Kaliningrad to Klaipeda – 220km or so in 2 days.

Blimey – having an interesting time on FB in Klaipeda putting photos into an album and creating and ordinary post. Looks a right mess at this end, and probably even worse at yours.

Pouring with rain outside with 800km ahead of us to Tartu in Estonia, where we’re now thinking of taking a train for the last bit in 10 days to Tallinn, our end stop.

Good to be out of Kaliningrad in some ways though already being missed – Russians are lovely, friendly, open, curious, but politically things feel so stuck in a Soviet-nostalgic past.

Lithuania, poor but EU, feels like the modern world.

I’m re-posting this in the hope that it’s more accessible. Let me know if not. (ah, having done this, I see that a visitor needs to click on the album at the top, rather than seeing pix automatically…

Our route these past two days, along the world’s longest sand spit.

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At last I know what the Russian for Fast Food is. Fast Fud.

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With its veneration still of victory in WWII, Russia under Putin chooses to stay focused on the past – while all around, Europe (for all its contradictions) gets stuck into the future. Yes, Russia suffered terribly in the war, but the relentless focus on Victory throughout Kaliningrad became very wearing. And sad when there’s so much to do to catch up.

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Majestic, aAncient tree-lined avenues of once-German East Prussia. — at Kaliningrad Oblast.

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Zelenogorsk/Cranz. Just before the Curonian Spit starts.

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The former bird-ringing centre in Rossitten, now Rybachiyi on Russia’s half of the Curonian Spit where Johannis Thienemann invented the ringing of birds in 1903. Sadly now derelict. — in Rybachiy, Kaliningradskaya Oblast’, Russia.

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Joannes Thienemann, inventor of bird ringing and one of history’s greatest ornithologists.

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Curonian Spit – the longest of its kind in the world, at over 100km

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Kaliningrad was fun, but the roads in EU-member Lithuania are of a different order. #reliefonthebum — in Klaipeda, Lithuania.

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In which Mark and Jutta pedalled like hell, making up for a two-hour delay at the (heavily-policed) Russian border into Lithuania to travel the length of the world’s longest sand spit in one day. 112km from Zelenogorsk/Cranz to Klaipeda/Memel (until 1919 the Easternmost extremity of the German Empire.) — at Klaipėda Art Hotel Bohema.

Leaving Kaliningrad – with mixed feelings.

As old Soviet hands (Jutta and I did after all first meet in Moscow 43 years ago in 1974 when we were both working there), we head out of Kaliningrad/Koenigsberg towards EU-member Lithuania today with mixed feelings.

The Russians we’ve met here since crossing on Daisy from Poland five days ago, have been unfailingly kind and generous – all of them of course either themselves immigrants or descended from those who repopulated East Prussia after it was ethnically, brutally, understandably-at-the-time perhaps, cruelly, ethnically cleansed of Germans immediately after the war.

Much is of course different from Soviet days (not that we would ever have been able to visit Kaliningrad as the closed military district it once was) – the openness of conversation, the quality of the (actually, now universally-excellent) food, the shops, the enterprise, the bright colours and fashion of ordinary street life..

Of course, Kaliningrad as a Russian territorial exclave remains as yet only sparsely visited by tourists, and is clearly struggling to find a new balanced identity between the political, cultural and geostrategic pulls of Russia, history, and of surrounding Europe.

And let’s not get too misty-eyed about outsiders imposing their ways on a part of the world that has more history than most could digest – think Sweden, Teutonic Knights, and Napoleon, Hitler’s Nazis as well as Stalin’s Soviet Union and now the new Russia.

But we have been in honesty been disappointed by how Kaliningrad and its region again illustrate a Russian truth we know so well from our time in Moscow of disconnect between the warmth and soul of ordinary Russians and a collective and continued disregard for beauty, quality and the individual.

(I think Tolstoy and Dostoevsky used to write about this, actually – it’s an old story.)

There’s a great deal more that could and perhaps should be written (maybe one day, we both will!), but to take just one example, Kaliningrad’s shiny new Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, making its unsubtle, unmistakable political point in Putin’s Russia, is so brightly, garishly illustrated within with icons and gold that visitors are advised to bring sunglasses.

