Cycle Tour Iron Curtain Tour, part 2, Klaipeda-Gdynia
Dag/day 4: Hviledag/rest day Kaliningrad
Added on 18 May 2019
on 21 Jun 2019
09 May 2019
Sunny and somewhat warmer, in the afternoon even really warm, but quite a windy day.
Oktyabrskaya ulitsa, 4A
Rest day without cycling apart from a local trip in the evening.
The day began when Natalia woke me up. She did so by calling my mobile phone with the question whether I wanted to see the parade on the occasion of Victory Day. It would very suitably take place at Victory Square at. ten. And now it was almost nine o'clock. So I'd better hurry up, if I were to make it. But, honestly, I wanted everything else, so I asked her to come to my hotel, and I'd have breakfast all the while. I had agreed with Natalia to have a look at the city together today. She had been the hostess of my sons during the World Cup in the previous year. I had also met her, and she seemed sweet enough. In any case, I would train my Russian oral proficiency, and besides it was great with a local "guide". Due to yesterday's beer intake, I was immensely lethargic, and Natalja stood already ready in the hotel hall when I was to enter the restaurant. That's why I invited her to breakfast. But it didn't cost me anything, because I had booked a double room, so of course twice breakfast was included. Nice service. And what breakfast it was! Especially the surroundings were lavish. The maritime was in the forefront, as one would expect at a hotel Skipper. Many aquariums with fish and lobsters with tied pincers. Even in the floor there were small aquariums, yes even at the gents, a single fish swam around under a glass plate in the floor. Well, animal welfare is certainly not met here, and a little unnecessary in my eyes. Natalia totally agreed with me in skipping the parade and enjoying the delicious breakfast instead overlooking the Pregolya River, on the back of a promenade in front of the hotel with a handsome wrought iron railing. Had it been nice in Svetlogorsk, that was exceeded here at hotel Skipper. That's £107 for two nights. And it's the price for TWO people. So £27 is the price per night per nose! So, luxury is affordable. For a Dane in any case.
Outside the sun was out, but it was blowing a lot, so Natalya's long blonde and thin hair swirled around. There was no need to rush, because the veterans had resigned to their ongoing otium in the Victory Square, and the military hardware had again been demobilized. A peace loving guy like me was also fine with dropping a military parade and not having to experience Russia celebrating its newly found greatness at the expense of over 20 million fallen Russians during the Great Patriotic War. It was a tremendously precious victory, that still hurts, and this pain in the Russian people I have the greatest respect for. But that the day in modern times is (also) used to demonstrate new weapon systems, at least in Moscow, I feel less comfortable with. It is a legacy from the Soviet era, the Russians could do without, I mean. Well, Natalia and I started our city tour by crossing the bridge to the cathedral island, in the German Kneiphof. The Russians call it nowadays the Kant Island, because the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who lived in Königsberg, is buried beside the cathedral. And I'd like to see that, I announced my guide. You could enter it, but then you had to buy a ticket to the museum in there too, which however was not in the main nave. It acts as a concert hall now and was not open at all. The coronation church of the Protestant Prussian kings was thus rendered seculary. Well, honestly! I did with a look into the Russian Orthodox chapel next to the entrance, while Natalia was waiting outside. And since you don't let ladies wait unnecessarily, I was quickly out in the sun again. A man who tried to rope us in a harbour cruise turned to us. I was interested, but it was obviously a red cloth for Natalia, who plunged into urgent questions about the route, repeating the same questions several times. I was a little annoyed at her, especially when she started from scratch quizzing to the captain of the tour boat that was moored close to the cathedral. The reason for her doubts was that she had been cheated by another company with a far too short tour so she had been exhibited and made fun of in front of some guests. It was obviously not to happen again. The black-bearded captain assured her extremely friendly and almost submissive that everything would be fine and there would be live commentary along the way. Now Natalia finally clammed up, and we sailed off. Unfortunately there was no outdoor seating, so because I wanted to take pictures I had to "fight" with another tourist for one of the few standing places for the purpose. Immediately, a Russian guide began to unravel the sights of the city, and it turned out an impressive flow of word of hers during the next one and a half hours. She talked almost continuously with lots of facts with a lot of numbers (a real Russian guide specialty). Which year, which length of bridges, the height of houses and the style of the building, and incredibly much more, she volleyed at us in correct and, I had the impression, completely flawlessly Russian. But as dry as a hangover. Not one joke did she crack. If I think of the harbour cruises in Hamburg, they take great pride in entertaining AND informing their guests. First "photo opp" was my Skipper hotel from the river, from where it looked really good. It was built in 2007. At that time, Kaliningrad / Königsberg celebrated its 750th anniversary, and the city council had decided that the neighborhood down to the river between the Anniversary bridge and the cathedral island should be rebuilt in old German maritime style. So a couple of hotels and residential buildings were built in half-timbered buildings and in the middle a "fake" lighthouse, and was named Rybnaya derevnya ("Fisherman's Village"). I was a little proud to stay in a hotel there.
