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Kaliningrad: In Search of Old Konigsberg

Kaliningrad, Russia

I guess it is the people who make the place. After staying in Chelyabinsk which has +2 hour difference with Moscow and then in about no time travelling again, this time to Kaliningrad which is in the West and is -1 hour, I came to this conclusion. I would say even more: it’s sometimes people who determine our journey more than the destination itself. Discovering a place with a like-minded person who is very dear to you is a certain plus for any place. However deeply brutally Soviet this place might appear from the first glance.

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This is the Kaliningrad airport – seats placed outside facing the parking which is being renovated still. Hmm, interesting way to accommodate passengers! Well, actually, Kaliningrad is a real mixture of things. Its Soviet component no doubt predominates but still there’s something in this city. Yes, there IS something in the city. Let’s start with the recently reconstructed Fishers’ Village in the historical center of the city, next to the island of Immanuel Kant.

Kaliningrad, Russia

Just as in Munich the Old Town Hall is newer than the New Town Hall, the buildings of this tiny village are not older than 8 years. We stayed in a hotel there which is full of antiquities and you can smell the old wooden furniture (the new furniture sometimes was worse than the old one though). I think this location gave us an opportunity to feel the heavy Soviet heritage a bit less distinct.

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Of course you can immediately tell that the entire Fishers’ Village is made but for the tourists (people don’t live there unless they are tourists) with its hotels, cozy restaurants and expensive office buildings. Even the lighthouse is a French cuisine restaurant to celebrate weddings.

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But it was certainly an extra plus to wake up among these styled buildings and I already miss that place in combination with the transparent autumn air and cold light. And – here most of those who visited the city would agree with me – I would call this gingerbread-house village the closest the contemporary city could get to the old authentic Konigsberg.

Kaliningrad, Russia

 

Konigsberg is the historic name of this Prussian city before it became a part of the Soviet Union in 1946. And probably the greatest symbol of that painful and from my point of view completely thoughtless transition is this House of Soviets (Dom Sovetov) on the left of the picture which from its first stone laid down in 1970 is STILL unfinished.

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It was fashioned after some buildings in the then newly built Brasilia. Well, USSR is in the past now and the building is still NOT used. The facade of this ‘buried robot’ as the locals call it was painted in 2005 so that the president would not be displeased plus the windows got installed. That’s all. A sad sad sad story. Very symbolic.

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And of course this robot’s head of the thing can be seen from every point of the city. And it’s just there in the middle. An eye sore. The unofficial symbol of the city just as the newly reconstructed Cathedral is the official one.

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Don’t punish me for spoiling the view, it’s not me who placed this Soviet garbage container close to Kant’s tomb. We walked along the walls and noticed this lady – as the inscription says – ‘in hope of the eternal life’. She looks rather eeh tired with the whole prospect of this eternal life =)

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In search of the authentic buildings left from Konigsberg we came upon Litovsky Val (Lithuanian Bulwark) Street with old brick houses like this one:

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In the cortyard of which we found this ex-church in a very weird state:

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And of course we went inside this open door to see the blurred windows and time-beaten doors:

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And here I found myself taking photos of the street names and house number signs, like this imposing ex-school building:

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And in between there were ugly Soviet residential houses. ‘Find 10 differences’ between this one:

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and this one, both in Lesopilnaya Street (Timber Sawing Street):

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Or how about this one in October Lane?

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I know, my selection of things to photograph and to post here might seem a bit weird but then… what else would you take photos of in a mixed-up city? Definitely not the newest architectural additions of the modern era. Like this one.

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This is to show you the complete confusion that the city is: Renaissance-styled early 19th century building of the ex-Stock Exchange turned into a culture house alongside with a high-rise and the reconstructed commercialized Fishers’ Village.

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And there used to be very curious buildings in the city indeed… It’s a pity they are now curious only for those crazy tourists who love all things decadent like me – for the rest they are just abandoned ruins:

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I liked this old building which still houses a photo studio:

Kaliningrad, Russia

Or this one:

Kaliningrad, Russia

And how about this impressive stairway to heaven?

