russia

Go here now: Kaliningrad, Russia

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What some people might not know is that my foray into Russia didn’t start with my move to Moscow. Although I had never set foot in Moscow or Russia proper for more than two or three days, I had been to Russia before. When I was just a wee child between my sophomore and junior years of college, I managed to snag a scholarship through the US State Department to further my Russian skills in-country. Being totally free, I obviously went and that’s how my first experience with Russia – strangely – was in Kaliningrad.

Do you see it on the map? Give up?

map of russia

Kaliningrad is that weird part of Russia not actually connected to Russia, wedged between Poland and Lithuania. Yup, it was an area that the Soviet army won in World War II from the conquered Germans and just never gave up. Formerly called Konigsberg, the soviet powers-that-be simply Russified the name and imported a number of Russian citizens to populate the new territory. The resulting city is a strange mix of old German architecture, typical concrete block buildings, and one Soviet monstrosity.

I have to say, even though my living situation was pretty terrible (we were supposed to live with families to practice our language skills even at home. I lived with a surly 17-year-old girl and no one else and it was… unpleasant), I really liked Kaliningrad. The cushion of a stipend may have really sweetened my memory, but that summer was far more than just the obvious, grammar-heavy lessons all day. Our motley crew of Americans, Russians, and the odd German tourists still managed to sit for hours in the central square, drinking beer and enjoying each other’s company. The hours always managed to slip away as the city’s northern location meant it was suddenly 3 AM, still sunny, and we hadn’t managed to sleep before our next lesson.

There were negatives, though, and it’s only fair to address them. Whether because of more vigorous testing procedures or just a high-level of needle-drug users, the rates of HIV/AIDS are (were?) much higher than in the rest of Russia. I don’t have much comment on that except that I did see many needles all over Kaliningrad which I’ve never seen in Moscow. Also, if you come from a neighboring EU state, expect quality to decline. Kaliningrad and its citizens can’t interact freely with its neighbors, leaving it depended on help from Moscow: it’s just a sad fact of this little, isolated Russian outlier.

That all being said, there was something about the city (or the people?) that were so charming and utterly irresistible. It helped that just a short distance away were small towns that were so typically Russian (even though they were only half a century old) and sandy beaches with some of the coldest water I’ve ever tried to enjoy.

If you ever want some traveler cool points for going to a (relatively) cushy place that tends to be off the beaten path, get yourself a visa and head over to Kaliningrad.

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47 Comments

  • Reply sunandsany June 23, 2014 at 7:33 pm

    Sounds typically russian. The 1st photo reminds me of my coutry.

    • Reply Polly June 23, 2014 at 11:00 pm

      It is really Russian for a place that has only been in Russia since World War 2!

  • Reply Mariah-Food, Booze, & Baggage June 23, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    Sounds like quite the interesting experience. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard anyone mention Kaliningrad as a travel destination.

    • Reply Polly June 23, 2014 at 11:07 pm

      I’m not sure why you would. It’s a pretty neat place, but the visa regime means so many people miss out because you can’t just pop by from Europe. It’s really a shame.

  • Reply ladyofthecakes June 23, 2014 at 9:25 pm

    Trust you to choose somewhere weird…

    • Reply Polly June 23, 2014 at 11:21 pm

      Haha it wasn’t me! I just got assigned by the State Department. I think they sent us strange places so there was less of a chance of people speaking English to us as it was full immersion (even among us Americans for the most part).

  • Reply Amanda @ Rhyme & Ribbons June 24, 2014 at 1:05 am

    How difficult would it be to get a tourist visa? x

    • Reply Polly June 24, 2014 at 1:36 am

      I’m not going to lie – it’s pretty expensive and annoying, but not too difficult if you send it off with a company who processes everything for you!

  • Reply Anna June 24, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Another one on my must list. My dad did a etching stint there for three months last winter and he was absolutely charmed by people, architecture and food. I might swing by for a weekend.

    • Reply Polly June 24, 2014 at 4:19 pm

      You absolutely should, there’s lots of interesting things to do in that little speck of land. I’d love to go back and drive through it myself, although the roads were truly terrible.

