I believe it was October of last year – Breeah and I had just finalized our Australia plans for the following March. My father and I had a conversation about the final qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup, of which I had no intention of actually attending. Visiting Russia couldn’t have been further from my mind at the time.
“So where is the World Cup this year,” my dad inquired. “Russia,” I answered, “Heck, they are even hosting matches in Kaliningrad.”
“Well, are you going?” he asked.
“No, of course not, I’m not going all the way out to Russia.”
By the next day, we were both knee deep in discussions on how best to get me out to the Kaliningrad exclave. Because why not? After purchasing a game ticket (before teams were drawn), I was to apply for my FAN-ID (a free Visa-like document offered to fans attending the World Cup – making this trip actually cheaper than it would usually be). I also quickly went ahead and booked my flights through LOT Polish Airlines from JFK, with a stop in Warsaw all that separates a mainland U.S. traveler from this curious Baltic Russian oblast. I also had to book a Delta flight to JFK from PDX. I received my FAN-ID from the Russian Post in January and the game ticket (which was decided by draw to be Croatia vs. Nigeria) arrived from the DHL delivery truck just two weeks before the match.
Oh, and did I mention that I gave myself a week for the entire trip. Like literally 7 exact days. My Delta flight left the PDX tarmac after 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night (to eventually arrive in Kaliningrad on early Thursday afternoon). I got back home to Eugene, Oregon at 10:45 p.m. the following Tuesday. For all that flying I still ended up with a full day to explore NYC (and hit up three more national park sites) and 3.5 days to wander around Kaliningrad.
I arrived in drizzly Kaliningrad even more weary than I expected given my itinerary. I hadn’t seen a bed for two successive nights. I nearly missed my plane from JFK to Warsaw because I dozed off at the gate (thanks to some Peruvian fans who alerted me to the boarding call). In Warsaw I refused to sit, fearing I may snooze through my only reliable way into Kaliningrad – so I ended up standing around for about four hours. With such limited time I decided to fight off sleep for a few hours and make my way from my booking.com apartment to Victory Square (or, in Russian, Ploshchad Pobedy). The City Hall building welcomes World Cup visitors to Kaliningrad with a giant banner and the golden domes of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour glistened as the sun started to break through. I had made it to Russia, I was in Russian territory, I was in this once very foreign (to me) exclave that I never thought I’d visit but now I was actually walking around in! This was all strangely exciting!
Of course this was all at one time part of Germany – and for a very long time. Königsberg had a near 700-year run under German rule, ended by the expulsion of the Germans by the Soviets in the aftermath of World War II. The Soviets bombed the heck out of Königsberg with multiple attacks occurring from 1941-1945. The Soviets rebuilt the city as Kaliningrad, knocking down most of the German structures (though leaving remnants of the old city walls and the famed Königsberg Cathedral. The “question” of Kaliningrad’s official status still gets debated today, though Germany seems uninterested in even humoring the idea of getting it back.
I never expected to visit Kaliningrad amid a mass party of football fanatics, or really any large group of visitors. Josh Gates (of Travel Channel’s Destination Unknown) visited the area for an early episode of his shown profiling the Catherine Palace (in St. Petersburg) and its missing Amber Room. It was said that the Nazis plundered the Palace, taking pieces of the Amber Room (possibly) to Königsberg. In the episode Gates visits the grounds of the castle, located next to Kaliningrad’s skyscraper, the unfinished and brutalistically “beautiful” House of the Soviets. Originally intended as the offices of the city government, it has forever stood empty and unused at it loomed over the Kaliningrad skyline. Now I was here, on these same grounds, with thousands of locals and out-of-towners who gathered here for the FIFA Fan Fest, an all day, every day, outdoor party with a massive big screen showing all the World Cup matches. As I walked through security, Vladimir Putin was addressing the crowd in Moscow before the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia. I filtered through the crowd as Russia’s (now resurrected former Soviet) anthem blared over the loudspeakers. This was all quite surreal for an American who was born at the crossroads of the Gen-X/Millennial eras (hence, I’ve seen or heard it all – or I’d like to think so).
After getting laughed at for handing over 1000 rubles for a 280 ruble grocery store purchase of candy, chips and bottled water (and ruing all that time wasted that I could’ve learned a few words of Russian), I headed back to my apartment and slept for 15 hours…(likely a Weekend Roady record).
The next day I checked out the Amber museum. The aforementioned amber room was reconstructed using amber from a mine in the Kaliningrad oblast and artifacts from the work done with that are on display at the museum. There are also many thousands of pieces, both archaeological in nature as well as artistic, that are included in the museum’s collection and public walk-through. Apparently a whopping 90% of the world’s usable amber comes from Kaliningrad. Jurassic Park fans will be keen on visiting because, yes, they have plenty of amber pieces with insects inside (though the DNA is likely too far gone to resuscitate a few dino species.
It was after my visit to the museum that I ran into two Americans on the street, Zach, a fellow Capitals fan from D.C. and his friend Matt from New York City. After talking for no more than maybe five minutes, we settled on lunch at a German-style restaurant within the Rosgarten Gate (one of the old walls of Königsberg) to order steaks, watch football and display our horrible Russian language skills – though I must give it to Matt, who actually studied a bit of Russian on the duolingo for sixth months prior to this trip.