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Well, let’s talk about food for a bit. We found a nice German-style beer house in the Soviet center of the city and went there twice. I ordered spatzle (the dish which I first tried in Alsace) and got a plate of soft boiled pasta with delicate translucent onion and melted cheese. Baked potato wedges were also tasty – they reminded me of the ‘Incredible Potatoes’ dish we tried in Estonia in almost every restaurant (and almost at every meal no matter what time of the day…). ‘Incredible Potatoes’ was how they were translated in one of the menus =)

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We thought we would chose the neighbouring beer house – this time a Czech-style one – for the third day and ordered this hearty mushroom soup in a bread bowl. The bread was no-yeast wholewheat and very chewy but I guess the soup would have been better if they did not forget to warm it up a bit more and, well, pour a bit more of the soup too =) the potato knedle were good too but I prefer baked potatoes.

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And no, we did not try any beer. Nor did we find any Konigsberg marzipan which used to be a food specialty of the city. But we did sample a very tasty poppy seed roll, sweet and super soft. And the local soured milk products were good too!

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We did not visit any museums although there is, for example, this Amber Museum where you can see all the curiosities preserved in the sunny amber. I don’t particularly like amber and dead insects, you see. Instead we walked to the Central park (which seemed too far to be Central) and coming out of it we saw this enormous monument to the Soviet cosmonauts born in Kaliningrad, called the ‘Conquerors of the Universe’ (1980) which is also known among the locals as the ‘Hello from the Nine’. I had to spend some time before I realized the meaning of this nickname .)

And we did see lots of fortifications and towers and almost all what is left from (or reconstructed after) the stronghold of the city, the Castle with its walls and reduits. But Soviet people do not live in castles, right? They destroy castles (the ruins were finally blown up in late 60s) and build the most beautiful houses instead. And then new people came and adjusted those dwellings to their needs. All without any hint of taste 🙂

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When we arrived in Kaliningrad it was as if we turned some weeks back in time, as there were still those colourful leaves on the trees. But when we were leaving, the trees got more and more bare. The last glimpse of the golden autumn!

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And yes, this ‘something’ that I was talking about which makes Kaliningrad special is its past which just could and can NOT be erased and which is still popping out here and there. Also I think there is some feeling of this past. As if all these Soviet architectural marvels are intruders there, built not in the right place, as if to hide and to make-believe there never was another city. The Island of Kant with its long broad walk leading from the large faceless bridge to the reconstructed Cathedral (where you can enjoy organ concerts, well, if you enjoy organ music) I think is the most haunted place in the city. The paved walk whispers you about the old city and old houses with narrow streets which used to be there on the island… But the people of Kaliningrad, I liked them, and that helped to form an opinion on the city.

By the way, did you know about the riddle of the Konigsberg seven bridges? Well, you are late to come up with the solution – it was proved already back in 1735 that there is NONE =)

Off to Moscow!

G.

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3 thoughts on “Kaliningrad: In Search of Old Konigsberg

  1. On my first visit to Kaliningrad in 2009 I had similar feelings about the place, but now I am here on my 9th visit i can honestly say that from about the 3rd, I had begun to love the city and it’s people. It has a real big city buzz and many superb cultural attractions, including a very active theatre and classical music calendar. The Russians had to rebuild the place as quickly as possible after the devastation of WWII – in the scramble to defeat the Nazis, the British carpet bombing was extreme and left much of the old city in ruins.
    The resulting apartment blocks are soulless looking of course, but if you get to know some of the people who live in them and are lucky enough to get invited inside and share real Russian food fresh from the many fantastic markets in the city, you will find that each small apartment is uniquely warm and individual. Everyone changes into their cosy home clothes and slippers and the atmosphere is much more ‘family closeness’ than I feel is typically generated in our more spacious Western houses.
    If time allows, try to explore the many exquisite boulevards of old German houses and apartments still standing around the Kutusov area where you can walk for miles admiring the architecture. Some houses there are still in disrepair but many have been maintained in their faded elegance and more and more are being sympathetically restored every year.
    Like any city, I suppose you need time and local contacts to really understand its spirit.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and advice! You know, just yesterday I was thinking about the city which left the most significant trace in my memory – and that in 2014 turn out to be Kaliningrad! I think I would certainly try to get there again and soak in the atmosphere – it’s one of the rare cities which really has it. And of course people, this “aspect” is yet to be discovered!

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