The Anniversary bridge was also a beautiful sight with its fine wrought iron railings. It had also been built in connection with the city anniversary, so the name was right. One must say, the Fisherman's village was a successful urban renewal including its broad riverside walk. Now the boatsman sailed us out towards the Baltic Sea. First, we passed a building site with a bullet-shaped steel skeleton. Here they built the museum "The World Ocean". Next year it could be visited and it will be dedicated to the Earth's maritime life. Well worth a visit at that time, I think. Soon we passed the naval vessels and expedition ships I had seen from the bike the evening before. Now we got the great explanation about their origin. A Soviet submarine complete with Soviet naval flag was also among the exhibits. A grey-painted, worn-out two-storey bridge over the river was the next point in the guide's flow of words. In every detail, she explained the hoisting mechanism, when it had been repaired and a lot of other unnecessary knowledge. I pulled the plug and tried to enjoy the trip "offline". Natalia looked tired and sour. Well, she certainly wasn't going to be the least impressed with the trip, which absolutely lived up to our expectations. The tour boat was far out in the harbour among large cranes and cargo ships before it turned around. The harbour would go on for many kilometers yet. Out there it was not a river port, but a canal had been dug right out to Baltiysk at the exit to the Baltic Sea. East Prussia with Koenigsberg's accession to the Soviet Union Stalin had insisted on in Potsdam at the conference in autumn 1945, as it was the only ice-free Baltic Sea port that the country would conquer. And so it happened. But the southern half of East Prussia fell to Poland. Therefore, the border with Poland is straight as drawn with a ruler. Most of the harbour seemed old and worn out, but everything according to the guide still worked perfectly. And the Russians are really good at keeping old machinery going. When I was an "expert" in the Soviet air force in the 80s, we were also impressed by the Soviet's ability to keep old fighter planes airborne. I guess, as here in the harbour, a lot of accidents happen with the old technolgy, but the Russians have never gone down on manpower. On the contrary. The many brave men have most often given them victory in the end. Well worth remembering on such a Victory Day. But the Cold War the Soviet Union lost and was dissolved by January, 1, 1992. And Russia inherited most of the insolvent estate. In that context it's really quite impressive, what they have achieved by economic standards over here. If the imposed western sanctions and the West's in general, hostile attitude towards the country is added, the Russians probably have some reason to be proud. If just it was'nt for the terrible omnipresent deficiencies and limitations, not least in democracy and the enormous reactionary influence of the Orthodox Church, which, among other things, is reflected in pure homophobia. All that I wondered about while the guide still filled the speaker with words. And suddenly the boat docked at the Kant Island again. Ah, we were stretching our legs and resting our ears. Natalia also livened up, and we walked up the stairs I had walked down together at night with my boys the year before. Then a plastered Russian had been standing clinging to the railing halfway down it, unable to move on. I thought about that now. The next "attraction" was the eye sore of "The House of Soviets" built on the foundation of the ancient Prussian royal palace. It couldn't have been handled more clumsy, and the condition of the house was some of the only negative that the guide on the boat had admitted. Also Natalia was not proud of the ruin, which stands empty and soars over the city center. As it is in private ownership, the city council cannot just tear it down as it wants. We stopped briefly at an archaeological excavation of the castle cellars before moving on to the apartment that Natalia had just bought. It had been wildly expensive, so she had had to sell her car and the apartment in the suburb of Baltrayon, which had served as my sons' lodging under the World Cup. Furthermore, she had trouble with the tourists she rented it out to now. They had all sorts of complaints, she said. I noticed quietly that she herself had a lot of complaints. Among other things. over my supposedly slow ability of grasping things, eg. at an exchange office where I wanted to change euros to both rubles and Polish zlotys, in order to be prepared for tomorrow's entry into Poland. The many figures on exchange rates made me perplex. Well, I'm bad at figures, but good at letters. We had now reached the Upper Dam, a large lake, which was previously part of the city's fortification. It was nice to rest my pins on a bench, but Natalia and I had a slight disagreement on my simple lunch plans and her ongoing reprimands about me, asr they annoyed me. The solution was that I invited her to a "fine" lunch overlooking the lake. Then she was softened so much that we could continue our conversation. This is typically for Russian women. Buy something for them, they like and they are sweet. Otherwise they can be unlovely shrews. And this was one of the kind.