  • Reply Sophie June 24, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    I’m embarrassed to say I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of Kaliningrad before, but I’m very intrigued now! How strange for it to be Russian yet be sandwiched between two other countries! How cool that you got to study Russian there.
    There is an area that belongs to the Netherlands but that is in fact totally enclosed by Belgium – also very mysterious.

    • Reply Polly June 24, 2014 at 4:23 pm

      We’re even since I’ve never heard of that part of the Netherlands! I love the strange little geographical quirks of the world.

  • Reply Margo June 24, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    I’m looking for travel cool points, so I’ll definitely consider it. Perhaps once things simmer down with this whole Ukraine business?

    • Reply Polly June 24, 2014 at 4:25 pm

      Probably a good idea – I’m definitely hesitant to go back to Russia because of all that, On the other hand, though, I figure as long as I steer clear of Kiev and eastern Ukraine, I’ll probably be good.

    • Reply Elena June 24, 2014 at 6:17 pm

      It’s safe in Kiev currently as all the demonstrations and protests got down, but the city center is total mess still. As a local I’d suggest visiting Western Ukraine. Lviv is utterly beautiful with loads of quirky cafes :) There are a lot of cool castles scattered around and charming mountain villages. P.s. and people are super friendly and hospitable :)

      • Reply Polly June 24, 2014 at 7:10 pm

        Thanks for the advice, Elena!

  • Reply Madaline June 24, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    Russia has always been on my “must see” list, however, I don’t think I’ve really though about (ok, maybe heard about) Kaliningrad!

    • Reply Polly June 24, 2014 at 4:33 pm

      Haha, not many have. I hadn’t ever heard of it before I went and I’d been studying Russian for a year or two.

  • Reply Van @ On the Road again June 24, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    Lovely pictures! Kaliningrad seems to be a really special and unique place! I should definitely consider visiting it as it’s not as far away as “real” Russia. Also I love your hair colour on these pictures! I’m thinking about dyeing mine that colour soon ;)

    • Reply Polly June 24, 2014 at 7:06 pm

      Oooh! Do it. I’m always for hair dyeing!

  • Reply Kaelene@Unlocking Kiki June 24, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    I definitely have never heard of Kaliningrad, how interesting that apart of Russia is between two other countries that aren’t Russia!

    • Reply Polly June 24, 2014 at 7:07 pm

      It’s seriously weird. I guess they kept it for naval purposes but it’s still just a bizarre concept!

  • Reply Annie June 24, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    great history lesson! that building in the center square photo with you is really cool..

  • Reply Kristin @ Crumbs & Curls June 24, 2014 at 7:08 pm

    This sounds like so much fun! I took Russian my whole Sophomore year of college! I’m stopping by from the Travel Tuesday Link Up!

    Kristin
    Crumbs & Curls

    • Reply Polly June 25, 2014 at 3:38 am

      I take it you were smart enough to stop studying Russian, unlike some of us :)

  • Reply Danielle @ The-Lifestyle-Project June 24, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    How interesting to learn about the history of Kaliningrad. I learned something new today! Your study abroad scholarship sounds like such a great opportunity. It must’ve been really fun to have that sort of freedom in high school. I’ve never travelled that far north where it’s still light at 3am. Trippy!

    • Reply Polly June 25, 2014 at 3:55 am

      It was actually during college so I wasn’t QUITE a baby. But I was one of the few under 21 so I was overly excited to be able to drink legally!

  • Reply Sammy @ Days Like This June 24, 2014 at 10:25 pm

    I never knew that this little part of Russia existed! My sister and I are going to visit Russia next year and we can’t wait!

    • Reply Polly June 25, 2014 at 4:11 am

      Oh man, it’s a place I love to hate (hate to love?) – I think you’ll have an amazing time!

  • Reply Jessica @ Independent Travel Cats June 25, 2014 at 1:16 am

    Wow, I’d never heard of this place or knew that parts of Russia were wedged in between other countries. Sounds like a difficult place to live although interesting. It sounds like although you didn’t have a great living situation there that you still made the best of your time there!