But without, it’s an astonishingly sloppily-finished construction, with corners cut and gaps in the marble cladding chipboarded over in a manner reminiscent at the same time of Brezhnev’s Moscow (think the blocks on Prospekt Kalinina) and of some kind of quick-build new hotel for the new Russian rich.

All in saddening contrast with what little is left of the carefully-built quality of Koenigsberg’s German heritage, with some lovely examples of restored Prussian forts and gates but so much throughout this region that’s been either left to rot or which has been brutally torn away and replaced with vistas of Soviet concrete even more ugly than the worst we got used to in Russia nearly half a century ago.

And yet, we – at least I, Mark, perhaps because I speak the language and know Russia’s history and complex identities from my university and reporting days – love the place and its people.

So much so that we (well, Jutta reminds me more me than we at this point) are now planning (or at least discussing) a future tandem trip from Moscow to St Petersburg, perhaps next spring.

With fewer submarines (pix below repeated from yesterday’s Facebook post), and certainly less derelict German heritage.

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Brand-new, very unimpressive Church of Christ the Saviour in Kaliningrad, making a rather shoddily-built point about who’s in charge here now..

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Shiny new iconostatis.

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Russia’s new Orthodox churches certainly don’t skimp on the illustrations.

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New generations of artists with lots of work to do in Putin’s new Russia, with the Church set square in the centre of national identity.

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Typically brutal Soviet-era housing block in Kaliningrad. Though talking tower blocks, and Grenfell Tower in London, I recognise one needs to be careful before overly condemning housing that may just look good on the outside.

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A refreshing change of emphasis – at Kaliningrad/Koenigsberg’s very cool, Western-inspired Zarya Restaurant with its homage to Woody Allen – born Allan Stewart Konigsberg.

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Innoative amber artistry at Kaliningrad’s Amber Museum. Homage to Salvador Dali.

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Aboard Sub B413,, the world’s only still-floating and visitable sub.

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Heath Robinson would have been proud. 80 crew on board, each with his own wheel to manage.

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The kitchen

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B413 at anchor.

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Daisy in the lee of Soviet-era submarine-hunter

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Two heads for 80 crew.

However basic the technology, one would rather not be on the wrong end of one of these.

Grom Gusev to Kaliningrad through Friedland – with added Napoleon surprise

Here’s our route over the past two days from Gusev/Gumbinnen to Kaliningrad/Koenigsberg – and a mighty interesting one it was too.

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/embed/1918353884

178 km, average moving speed of 14.7 kph, and a completely delightful overnight stay (after late-evening thunder run to nearly 10pm) at new private Amelia Hotel in Pravdinsk (terrible name), formerly Friedland. Hugely recommended, with fabulous home-made and tasty food, and tastefully restored old German house.

Friedland to our surprise – we should of course had been  more up on our history – was the scene of Napoleon I’s decisive military victory over Tsar Alexander 1st’s army in 1807, leading directly to the peace of Tilsit which duly failed, leading in turn to Napoleon’s disastrous march on Moscow in 1820, and ultimately to the end of France’s early 19th century domination of most of Europe.

I’ll just post a load of photos for the record here, which will also cross-post to my public profile on Facebook. Not too many tandems pass through Kaliningrad, especially those as heavily-laden as Daisy, so worth recording the experience in some detail.

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Church of St George in Friedland, now Orthodox – see next pic for interior – but thankfully actually preserved and rescued from dereliction, unlike the vast bulk of German-era buildings in the region, religious and secular. Note grim, ugly, badly-built Soviet-era concrete shop in front.

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Interior of St Georges church, Pravdinsk/Friedland.

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Panorama from the top of Friedland church tower over the battlefield in which Napoleon conclusively – for the time being – beat the Russians in 1807.

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The completely delightful, delicious and comfortable Amelia Hotel in Pravdinsk, opened in the last three months only.

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Roadside produce. Just like in the Soviet days, and deliciously natural..

