The Baltic Sea from the east: Kaliningrad, Nida and Klaipeda is written by Jens Skovgaard Andersen.
Little Russia out to the Baltic Sea
Just over on the other side of the water is 'Little Russia'. The Baltic Sea city of Kaliningrad and the surrounding region is in many ways a miniature version of the huge country to which it belongs. The region is secluded from the rest Russia between Poland og Lithuania, but Russia is still felt everywhere - not least at the border crossing.
It took its time, and there was a lot of talking on the phone with superiors, before I could behind the closed window hear the familiar and coveted sound of a stamp, which loudly and definitely signaled that I was, after all, now welcome inside Russia.
Kaliningrad / Königsberg - the story follows
For centuries, Kaliningrad was called Königsberg and was part of East Prussia, and the city has not forgotten its German past. The cathedral in the middle of the city is still called Königsberg Cathedral, and it is here that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant lived, philosophized and died, and he is buried in the cathedral.
Today, the cathedral is mostly used for organ concerts and other events, and the surrounding Prussian city is more or less leveled by war and historical upheavals.
But the history is still there and it is a fascinating part of Europe to travel around in. The mix of Russian present and German past works fine and also the local gastronomy reflects that to a great extent.
Kaliningrad was a closed area for all outsiders until relatively few years ago, when the city was and is home to the Russian Baltic Fleet with submarines and other vessels and therefore was no-go for all without special permission.
Along the river in the middle of the city, the ships are in a row, and the closure has been replaced by an outdoor museum with access to several of the historic vessels - for a fee, of course.
Since I already had a visa to Russia from a previous trip, I could not stand the temptation to visit the small exclave in the corner of the Baltic Sea, and it meant less that it was late in the year and pretty cold.
It is as if the cold is a little colder when one is in Russia, and interestingly, all public thermometers at gas stations were apparently set to show the wrong temperature; all showed consistent minus two degrees around the clock, even though it was clearly colder than that.
It was very clear that Kaliningrad does not expect visits from tourists in the cold months, and several of the city's sights were closed for the winter. However, the amber museum was open and it was actually more interesting than I had thought.
The town itself is interesting enough to wander around and I got to see most of it on foot. It helps to have read the story a bit in advance - or do it along the way - because often you have to imagine what it once looked like in the bombed-out city of Königsberg, which has become today's Kaliningrad.
The Cold War may be a thing of the past, but if you visit Kaliningrad in the winter, it feels a bit less remote than usual.
The Curonian Spit - desert with the Baltic Sea on both sides
North of Kaliningrad is a long, narrow piece of land called 'the Curonian Spit'. The seaweed is divided between Russia and Lithuania and approximately in the middle is the border crossing, which I cross with a dozen others in a small minibus heading towards Klaipeda and Palanga further up the Baltic coast.
The usual border bureaucracy takes a small hour all in all, and then it's over to count in rubles and time to count in euros instead.
The first stop after the border on the Lithuanian side is at the seaside resort of Nida. Or that is, the driver had actually forgotten that I only had a ticket to Nida and was going to get off there, and he continued past the exit.
Luckily, there was a strong atmosphere to take a smoking break, and at the next rest area, the smokers were allowed to quench the urge, and I was allowed to get off and walk towards the seaside resort.
Nida is to that extent a summer destination. Virtually everything was closed for the winter, and the many cottages and resorts were peaceful and uninhabited. However, that did not hold me back, and the first plan was to go for a walk in the UNESCO-protected nature area around the small town.
The nature park consists of cozy forest with 'sound-absorbing' moss everywhere in the forest floor, and on the other side of the forest, huge sand dunes rose up and made the Curious isthmus reminiscent of the Sahara - just without the heat…
The landscape is beautiful and it is easy to understand why many Germans along with Poles, Russians and Lithuanians spend the summer here on the Baltic Sea. The narrow isthmus means that there is a beach and water on both sides, and especially on the Baltic Sea side there are impressively beautiful beaches.
Where I went, according to the map, there was supposed to be a nudist beach, but it was not to be seen; there was only me for miles around and I was wearing lots of clothes.
In the distance, I could sense a couple airing a dog, and when we met further up the beach, the dog was apparently also surprised to meet other living creatures on the beach. However, we quickly got used to each other's presence.
In Nida, the German author Thomas Mann had his cottage, and it is one of the few real attractions in the area, which otherwise consists of forest, beach and water.
However, I was so unwise that I had come to town on a Sunday, and then Mann's house is also closed. Instead, I strolled back to the small town center, from where the bus runs once an hour, and where I had spotted that there was a single cafe that had forgotten to stay closed for the winter.
It turned out that this was where all the city's settlers lived. It was here that the children could play indoors, where one could read homework and where one could hold hands under the table. And then they had a really good hot round of 'soup of the day'. It was needed.
Cool Klaipeda - Baltic cosiness by the Baltic Sea
The bus was almost empty, so it was just a matter of lounging and enjoying the heat and wifi on the way north towards Lithuania's third largest city, Klaipeda. At the end of the isthmus, the road ends blindly, and you have to take a small ferry across the water to Klaipeda itself.
They talk about building a bridge over the narrow alley, but the day I was there, at least there was plenty of a ferry once in a while.
Klaipeda is the gateway to the long sandy beaches, and the city is finding itself as an independent destination. Many of the young Lithuanians who seek happiness around Europe choose Klaipeda when they return to their homeland. I can understand that.
The city has a cozy little town center with cobbled streets and a strip of atmospheric pubs, and more and more are coming.
I arrived just as the Christmas lights were turned on in the old town and it only made the whole thing more magical. Klaipeda has no problem attracting people to the city in the summer when the beaches along the Baltic Sea call for big and small, and in recent years they have made an effort to lure people in during the dark months as well.
Therefore, there is now both a Christmas market, candle festival and other cultural events in a city where it has only recently become fashionable to go out and have fun with the family.
There is an atmosphere of new good ideas in the city, and several places are already attracting attention due to the good local food, good burgers and not least really good beer.
Lithuania's largest brewery Švyturys is in many ways one of the city's lighthouses - 'švyturys' means lighthouse in Lithuanian - and the brewery provides both guided tours and the opportunity to refuel for the beer collection.
There are other breweries in town, and a visit to the burger restaurant and microbrewery DOCK is a perfect way to meet the new modern Klaipeda. Also the British-inspired pubs Portobello and Nese have plenty of local beer so you do not need anything else.
You generally get a lot for your money Lithuania, and there is no doubt that Klaipeda is a destination on the way up, so the development will be exciting to follow.
The Baltic Sea has historically had an enormous significance for Denmark and still does. And there are lots of little gems all around that we do not always discover when we stay on our side of the water.
Finally, take over and see for yourself - it is hereby recommended.
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