Kaliningrad, back to the future

 

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Where are you from? France. What are you doing here? I am on holiday. On holiday in Kaliningrad??? In November??? The man talking to us on the bus is almost speechless! It’s understandable. You have to come in the summer ! he adds. Yes, I’ll come back as the place is fascinating, even in November.

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Russia in Europe

Koenigsberg was highly bombed at the end of WW2, its Prussian architectural past almost erased. It was rebuilt the soviet way… with large avenues, monuments, blocks, blocks and more blocks.

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Just after the Potsdam Agreement Stalin got rid of the last Germans from the region, renamed Koenigsberg Kaliningrad (after Kalinin, a Soviet politician, member of Stalin’s inner circles) and repopulated the Oblast with Russians from all over the Soviet Union. Seventy years and a few generations later, the people of Kaliningrad have a strong Russian identity. Surrounded by European countries, it’s such a surprise almost no one speaks English, nor German. People even look at you with their eyes and mouth wide open if you address them in the language of Shakespeare… It’s a shame as people are friendly. I would say much more than in Russia and there is a feeling of safety too.

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The House of Soviets, a building which was never finished. Locals nickmane it the Monster.

It’s a bit like living on an island, an island which was cut from its neighbours for 50 years and has been slowly getting to know them for the last two decades. I felt welcome everywhere I went. When people spoke a bit of English, they were eager to communicate, to talk about their city, about its past, its present, its future. Even with the barrier of the language, we made some extraordinary encounters…

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Sacha, Ania and Serguei

After a feast at Hmel Restaurant on Victory Square, we were hanging around, trying to find a rock bar I had briefly read about in a French guide. Thought it was a good idea to explore Kaliningrad’s rock scene… The Pil Vinila, this is the name of the place. We were a bit struggling when we saw a couple outside a bar. My friend Sean’s basic Russian got us to the bar with the couple Ania and Serguei.

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Sacha and Irina, the Pil Vinila’s manager. Behind, some DDT memorabilia

They introduced us to Sacha, the owner of the place and we spent one of the most memorable night -well, even two-… Drinks after drinks, dances after dances, Sacha told us his seaman’s stories while Russia was still the Soviet Union, we made more encounters, people came to talk to us,curious. Sacha went on stage, sang a few Russian songs, then the DJ played more Depeche Mode, Placebo, and Russian pop. Serguei and Ania danced a lot, they were such a lovely couple, in love…

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We could have stayed till the end of the night but we wanted to keep some energy for the day after and the night after at the Pil Vinila again…

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Girls dancing at the Pil Vinila

It took us a while to recover… and finally decide to go to the seaside. A crazy taxi driver, who ended up being a stalker, took us to Svetlogorsk.

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Svetlogorsk

There was a beautiful winter light combined to the Baltic Sea soft reflections. Another magic moment in a seaside town the Germans used to love and so do the Russians. We came back by train, in an 80s carriage, just on time to prepare ourselves for another cazy night at the Pil Vinila…

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Svetlogorsk

Among the fantastic people we met, Viktoria, Sacha’s daughter, a film producer, took us for a unique tour in Kutuzova’s area where there are still Germans villas standing.

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We also visited the Bunker Museum where the Germans had their HQ at the end of the war and finally surrended in April 1945. Despite the massive destruction and bombing, it’s impossible to erase 700 years of German presence. “Yes, we are Russian but you can’t deny the German influence. It’s like the roots of the place grow up in you”, comments Viktoria.

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A Russian Federation shot at Pil Vinila!

Yes, Kaliningrad is a very special place, very much worth the trouble of getting the visa (a 72 hours visa is now possible to get at the border). And it’s time to go now, before it changes as the city will host the FIFA World Cup in 2018.

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