So we sat on the outside view terrace of café Ogonyok (the Spark). I asked Natalia if there was a typical dinner of Victory Day. And she replied that families often had a barbecue dish called shashlyk that day, a kind of skewer. So I ordered it for lunch. Natalia got a big slice of mutton and a glass of wine. Over lunch we talked well again. A beer also helped me look at her with milder eyes. I was probably not an easy guest either. And after all, she spent most of her day off walking around the city with me. It was in itself a sweet thing to do. After lunch she suggested going along the fortress ring outside the old town with a whole bunch of preserved city gates from 17th and 18th century. So we strolled along the eastern line of defense. Of course, the rampart had long since turned into a major road, as is quite normal in all medieval fortified cities. And the wall was mostly gone too. But the gates were still in place. In the first we encountered, just on the opposite side of the Upper Dam, which is called the Dona Tower, resides the amber museum. Natalia wasn't excited about it and it would also require more time than we had. Opposite the amber museum was Marshal Vasilevskiy Square with a statue of Königsbergs conquerer in February 1945. Of course, there were many flowers around its base on Victory Day. The statue seemed seldomly discrete and the marshal had a book in his hand. This is certainly not typically Russian, let alone Soviet. The next gate was called the Rossgarten gate, after which followed the reduit Oberteich and the most beautiful of them all, namely the King's gate. After the Sakheim gate, there was a halt in the ring of gates, and we chose to go into the city center again. At all gates I was photographed. I told Natalia that I wanted to go to the station to buy a ticket for the commuter train for tomorrow morning and be assured of access routes, security checks etc. She was in, so we took a so-called route taxi. It is a mixture of a taxi and a bus that runs after a route, but there are no official stops. You hail it and tell the driver, when you want to be set down. Smart. And it was filled up well. Very nice to drive, because now we had walked many kilometers. The route taxi drove a strange route, which confused even several of the natives, incl. Natalya. But then we were at the southern railway station where I wanted to do my research. At the security controls they said they had many bikes through and that made me relax. I would not have much time, because breakfast at the hotel only started from 8 am. and the train was to depart at 9.35. So I'd better not stay out too long tonight. I also bought the ticket. Afterwards, Natalya would like to show me one last city gate, the Brandenburg Gate, through which still go cars, where it had, of course, been horse-drawn carriages. Natalia told me that there used to be a popular bar in the gate, where her father used to hang out. Now I felt quite weak, while Natalja was quite fresh. She had ordered a table at the brewing pub Khmel, which means hops, because she knew well I was a beer enthusiast. The table was ordered already at 5, so we had to hurry. But I wasn't really able to do that. I was dizzy and had to buy some water to strengthen myself. And then the walk back to the hotel, where I just wanted to refresh myself briefly, seemed quite a long haul. Natalia wasn't satisfield that I could not keep up nor with her pace neither with her blubbering in Russian. I was on my behalf not satisfied with her being so selfish, so when we finally reached the hotel, I told her I wanted to rest for an hour or two, so I would like to cancel our evening appointment. She could well understand that, so we said goodbye to each other on the promenade in front of the Skipper hotel. I think she was somewhat fed up with me. I just wanted some peace now. It was also my fault, because I stress myself by always wanting to know everything possible about what I see. And then suddenly pull the plug. As if the hard disc inside my bulb is full. I had it formatted and my batteries recharged on my hotel bed.
