It seemed symbolic to start my exploration of Kaliningrad Region by spending a while taking in the views of the Baltic Sea at sunset in the town of Zelenogradsk (formerly Cranz), our base for the next few days. Living in a country known for its harsh climate during a good part of the year we still see a sea vacation as a bit of luxury and indulgence. But for pure relaxation a Russian would rather go down to the South to the Black Sea. I think one comes here to the West for a different kind of experience. Being here, some of us would remember Peter the Great and his masterpiece of a city (St.Petersburg) where I got a glimpse of the Gulf of Finland, which is an ‘easternmost arm’ of the Baltic Sea, a month before. We might also think of the economic and political benefits having the access to this sea offers us. Some might remember the USSR era and being able to travel to the Baltic states for shopping. It is also a pursuit of a taste of ‘Europeanness’ that brings people here. I was thinking of a mix of these as I was standing with my feet in the chilly Baltic sea listening to the sound of its rough waves. A classical beach holiday would be simply impossible here even now — in August. So I continued thinking how I was surrounded by a few EU countries in this coast and how I would not be allowed there even if I had a way to cross this unfriendly sea…
The Baltic Sea lends this region a unique ‘jewellery’ identity which is built on amber. Around 90% of the world’s amber is found here in Kaliningrad Region. In some places you can actually find this orange stone washed up on a beach (especially after a storm). The region’s economy heavily relies on amber. It literally haunts you everywhere inviting you to purchase what would be a perfect souvenir to bring back home from the Baltic Sea coast. I don’t know how likely onewould be to find amber in jewellery boxes around the world, but I think most Soviet/Russian women can boast at least one piece in their collection. I never dreamed of owning something in this color, but finding amber pieces in a whole range of colors and shapes here in Cranz I couldn’t help adding a few pieces to my own collection. I refuse to think too much of how these stones I now have might have been only made to look like real Baltic amber. I just choose to see them as something coming from this mostly ‘foreign’ Baltic Sea.
Walking a bit further along the beach in Zelenogradsk, I took a look further to my right and saw a long sand dune stretching as far as the eye can see. Somewhere halfway through it there is a border with Lithuania. The Curonian Spit is a natural creation that now serves as a perfect metaphorical representation of a border. There are a few legends surrounding the origin of this UNESCO World Heritage object. According to some, giant creatures built this dune by throwing sand into the sea so that local fisherman could shelter here to be safe from strong storms in the area. Standing on this dune just a few kilometers from the EU border on the tour of the area, I felt the overwhelming menace generated by a collaboration of the Curonian Spit and the Baltic Sea. I had to strain myself not to be blown away by the strong wind. It literally made me feel as if I wasn’t wanted up there looking down at the sea from for too long. Getting lovely amber earrings which the shop assistant said were ‘a perfect match’ for me warmed my heart (if not the whole body).
Part of the Curonian Spit National Park is the Dancing Forest which adds an element of mystery and complexity to the Baltic landscape. Those pine trees were planted in the 1960s to stabilize the dune. For the reasons still unknown, the trunks ended up being crooked earning the area the nickname Drunken Forest (I hope this has nothing to do with the reputation of Russians being heavy drinkers). I wasn’t amazed by what I could see, but I took a moment to enjoy the special energy of the place and its fresh ‘wooden’ air intensified by a slight drizzle.
Depending on where we come from and how well-traveled we are, each of us has an idea of what a sea resort town should be like. The first time I’d ever seen the sea was in Cannes as I was standing with my back to the building where all these glamorous-looking film celebrities pose during the red carpet ceremony in Cannes Film Festival. I know that sounds pretty chic and European. I didn’t let my expectations go through the roof as I continued experiencing other European, American and Asian seascapes of a varying degree of glamor and beauty in the years to follow. Even before I had visited a Russian sea resort for the first time in 2019, I knew that what I was going to see would be probably not even Russian (let alone remotely European), but rather Soviet. Those few sea resorts there are in Russia have the reputation for being stuck in the past despite some effort being made to shape them into something more modern.
Due to the pandemic, Russians have had to shift the focus to those few sea resorts in the country. A few months before my trip to Kaliningrad region, I had spent a couple of weeks in Sochi, one of the country’s most popular sea resorts. Zelenogradsk, which wasn’t quite well-known before the pandemic, is now growing in popularity with its real estate prices skyrocketing over the pandemic period. I was certainly curious to see where it would fall in the spectrum between Soviet, Russian and European. Or was that going to be something ‘Baltic’ (i.e., a mix of Russia and Europe (old and ‘nearby’ one))?
So what did I see in the Russian Baltic coast with the European history? Cranz had a pretty good promenade area where you could find (even though limited and not particularly customer-friendly) places to grab a coffee and watch the rough Baltic Sea. In some parts of it there was music blaring — just as in those Russian Black Sea resorts. People-watching was quite interesting as well. There was a distinct group of wealthy Russians (mostly likely from the capital) — dressed in nice comfortable clothes, walking their lovely dogs, smiling and laughing. Some elderly couples would walk hand in hand seeming in no rush at all. During my trips to Europe I could only wish I could see that back home… There were some holidaymakers like us as well with just a couple of them willing to brave the cold and swim…
For the sake of comparison we went on a day trip to Svetlogorsk (the former Rauschen) which is another resort in the region lying just about 30 km along the coast away from Zelenogradsk. At least it was a warm day and there were people actually swimming and sunbathing there. Both Cranz and Rauschen used to be fishing villages that developed into German sea resorts. There were black and white pictures in both reminding you what the ambiance was like in the 19th century – noble ladies wearing their swimwear (looking like a regular long dress to the modern eye) in a sort of a ‘beach box’ (Strandkorb in German) hidden from excessive sun, wind and sand as well as male gazes.
So here in Kaliningrad Region’s coast there were those timeless natural things you expect in a resort city — refreshing sea breeze, huge seagulls, occasional sunshine, spectacular sunsets… But did the local ambiance have a distinct character? I had to study man-made elements of my surroundings to answer this.