­ingrad is a les­son in history

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - TOM CHESSHYRE

En­ter­ing Kalin­ingrad feels like re­turn­ing to the days of the Cold War. Guards clutch ba­tons and watch dead­eyed as we inch for­ward in a queue of cars to a row of non­de­script immigration booths. An icy wind sweeps across the fore­court, whistling through the dense pine for­est that sur­rounds us.

We’re at an iso­lated out­post on Kalin­ingrad’s Pol­ish bor­der. We smile at the guards. They don’t smile back. We step out of our car and wait at the booth as our pass­ports are slowly checked. Fi­nally, our doc­u­ments are pushed through. We are in.

Kalin­ingrad is an odd­ity, a part of Rus­sia that’s tucked be­tween Poland and Lithua­nia on the Baltic Sea, 320km from “main­land” Rus­sia proper. This un­usual en­clave is the re­sult of the 1945 Pots­dam agree­ment, dur­ing which Stalin can­nily ne­go­ti­ated to in­cor­po­rate 222sq km of land by the Baltic coast into the Soviet Union.

It was a cun­ning move be­cause at a stroke Kalin­ingrad — as the main city and ter­ri­tory was soon re­named af­ter a Rus­sian of­fi­cial — be­came the for­mer Soviet Union’s only year-round ice-free Baltic port. The for­mer name of Konigs­berg was cast aside, and lo­cal Ger­man con­nec­tions dat­ing back cen­turies were largely for­got­ten. A process of rapid Rus­si­fi­ca­tion be­gan in the im­me­di­ate post­war pe­riod. So as we bump along a nar­row pot­holed road sur­rounded by pines, we’re won­der­ing what to ex­pect.

We’re in a re­gion Western trav­ellers dis­cov­ered long ago, vis­it­ing cities such as Gdansk in Poland (where we flew in, just a cou­ple of hours’ drive away), Vil­nius (not so far north in Lithua­nia) and Tallinn (in Es­to­nia).

Yet we’re in vir­tu­ally un­charted tourist ter­ri­tory, tucked away in the mid­dle.

Our base is the Ho­tel Mockba, a short walk from Peace Square, where a statue of Lenin held pride of place be­fore the Soviet Union’s 1991 col­lapse.

We’ve had our first night out, start­ing with eye-wa­ter­ing nas­toyka vod­kas (a home­made con­coc­tion com­pris­ing veg­eta­bles, berries and herbs that tastes strangely like horseradish) at the Mockba’s nar­row bar, fol­lowed by bowls of solyanka (rich, spicy-sour beef soup) and var­i­ous solid sausage, potato and cab­bage dishes, all washed down with fizzy lo­cal beer.

Now we’re on Peace Square with our guide, Olga Danilova, who was Michael Palin’s guide when he vis­ited in the mid-2000s; it re­ally helps to have a tour es­cort given that so lit­tle has been writ­ten about Kalin­ingrad and that most signs and much tourist ma­te­rial is in Cyril­lic.

“Some peo­ple look at Kalin­ingrad when they are shown the map of Europe and say: ‘ Surely some mis­take’,” Olga says as she leads up the steps of Christ the Saviour, an im­pos­ing Rus­sian Ortho­dox cathe­dral with onion-shaped domes that was com­pleted in 2006. Be­yond a heavy wooden door, the in­side smells of can­dle wax and there’s a soft mur­mur of in­can­ta­tions as wor­ship­pers queue to place fore­heads on icons.

Ger­man philoso­pher Im­manuel Kant was born and lived al­most all his life in what was Konigs­berg. His tomb is next to the re­stored Konigs­berg Cathe­dral, our next stop, a distin­guished red-brick struc­ture dat­ing from the 14th cen­tury with a witch’s hat spire and a gold clock face.

The build­ing was re­paired af­ter many years of be­ing left as a ruin fol­low­ing a Bri­tish air strike in 1944. It’s a splen­did place and it’s also in­trigu­ing to learn about Kant’s pe­cu­liar life, as de­scribed in the mu­seum housed in one part of the cathe­dral.

