05.09.2016 - 05.09.2016
I wish this city was more Königsberg and less Kaliningrad...
I cannot say that Kaliningrad has been a highlight of the trip, but I cannot say that I regret my visit here. It has been an interesting city to visit, though a rather depressing one. Let me provide a brief history of Königsberg...
This city was formerly known as Königsberg, one of the central cities in Prussia; once Prussia became a kingdom in its own right and the capital was established in Berlin, the Hohenzollern kings still journeyed to Königsberg for their coronations in the cathedral here. The city was part of Prussia (and then Germany after 1870) for over two centuries... and then the Second World War happened.
Königsberg, like most German cities, was bombed repeatedly and the Red Army captured it in April 1945. Much of the city was in ruins and, once the war was over, Russia annexed Königsberg and the surrounding territory; Poland was thrust westward into lands that were formerly Prussian (in case you didn't know, present-day Poland comprises areas that were, indeed, historically Polish... and then lands that were historically Prussian; this was done at Stalin's behest so he could expand the border of the USSR further west... and the West did nothing to stop him).
With Königsberg now formally part of Russia, the city's name was changed to Kaliningrad, after some Soviet guy name Kalinin. The German population was forcibly removed by the Soviets and moved to Germany; the area was then repopulated by Russians and other Soviet subjects. The rebuilding of the city was done in the ghastly 1950s Soviet style (cement block housing).
With all that said, I journeyed to Kaliningrad in the hopes of seeing the old Königsberg side of the city. To my dismay, very little of that old city is left, the rest having being intentionally stamped out by the Soviets.
I headed out for a long 4-hour walk around the city, maps in hand and camera at the ready. The first stop of the day was just a short walk along the river from my hotel: the Königsberg Cathedral, which had been lovingly restored starting in 1992. The exterior of the building is very charming and in the classic German style that one associates with old Germany. I quite liked seeing and admiring the cathedral.
When I arrived I waited at the ticket counter for quite a few minutes as the cashier kept talking (ad nauseam) with the two ladies in front of me. Eventually I was able to purchase a ticket for the museum on the upper floors. The museum encompassed three floors, the first area recounting the history of Königsberg/Kaliningrad, and then the remainder of the museum covering the Immanuel Kant, German philosopher who is buried at the cathedral. One of the final rooms had a strange display of foreign currency; all of the signage was in Russian (some was also in German, which helped as I could read some of that). There was currently from countries all around the world, both paper money and coins; they had an example of every type of modern coin from the US; I particularly enjoyed seeing the Iranian currency. Around the upper floors were some very nice stained glass windows and a lovely library.
Making my way down to the main level, I bought a ticket to enter the church itself. The inside was quite nice, though only the organ was ornately decorated; the rest of the church was quite plain. The organ was exquisite though: gold trimmed, paintings and sculptures all around, topped by the Hohenzollern black eagle. They regularly perform organ concerts at the cathedral and I wish that I had been able to attend one. I spent some time walking around the interior of the church before finally heading out to explore the rest of the city.
The cathedral was positioned on a small island, surrounded by a lovely park. I walked through the park and then headed north into the city itself. I was saddened by the obvious poverty that filled the city: endless Soviet-style brick housing structures, all looking quite run down; the sidewalks were in disarray; the buses were all ancient and looked ready to break down. Overall the city looked unkempt and uncared for. Granted, the city is probably (hopefully) spending money on other more important matters, but one could imagine what the city could look like had it either remained German or the German style been embraced. I found myself really hating what the Soviets had done to this city; it took them no time at all to wipe out centuries of history and culture. Walking around the streets proved to be quite a challenge as crosswalks were not placed in all intersections (I had to make a long back-track to find a crosswalk at one point, just to cross one street).
I found several monuments and statues as I walked around the city, all of them having something to do with the Second World War (I could tell this only because they all had the dates "1941-1945" on them). There was a very impressive statue of some soldiers that I quite liked. One square had a nice fountain and was across from the opera, which was one of the few gorgeous buildings in the city.
I made my way to the Victory Square, which is a large public area with a pillar commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. I was surprised that I did not see a statue of Lenin anywhere (apparently the statue of his was moved sometime after the collapse of the USSR). One side of the square had the Russian Orthodox Cathedral and on the other side sat the town hall.