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Lenin still on show, with Kalinin, but only just in Pravdinsk regional history museu,=m.

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We still can’t quite work out why so many houses in Kaliningrad Region were begun and abandoned. Working on it, but either the 2008 crash and soaring Russian interest rates, or the aftermath of Ukraine and Crimea, with Western sanctions.

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The Lake outside Pravdinsk which covers much of the old 1807 Friedland battlefield. Feeding an electro power station built in the 20s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in the USSR? First full day in Kaliningrad Oblast

Two days into Kaliningrad…

Fascinating to have arrived in Kaliningrad Region – looks, feels, smells even so much like the Russia/Soviet Union Jutta and I knew so well.

Our two-day slow route in mapped on the right, from Mauerwald with its crazy WWII bunkers, to Gusev/formerly Gumbinnen.

Pre-WWII Gumbinnen was solidly German, of course, but no question who’s here now. Possibly the shiniest golden domes on any Russian Orthodox church either of us have ever seen. A statement, to put it mildly.

The charming post-Soviet view from the back of our hotel (The Imperial, via Booking.Com!) over Gusev towards the new Orthodox church. The Russians were never very good at town-planning. Beauty isn’t a widely understood concept, it seems…

Well, short of a reference to the CPSU, this poster comes straight from Soviet days. Thanks to our grandfathers for victory, peace and happiness, and eternal glory be unto them.

When the Germans of old built roads, they built them to last. Cobbled segment of the ride up from the border, through landscape strikingly different from Poland’s half of the old East Prussia. Here, so far, very little arable land, and rolling pastures with huge cattle herds. Not a lot has happened here for decades.

Wells still in action, and fencing so familiar…

Side road with bungalows. Life here clearly isn’t easy for the migrants and their families brought in here to populate Russia’s new strategic outlet to the warm Baltic after 1945.

Not a lot of traffic just into Kaliningrad Region. Relief at being so warmly processed at the border, by a young ~Russian lady thrilled to see her first-ever tandem. Visas (secured in advance in the UK – it’s no longer possible to visit Kaliningrad visa-free for 3 days) were expensive, but no hassle – quick checks of a couple of panniers, question where we’re going and we were off. Would have like to have photographed the actual border – with its barbed wire, fencing, sand strip and cleared forest looked very much like Cold War Berlin. But given sensitivities, thought probably best to avoid…

Here in Poland still – it’s what street lamps are for. We saw 73 storks in all in one day – a record, by miles.

Another bird family, on Mamry Lake as we awoke to a beautiful Polish day.

Wolfsschanze – Hitler’s forest command centre for most of the latter years of the war. This marks the spot where Stauffenberg and his plotters tried and failed to kill Hitler in July 1944. What might have unfolded if they had succeeded…

Full-size, undamaged bunker at Mauerwald, of the kind Hitler used nearby in Wolsschanze for 800 days between 1941 and the end of 1944. EIGHT METRES of concrete above the small rooms within, to protect against airraids that never came.

Bunker at Wolf’s Lair

Hidden in the forest, with trees on the roof, these bunkers were never identified by Russians or Allies while Hitler was here.

Hitler’s troops blew up the bunkers as best they could as they left in early 1945, just before the Russians got here on their fight towards Berlin. In Communist days, there was no tourism here to speak of – now it’s well organised and very well frequented – so different, Jutta says, from when she was here with her mother in 1975. Still spooky though, and a pretty grim reflection on how recent and devastating that war was, as Hitler directed German strategy rather like a video game, sequestered here in the woods of East Prussia.

Norovirus Rules – but, Kaliningrad here we come.

First, a couple of Garmin map links if you’re interested in our exact route, and speeds, and elevation and all the rest.

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/embed/1909929009

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/embed/1909906242

If you check, you’ll note that the first one suddenly picks up speed dramatically after Rozogi. And yes, from that point we were no longer trundling sedately along on Daisy, but aboard a VW Transporter taxi taking us both as rapidly as possible to hotel, bed and safety as Mark brewed, two days later than Jutta, the same Norovirus projectile vomiting bug.

