Reversal of fortune
We search up to sites for the lowest prices. When the sun catches these slivers of Jurassic resin hidden in ribbons of seaweed, the recent past fades and you understand why Kaliningraders want you to come to rediscover their city and the sea on which it stands. But problems with suppliers mean that, for the present, they serve only Russian beer and a few Russian dishes given jokey English names. However, even a dozen trips on Marina's tramline, a day spent in the city's history museum or a conversation with a Kaliningrader about the past will not rid you of the nagging unease of never having found Kaliningrad centre proper or got to grips with its history. It takes more than a day to get your bearings in this remodelled city and a dose of patience to get its measure. Love this hotel for its location:
Whether you have some prior warning of the cold, grey wastelands of former Soviet Russia or not, the first sight of Kaliningrad comes as a shock. Its centrepiece is a half-built concrete box sitting in the middle of a windswept, weed-choked parking lot for long-distance lorries. To the left, a shoddy string of flats breaks up the skyline - more grey on grey sky - decorated with a slogan praising the workers of Soviet Kaliningrad.
To the right, trolley buses, trams and clapped-out imported German cars lurch over a pot-holed bridge. The only colours are the spire and roof of a redbrick church peeping over the right shoulder of this lump of concrete and, further on, the blue and white flourish of a neo-baroque building.
I wake up to a brief snow storm sweeping in from the Baltic. Fortunately, it melts into blue sky less than half an hour later. It's time to step outside and figure out why anyone should want to get to know this peculiar outpost of Russia, stuck on the edge of Lithuania and Poland - an irritant on the neatly-drawn map of now-independent eastern Europe.
There aren't any other tourists as we push open the door of the cathedral to meet Nikolai, sometime soldier, then builder, now guide to the museum and building works that will soon transform this place from ruined shell to concert hall.
Who is responsible for the destruction of the streets down which Kant took his afternoon walk? What did the castle, symbol of the Teutonic knights' domination over the pagan peoples of Prus for eight centuries, look like? It is hard to imagine an ancient city once jostled up against the cathedral and castle walls. Still harder to think that this place, with its broken roads, treacherous potholes and muddy market place, ever had a past that was unconnected with shabby, shambolic Soviet Russia.
It is true, that the RAF did sweep over the city, but they left plenty of it intact for Hitler and Stalin, the Wehrmacht and the Red Army to fight over. A plastic horse, its red-painted plastic guts spilled out, lies among dead model Germans and the occasional Red Army Action Man soldier. The signs beside the exhibits and maps still talk of "fascists" and total up the number of war dead - 42, German soldiers, 60, Soviets and an untold number of civilians perished as the three-day battle raged.
He survived both Hitler and Stalin, making it back to West Germany from Siberia to write his memoirs. Were Lasch and his troops to blame for the destruction by holding out against the artillery shells of communist Moscow? Or was it the Soviet planners with their ruthless, but ultimately unsuccessful, dreams of wiping any trace of Germany from their newly-gained territory? Here, history is too complicated to be reduced to a quick postcard home.
F or almost half a century, the city's past was closed off and foreigners were forbidden to enter what was rumoured to be the most militarised area of the Soviet Union. We search up to sites for the lowest prices.
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