One thing atop the town hall building caught my eye as I was walking about: the rainbow flag was flying! I stood there and stared at it for several minutes, unable to comprehend how or why this was happening in Russia, a country that suppresses, ostracizes and discriminates against gay people. Three flags were flying on top of the building: the Russian flag, the Kaliningrad flag, and then the rainbow flag. In the upper left corner of the rainbow flag there was a small symbol that looked like a castle; I'm not sure what it means though. I've tried several Google searches to discover what the meaning behind the rainbow flag in Kaliningrad is, but I've not been able to find anything; it could be censored on my Internet searches though. I've noticed that many things related to the LGBT community are censored online, such as on Netflix. Netflix changes its offerings, depending on which country you are logging in from; here in Russia they do not offer any LGBT films - the category doesn't even exist and doing a search returns nothing (a search for "gay" returned one thing: Scream 2... no idea why).
**Correction** After uploading my photos, I can now clearly see that the flag is not the rainbow flag, but rather the flag of Kaliningrad Oblast (state). The flag has a large red band, a smaller yellow band, and a large blue band; seen from afar and with the sun shining into my eyes, I can easily see how I could confuse this flag for the pride flag.
I grabbed a quick bite to eat for lunch and then continued on my self-guided tour of the city. My next stop was the old city walls right next to a very pretty lake. Most of the city walls were either destroyed during the war or demolished after, but there are sections that still remain. This particular section is one of the largest and best preserved: it had some of the walls, a tower fortification, and one of the old city gates.
I turned south and started to head back in the general direction of my hotel. I took a leisurely stroll through another nearby park that had a stream running through it. At the start of the park was a nice water feature and fountain, but the water was filled with garbage that it detracted from the beauty of it. Along one side of the stream was a series of abandoned buildings which looked rather interesting sitting right next to the tree-lined park.
I managed to find my way to a bunker museum, which was hidden away in a residential area (again, the Soviet-style block housing). The bunker was built by the Nazis near the end of the war as the Soviets were advancing on the city. Now the bunker serves as a museum, which I decide to go visit. I was surprised that the bunker wasn’t deeper underground. The bunker consisted of one long hallway and several small rooms on either side. Most of the rooms were quite small; many had dioramas depicting the city at various points during the siege in April 1945. A few rooms were made up to resemble how they looked when the Germans were living in them; the mannequins looked rather ridiculous. There was some signage in English outside some of the rooms, but the majority of everything was in Russian, so I just got to look around. The entire visit took me about 15 minutes.
Finally, I made a brief stop outside of the Palace of Culture, a rather nice building that seems quite out of place in Kaliningrad. I'd intended to walk around another area of town, but as I got closer, I noticed that it appeared far more rundown and questionable in terms of safety, so I opted to skip that portion of my walking tour; the only things I missed were two smaller gates from the old city wall.
I went out for a coffee at a small cafe near my hotel. I discovered that the area where my hotel is located is known as the "Fishermen's village" and is the only area with German-style buildings. They are two blocks of buildings, lined up long the river and right next to the cathedral. The waitress at the cafe spoke passable English, which was nice; she was very attentive and helpful. I had a cappuccino and, at her suggestion, a slice of chocolate and cherry cake. The cake was quite good, with cherry syrup drizzled over it. I sat enjoying my treat and read for a short bit before the sun set. As I was paying my bill, the waitress asked me where I was from; she was surprised to hear that I am from the States.
I walked across the street to the local supermarket to grab some food for dinner. I went shopping there last night as well for dinner, grabbing a fresh sandwich from the deli. The sandwich was so good that I grabbed another one tonight for dinner, though now I'm not terrible hungry, so I plan to save it for lunch tomorrow.
Last night I was delighted to find that the store sold my favorite German beer: Löwenbräu!! This was the first beer I had at my first Oktoberfest in Munich in 2009. I sat alone in the Löwenbräu, but was soon joined by some Germans who I drank with throughout the afternoon. It was also at the Löwenbräu that I met the group of Italians the following night. I bought two large bottles of Löwenbräu and brought them back to my hotel; one I drank last night and the other I am enjoying as I write this blog update.
Overall I think my time in Kaliningrad was pleasant, though I wish the city had more of the old Königsberg feel to it.