Kaliningrad Oblast travel guide
The Curonian Spit (Kurshskaya Kosa in Russian) is a nearly 100 km long, narrow, sand dune spit that separates the Baltic Sea from the Curonian Lagoon. The southern section lies within Kaliningrad Oblast (Russia) and the northern within Lithuania. At its narrowest, the width is merely 400 m, making it possible to look across when standing on a high sand dune. The uniqueness of this fragile landscape of drifting sand dunes has made it an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only one in Kaliningrad Oblast. The National Park Kurshskaya Kosa makes up most of the spit, but there are several villages along the single road that goes the full length of the spit. The two main sights are The Dancing Forest, a collection of twisted trees, and the giant sand dunes at Efa. Not every local has been to these semi-famous spots, so beware when asking for direction or taking transport. The rest of the spit is mainly pine forest and long sandy beaches favoured by picknicking families during summer.
Kaliningrad Oblast isn't blessed with that many amazing sights, so the few oddities have turned into local stars. The Dancing Forest on the Curonian Spit is just one of the those. It's a section of the forest where pines have curled into natural knots and loops at the ground. There is no scientific explanation for this strange natural phenomenon, but wind and sandy soil have been some candidates. Due to the growing popularity, some of the most famous pines were fenced off to protect them from posing tourists. A necessity, but it unfortunately ruins the illusion of walking in an enchanted forest.
Fort No. 5, or Pyaty Fort in Russian, was the fifth of 15 forts that made the strong defence of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). It was constructed in the end of the 19th century and was a prime example of defence structure of the time: A heavily armed fortified island of concrete surrounded by a moat. Today, it's an overgrown ruin open to the public. Rusty old cannons are still hidden in the woods and many of the mouldy bunkers and underground passageways are open for exploration. Though the Fifth Fort lies a bit outside downtown Kaliningrad, it's easily reachable by public transportation (just take tram no. 1).
Kaliningrad is the capital of the Russian exclave of the same name, Kaliningrad Oblast. Pre Soviet times, it was known as Königsberg, a cultural and elegant university city, home to several famous mathematician (Euler, Goldbach, and Hilbert) and other famous scholars, like Kant. During World World II, the city was heavily bombed, not leaving many surviving buildings. After Königsberg became a part of the Soviet Union, it changed name to Kaliningrad and was transformed into a classic drab Soviet city with bleak apartments blocks and bombastic monuments. Luckily, in some residential areas, a few old German houses were left untouched, along with the many parks and ponds, all of which give the city some grace. But Kaliningrad isn't very appealing at first sight. The handful of architectural masterpieces from the Königsberg era are drowning in the sea of shabby Soviet-era concrete and modern buildings in glass and steel. But the brand new cathedral (of Christ the Saviour) on the main square is impressive and a step out of the dark shadow of the Eastern Bloc.
The Baltic coastline and the lagoon side of the Curonian Spit are both long sandy beaches with tall sand dunes. Some of the largest dunes are located on the lagoon side and called Efa after forester Franz Efa, who researched drifting sand. They raise up to a height of 60 metres above the sea, which is just a stone's throw away. As strangely as it might sound, it's not allowed to walk in the sand dunes, but a trail runs along the edge where the sand meets the forest, up to the top of the dunes. From here, the splendid views stretch across the Curonian Spit and what best can be described as a mini Sahara - well, at least in summer when the sun is shining and there is no snow.
During the 18th century, one of the greatest mathematicians of all times, Leonhard Euler (1707-1783), lived in Kaliningrad, or Königsberg at the time. He solved a problem known as the "Seven Bridges of Königsberg", which was to decide whether it was possible to find a walk through Königsberg that would cross each of the seven bridges once and only once. Euler figured out that it wasn't possible - and invented a new branch of math, graph theory, along the way. The seven bridges connected the two islands Kant Island (formerly Kneiphof) and October Island (formerly Lomse Island) with the north bank and south bank of Pregel River. Today, there are only five of the seven bridges left (if you count the new highway bridge, Leninskl prospekt, as two), where only two are "originals" from Euler's time (High Bridge and Honey Bridge). Mathematically, that means it's possible today to walk a route, where you cross each of the remaining five bridge once and only once.