I spent the rest of the evening with my new friends in Victory Square. We followed Zach into one of Kaliningrad’s surprisingly modern shopping centers to look for FC Baltika team gear and somehow I came out of there with an authentic team jersey of a Kaliningrad’s Russian 2nd division side (will be an interesting conversation piece when I don this sucker for a sporting event). Hungry, we were twice thwarted by the apparent need for dinner reservations but settled for sitting at the bar at another German-themed pub (Zötler Bier) to watch Spain-Portugal. The place was packed, overwhelmed even, and you could tell that the city was reaching critical mass in terms of the number of people it could entertain for an evening. The spicy sausages were rather, well, bland (but good with mustard!), the soccer/football was good, and three long hours later we were out of there and retreated for the night.
Match day Saturday started out at the Museum of the World Ocean, of which offers several different admissions to various ships and watercraft on the site. We decided to tour the Russian foxtrot sub, the B-413, one of the last of Russia’s fleet of foxtrots (launched in 1968 and decommissioned in 1999). This sub is of the same class of those used by the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We also visited the research ship, RV Vityaz, which was originally built by the Germans as for military use under the Nazi regime. It actually assisted the German evacuees of Königsberg. It was taken control of in Denmark and was re-allocated to the Soviet Union after WWII. The Soviets turned it into a research vessel and it sailed the seas from its port in Vladivostok for nearly 40 years. Maybe most notably, the scientists aboard the ship recorded the deepest depth of the Mariana Trench (36,201 feet).
What visit to Kaliningrad isn’t complete without a walk through Kneiphof island to view the grandest structure remaining from Königsberg, the cathedral. Rebuilt after 1992, this cathedral is really the signature building in Kaliningrad, and the resting place of the great philosopher Immanuel Kant. It is still in use today and serves both the Lutheran and Russian Orthodox faith with two separate chapels.
The so-dubbed fishing village that abuts the Pregolya river across from Kneiphof is a relatively recent development. A collection of relatively upscale restaurants and a few shops reside in this neo-Prussian attraction. We decided to grab a meal before the match and ended up finishing our food three hours later – apparently the fault of a kitchen that didn’t know how to handle the onslaught of football fanatics. We shared our table with an affable couple from Moscow who flew in for the match. Mikhail spoke the best English of anyone we’d met so far, and he had good fun playing up the perceived American fears of Russia (“I’m a little bit dangerous too, you know”, “look at the policemen outside, they are watching us, but I am here to protect you”). They both checked out ok in my book, and afterwards we all shared a drink and they treated us to a river cruise around the Pregolya (“from the goodness of our Russian hearts”). I also learned that apparently if your glass is empty for a toasting, you have to knock heads. I apparently was also in good favor with our newfound hosts due to my lack of the typical American “perma-grin”.
Oh yeah, the game. That was the impetus for this trip in the first place. It actually wasn’t the best played soccer/football I’ve ever seen. An own-goal and a penalty kick (and generally lazy play by the Nigerians) sealed the full three points for Croatia. I’d say just being there was about 90% of the experience – as I entered through the gates to the throngs of checkerboard-decked Croatian fans, I was overcome with exhilaration, the type of emotional high I get while traveling when I come to the realization of what I had pulled off to be able to be there. I had to call my sister just to say “I made it to the World Cup.”
Average game, a bad hot dog and a destroyed shoe would be the story of the rest of the night (my sole separated from the rest of the shoe on my left foot, making for a challenging walk through the madness at Victory Square – I’m sure I was laughed at again for the second time on this trip). After assisting my friends with finding a taxi to the coastal town of Pionersky, I headed back to the apartment to rest up for the next day’s church service. Yes, I was invited to church by my booking.com host, who just so happened to be a Lutheran pastor (in a country without many Lutherans). I relished the unique opportunity to take part and would be glad I did.
The service took place in an office building. This group of Lutherans in Russia is relatively unsupported by their own leadership, choosing to go it on their own with the small group they have. The service was actually quite similar to a modern non-denominational service in the U.S. with some of the decor perhaps befitting of Catholicism. 30 or so people filled the room that day with a youthful band belting out some modern gospel songs in Russian. Before that, I think they may have gotten wind of an American in their audience as they loaded up MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” as people came in. Only the pastor (my host) spoke some English, until I was completely surprised by the appearance of another American! William, upon hearing my introduction, came scrambling up to sit up with me in the first row and offered to translate the service. He was probably just as astonished as I was to find him there.
William had retired to the area and had remarried a wife from elsewhere in Russia about a decade prior. After the service he invited me to join him on a train out to the coast – Zelenogradsk (just south of the famed Curonian Spit) – to join his wife and grand kids for an afternoon and a late lunch. I had missed out on my opportunity earlier to reach the coast with an english-speaking guide, so I was ever so grateful to run into an American (maybe the only one?) who actually lives here.
The trains were packed with locals looking to beat the heat with a dip in the Baltic. William and I met up with his family and we grabbed pizza at a colorful restaurant (Skovorodka was the name). After a late lunch William and I spent an hour or so talking about life and travel while his wife and the grandkids spent time on the beach. I saw a lot of myself in William, perhaps 30+ years my senior, and I almost found myself staring into the future. No, I likely won’t live in Kaliningrad, but William had fashioned out an adventurous life for himself, his worldly curiousness unique among the rest of his family and, with that, its own set of challenges.
After four days in Kaliningrad I left incredibly fulfilled. I’m not sure what my expectations were, outside of making it to the World Cup and just existing in this strange Russian exclave for a few days. I ended up meeting six new people, perhaps a few of them will stay on as friends or travel contacts. I suppose I shall name this little slice of land the zemlya druzey (‘land of friends’). Here’s to knocking heads with the next Russian with an empty glass!