Kaliningrad, day one

Today I got back from a mini trip to Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. For the longest time, I wanted to accomplish two things: to travel more around Russia, and to visit said enclave. What was most enticing about it was the blend of old Prussian/German architecture with the combination of present-day Russia-this juxtaposition was wonderfully surreal, and consequently, super comforting. I was only there for just under four days (three full ones plus a cocktail of two half days when I arrived and left), but overall I came away happy about what I saw and experienced.

If you fly into Kaliningrad, the airport might not be your best first impression, especially after coming from Moscow’s three massive ones. Case in point: the arrivals carousel was adjacent with the check in area; though I guess this can be explained by the fact that Kaliningrad a) isn’t an extremely popular destination and b) there are few train stations that offer alternatives. Though when I flew back to Moscow, the terminal was a bit bigger, albeit not by much. Just imagine a small-ish high school badly in need of renovation, and you’ve got the picture. The local government’s really going to need to clean things up prior to the World Cup, cause increased traffic is going to be an absolute nightmare. Just had to throw that out there, because it is worth noting for the fact that it’s easily the shabbiest airport I’ve ever been to.

But I digress. Now, how was the city? I can just say that getting out of a somewhat grey Moscow to the colorful Baltic enclave was well worth it! My first impression was that it felt very reminiscent of northern Germany due to the abundance of impeccably mown fields. The taxi ride to the city itself was about 15 minutes, which set me into a good mood. As we gradually came closer to the center, I definitely could see the noticeably non-Soviet architecture, which was aesthetically pleasing. More on that in just a second. My first afternoon I spent walking around my neighborhood, which felt very homely. As I type this in the comfort of my flat in Moscow, it feels weird having to get readjusted to grey apartments. Kaliningrad, much to my joy, retained its Germanic heritage with the colorful, joyous, small buildings, and from the very beginning, served to give me energy. Yes, there were some apartment complexes, but overall they weren’t prevalent. While I didn’t go there that day, I had heard that the Amalienau district was even nicer, which piqued my interest. Moving away from the architecture, I liked how the city felt buzzing without being overwhelming. As I’ve written quite a bit, it’s my ideal feel, so things felt very homely. The balance between cafes, stores, parks, and historical sites couldn’t have been better-it’s as if the city planners wanted to absolutely attract visitors. And from what I saw, plenty of Russians had matriculated here, proving that yes, this is a winning formula. So far, my trip started off well, and the next few days proved that things would be even better.

One of the highlights of Kaliningrad and Kaliningrad Oblast was the Amber Museum. Amber, you’re probably thinking. Yep, I respond. The reason being is that this part of the Baltic (including some of Lithuania, I’m told; I did see some evidence of that statement when I was Vilnius this past summer) has the ideal geological terrain for amber. Thus, a legacy of working with amber was born. Thankfully, this museum was about a ten minute walk from my hotel, so I didn’t have to rush out the door to make it. What I found interesting, was that, like so many of the other museums, it was located in one of the city’s many bastions. So, the atmosphere was pretty much set for a great visit. Honestly, it depends on I can say that it’s worth it, because my mind was blown at how creative these local artists got! After seeing so much amber during my extended weekend in the city, I honestly was surprised that I could consciously look at the stuff without getting sick of it, but that just attests to the craftsmanship. In particular, the work of Galina Syromyatnikova was extra special. I tried taking a picture (which you can see down below-it’s the necklace), but I couldn’t quite do it the justice it so richly deserves. The entire bottom floor of the museum was dedicated to her craftsmanship, and I felt humbled to see such work. Without a doubt, the amber museum is one of the musts when in Kaliningrad!

After strolling around some more post-Amber Museum and after checking out Victory Square, I decided to head down to the southern part of the city to check out the highly touted Museum of the World Ocean. Prior to leaving for this trip, I had heard good things, but once I got here I was told that this is considered one of the preeminent museums in Russia, due to its naval research legacy. After all, the R/V Akademik Mstislav Keldysh led expeditions to the infamous Titanic, as well as the Bismarck; it actually was seen in James Cameron’s Titanic, thus cementing its legacy.

Sadly, for all that fanfare, I didn’t get to see the ship itself. One had the option of paying to board another research ship, the Vityaz, but I opted not to, and instead saw the aquarium and the displays for deep-sea research. (I admit that I kinda passed up a neat chance, but I’d been walking for several hours at that point, and didn’t have the mental stamina. I’m sure I’ll look back and absolutely rue this choice, but at the time, I knew I made the right decision.) The aquarium came first, and it was merely one room filled with plenty of tanks. Fair play though, as I’d never have gotten the chance otherwise to see some of those sea creatures that close. Plus, it was cool seeing visitors of all ages be lost in a childlike fascination for what they were seeing! Even though they’re fish when you get down to it, there was some kind of magic there that made you want to observe and further admire what’s in front of you; I spent way more time in that single room that I originally intended to. A hundred feet past that was the main attraction: the display hall. Since I’ve been a kid, I’ve always harbored somewhat of a desire to learn more about the deep sea (though I’ll sleep better at night not knowing what’s at the very bottom), so getting to view replicas of the equipment researchers have used was incredible. Being able to see the pods from the submersibles used over the ages was also something I liked, though they’re not for the claustrophobic! What also was neat was there was a mini exhibition about the Titanic, given its history with Russia. In the far corner, some clips of the movie were playing, replete with a piano rendition of “My Heart will Go On. I’ve already seen a display on the ill-fated ship in Philadelphia, but here it seemed extra poignant. Even then, I did learn more about the recovery process, so I definitely got my money’s worth.

My first full day in the city was a treat. As would become a trend, I walked a ton between sights, but there was so much to take in. This day would set the bar for what I could expect to see later on, and without a doubt I knew I picked the right place to visit for my May holidays!

 

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