When the blackboard in my head was wiped clean, I had a bath and was myself again. That's why I went down to the reception, flirted a little with the cute girl there, and made her unlock the bike cellar. Now my animal was let out into the cool, clear evening air. Aahh. The first part of my bike trip was almost surreal. I cycled slowly on a wide abandoned cycle path along a wide empty road to the stadium. There I had strolled just under a year ago, but then there had been a party, especially for the English and Belgian fans before and after their national teams' football match against each other, but also the Russians and we other travelers joined in. It was simply so great to experience this on that day that I was deeply touched by so much openness, joy and goodwill. You actually wanted to embrace each one just because he or she was there with you. Another gust of luckiness it was. And I with my two lovely boys in the middle of it all. Well, it had been great. Today, the huge areas around the posh stadim were completely empty. And I noticed the huge areas that had been tiled. Completely unbelievable! Before the World Cup stadium construction, the October island here had been totally set aside. Just grassland, probably with some waste littered. And it's only a few hundred metres from the fashionable Fishermans's village. After this nostalgic ride one year back in time, I cycled up to Victory Square. Finally. And found it lying in peace in the rising darkness. This is the city's true center with some greatness over it with official buildings, adorned with posters for the Victory Day, a great pillar where Lenin previously looked out over the square before being removed and a rather ugly huge fountain. Here the victory day parade had taken place, and the stands where the invited guests had been sitting were still there. In German time, the square was called Hansaplatz. Königsberg had also been member og the Hanse. In Nazi time, of course, it was called Adolf-Hitler-Platz. The newest building on the site is the Christ the Savior Church, a large Orthodox cathedral with onion domes. It had cost the earth and was opened for the city's 750th anniversary in 2005. I sat on a bench and enjoyed life. Others apparently also did, but somewhat more noisy. It was striking, how drunk many men had become during the day. Openly drunk women, on the other hand, are very rare. Here too, there is no gender equality in Russia. Well, what could be more appropriate for a man like me to turn to my main goal in the square: the brewing house Khmel. "Me too", I thought. Of course, Natalya I had to do without and a table I had not reserved in the plush restaurant on two floors with a glass facade facing the square. But as I was alone AND could behave civilized, I was assigned a seat at the bar where I could both dine and drink. I saw several being rejected either because they were too many or because they were too drunk. Khmel must take care of its reputation. And a bustling place it was. The bartenders were busy busy, and the waiters grinned around. Anyway, everything was served in a calm and friendly atmosphere. I was quickly spotted as a Westerner and asked if I preferred to communicate in English or Russian. Well, honestly! English is not a language many Russians speak, but the staff were also very youthful here. Usually German is the first foreign language, and that is natural here in ex-Koenigsberg. But I stuck to Russian and was served a supertender ribeye steak with fried potato wedges plus half litres of both the house's dark and light lager. It all tasted heavenly, and I gradually also came in very good mood. On the bar stools next to me sat a group of loud-voiced young Russians. A mixed group of men and girls, and of course, the men were very drunk and the girls made their best to make them behave themselves. I saw several raised eyebrows among the bartenders. They keep order against obvious drunkeness in their bar. I also had a tray of samplers of different beers, all locally brewed. Behind the bar, the copper boilers were visible, and the pipes ran under the ceiling. I felt really comfortable, although the young chap on the bar stool next to me had lost most of his motor function and constantly banged into me. Gradually, I also grew pissed. However, that did not prevent me from going to a German pub nearby. I thought that on the feast day of the victory against the "fritzs", (the Russians also say so), one must also drink some German beer. A kind of Russian Heidi's Bier Bar it was with bulging pairs of content in the dirndl dresses. I was hoping they would show the ice hockey World Cup on the TV screens, because Russia was playing a match today, but they showed war movies instead. A young bartender who insisted on speaking English with me in order to practice (very commendable!) apologized and this was normal on 9 May. Probably a concession to the victorious Soviet army from the inferior party. After a liter of hops juice here too, it was time for me to roll down to the hotel if I had to get up in time to have breakfast and get off to the Polish border tomorrow. Or even today!