Needless to say, no cycling got done yesterday either, which has meant that by the end of week one-of-four away, we’re already three days down on our original pedalling plans.

Hey ho, life is life, and we’re both now fine, and loving the Polish scenery – today the waterways of the Mazurian Lakes, formerly the southern part of German East Prussia and one of the loveliest holiday destinations imaginable (as long as the weather is as good as it was today.) Let the pix speak.

Tomorrow, we hope for our first, full, untruncated day’s ride, with neither VW minibus nor a boat to help us on our way, and with neither of us ending our ride with a mad, urgent dash for the loo…

We’re heading first thing out of Gizycko past Hitler’s latter wartime bunker in the forests at Wolfsschanze/Wolf’s Lair (the place where the July 20 1944 assassination attempt failed and which was blown up by his guards just before the Russians got here in early 1945), and thence to Goldap to cross into Kaliningrad Oblast, with luck, on Sunday.

Formerly an entirely closed military area, and we’re going through on a tandem. Could be interesting.

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The gravel/sand road that did me in yesterday – glorious scenery, but seriously hard work keeping Daisy upright in the soft surface. And avoiding all the cows…

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Hotel Nidski in Ruciane Nida – a three-star oasis for recovery from Norovirus in one of the most beautiful parts of the world we’ve ever been

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Jutta’s capture of the evening light from the back of the hotel, as Mark was groaning in thankfully transient Norovirus agony indoors.

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The Masurian Lakes., We went today from down the bottom to pretty much near the top, mostly on a boat. Ah, peace and relaxation.

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Individuals enjoying the three-hour boat ride from Mikolajki to Gizycko.

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Hat to smile. Polish blokes cooling off over a beer – nothing like a cold compress on the lower limbs while the rest of the family do family things onshore.

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Bit blurred, but clear who’s navigating.

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The lakes here are all joined up with 19th century, and some earlier, canals. VERY popular, and rightly so.

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A typcal Masurian Lake view.

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Daisy loaded. We’re a bit like a road train when we’re up and rolling. Unstoppable.

 

One Day In, and Careful What You Eat

Experimenting with a Garmin map below of our first day’s cycling north from Warsaw – very nearly 100km before we had to stop with Jutta nursing a very sore stomach from eating something that disagreed.

She’s feeling better today as we enjoy an unplanned 24-hour pause at a delightful small hotel on our way towards the Baltic.

Until it wasn’t, yesterday was magic as we pedalled through an unspoiled, hot, late summer Polish countryside alive with storks and – compared with the contract behemoths that now work our English countryside – dinky, individually-owned combine harvesters and balers very much like those we used growing up in 1960s Norfolk.

Jutta’s already feeling much better, so with luck, the journey resumes in the morning.

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/embed/1903141138

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The open Polish countryside – we made sure after this stretch that we stayed on tarmac. Manoeuvering a very heavy bicycle through soft sand is a hard push.

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Jutta nearly reached her 1975 record of 21 stork sightings in one day. We made it to 20 before she fell sick.

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Mr & Mrs Stork. Not too many broad-mouthed frogs hereabouts (old East German joke relates).

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Harvesters at work.

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Ancient old Harvesters flat out in the deepest countryside north of Warsaw.

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Picnic with Daisy, and Jutta

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Another group of ancient harvesters, though of a different kind. Here with host and old BBC friend and Warsaw colleague Karol Malcuzynski.

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Jutta with block of flats where she lived for several weeks in summer of 1975 on a working study leave break at the (then West) German embassy in Warsaw.

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Former Victoria Hotel where the visiting journos lived during the Solidarity summer of 1981.

Chopin and Changing. Daisy’s here…

All’s well, British Airways finally delivered Daisy safely if 36 hours later to Warsaw’s Chopin airport (sorry for the terrible, and obvious, pun in the headline…) and we set off north tomorrow.

First though, an open-air Chopin concert in Warsaw’s Lazienki Park.

And this is how Daisy arrived, her plastic packing somewhat compromised from her journeying from London. We’ll see if we can check her in from Tallinn in three-and-a-half weeks’ time with just the chain covered in, and the wheels still turning.