The great thinker, con­sid­ered one of the founders of mod­ern phi­los­o­phy, had many pe­cu­liar char­ac­ter­is­tics. “He stuck rigidly to his daily habits, so much so that peo­ple could check their watches by where he had reached on his daily walks ... he wouldn’t want to stop to talk to any­one as it would spoil his rou­tine, and he pre­ferred to breathe through his mouth rather than his nose as he be­lieved that pro­tected him from bad air,” says Olga.

How much is based on Chi­nese whis­pers is un­sure: a much-told tale that Kant was such a home bird he never once left Konigs­berg has been found to be spu­ri­ous as he def­i­nitely ven­tured at least as far as Ber­lin.

Later, we try some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent, and go to the Pri­morsky am­ber mine, about half an hour’s drive away. More than 80 per cent of the world’s am­ber comes from Kalin­ingrad and the big­gest mine is on the edge of the city. Huge cranes hang over a scarred land­scape that is pro­tected by guards.

We’re of­fered a shot of vodka flavoured with crushed am­ber. It tastes of honey and pine, with an af­ter-burn of strong al­co­hol. Then we’re taken to a lit­tle mu­seum with many shelves of am­ber sculp­tures worth mil­lions of rou­bles, be­fore we sam­ple a meal in the min­ers’ can­teen: chicken soup with cab­bage and onion, buck­wheat with beef, and jelly for pud­ding. It’s all very tasty and un­usual.

There are other in­ter­est­ing ex­cur­sions, in­clud­ing forts built by the Prus­sians be­tween the 17th and 19th cen­turies, which were used by the Nazis as de­fen­sive po­si­tions. These are free to en­ter and con­sist of a se­ries of high brick walls with labyrinthine tun­nels and cannon and gun slits.

We head half an hour north to ex­plore the gi­ant sand dunes of the Curo­nian Spit, a thin stretch of land that in the mid­dle be­comes Lithua­nia. The dunes are some of the big­gest in Europe and for a while it feels as though we’re lost some­where in the Namib­ian desert (not some­thing that hap­pens that of­ten in north­east­ern Europe).

Then it’s off to see the bunker where Gen­eral Otto Lasch ran Nazi oper­a­tions in the city in World War II. The bunker is in a non­de­script neigh­bour­hood of Sovi­etera apart­ments close to the port, and is 15m deep and 42m long. The April, 1945 at­tack by the Red Army led to Lasch’s ca­pit­u­la­tion.

So while you might not ex­pect to find a whole lot to do in an obost (province) of Rus­sia that few have heard of and far fewer have vis­ited, some­how there’s plenty to keep your in­ter­est. There’s also a time-capsule qual­ity to Kalin­ingrad that re­wards the in­quis­i­tive.

As we drive back to the Pol­ish bor­der for another en­counter with the cheery guards, we pass an enor­mous re­minder of the failed USSR. This is the now-derelict House of Sovi­ets, a con­crete mon­stros­ity shaped like a ro­bot, the fa­cade of which gives the im­pres­sion of it hav­ing eyes and a mouth. It was left half-com­plete when fund­ing ran out in the 1980s.

What was to be the HQ of com­mu­nist af­fairs in Kalin­ingrad is next to the long-empty site of the for­mer Kon­is­berg Castle, which was blown up by the Sovi­ets in the late 1960s, de­spite be­ing of huge his­toric im­por­tance and dat­ing back to the Teu­tonic Knights in the 13th cen­tury.

So much history in such a small obost. Smile at the bor­der guards, en­joy a nas­toyka or two, and go see one of the most pe­cu­liar places in Europe, if not the world.

THE TIMES

Kalin­ingrad wa­ter­front, top; Cathe­dral of Christ the Saviour, above; the derelict House of Sovi­ets and rub­ble from the Kon­is­berg Castle ru­ins, left; and a statue of Ger­man philoso­pher Im­manuel Kant

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