    • Reply Polly June 25, 2014 at 4:15 am

      It was a wonderful visit but, like you said, a difficult, isolated part of the world to come from.

  • Reply Natalye June 25, 2014 at 2:38 am

    Great photo! I was in Warsaw earlier this year and can definitely pick up on that Eastern European/post-Soviet vibe in some of your photos. Thanks for sharing–what a unique experience to live in Kaliningrad.

    • Reply Polly June 25, 2014 at 5:47 pm

      Yup, Kaliningrad is very soviet since it only became a Russian city during the mid-40s. It’s definitely a strange place to visit!

  • Reply Amy @ Amy and the Great World June 25, 2014 at 3:13 am

    Like others, I also didn’t know this little part of Russia existed! It looks lovely :)

    • Reply Polly June 25, 2014 at 5:51 pm

      When I first got my letter to go, I had no idea where it was!

  • Reply Elizabeth June 25, 2014 at 5:38 am

    I’ve been wanting to head there from Russia but the visas are a bit challenging. Perhaps I will look a bit harder into it now that you say it is nice!

    • Reply Polly June 25, 2014 at 6:50 pm

      The visa isn’t actually that challenging, just a pain. I’d recommend paying a company a little extra money to do everything for you – totally worth it!

  • Reply hannahelizabeth June 25, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    What an interesting first impression of Russia for you! I quite liked Kaliningrad, but it really wasn’t what I was expecting. I kind of assumed that because it was surrounded by the EU, it would be more European, but it’s soooo Russian, really interesting to see!

    • Reply Polly June 25, 2014 at 6:51 pm

      Definitely true. I’d never been to Europe or Russia, so I didn’t really have any preconceived notions which I think was useful. It is unfortunate, though, that the region is so cut off from everything else.

  • Reply Camila June 25, 2014 at 10:05 pm

    That is so cool! I was so curious about that part of Russia in Europe! I’m glad to have found out more about it :) so thanks for that! Oh and also didn’t know it took a visa to visit!

    • Reply Polly June 26, 2014 at 5:37 pm

      Unfortunately, yes. The visa is a big pain!

  • Reply Darci June 26, 2014 at 5:26 am

    That’s so cool that you got a scholarship from the state department! Lucky lucky! :) I never realized there was a part of Russia that’s not attached to the rest of the country. That’s kind of fascinating. It sounds like a very interesting place!

    Also, on an unrelated note, I nominated you for a Liebster Award. :) I’m not sure if you’ve done it before, or if you want to, or even if your follower count is within the limits, but I just thought I’d tip my cap! http://freedom-of-excess.blogspot.com/2014/06/liebster-award-blogger-love-information.html

    • Reply Polly June 26, 2014 at 5:39 pm

      Thanks so much Darci!

  • Reply Cynthia July 2, 2014 at 11:41 pm

    I always wonder about Kalingrad and that little part of Russia that no one can explain why it’s there. No really, sometimes I just sit there, look out the window and wonder why it is the way that it is. Very interesting to hear a little about your experiences there! I would love to visit, but the high visa costs for Americans sorta put me off, to be honest. Is there a name for this odd little part of Russia?

    • Reply Polly July 3, 2014 at 5:34 pm

      Haha, I’m glad you look out the window when you’re contemplating such things, just for dramatic tension! I guess it’s just called the Kaliningrad region – I mean, it really is just another part of Russia which just happens to be unattached.

      I totally get your hesitance re: visa fees. I’ve spent so much money on them it’s sickening. If you’re not going to Russia for a reason, it’s hard to pay when you could go somewhere else for free/much cheaper.

  • Reply Scotty February 2, 2015 at 3:16 am

    hi Polly. Quick one, is it generally speaking a safe place to walk around for a solo traveller?

    • Reply Polly February 2, 2015 at 3:53 am

      Definitely. I was out and about at all hours and had no problems – particularly if you’re a man, you should have no issues at all!

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