Venture with me into the heart of Kaliningrad region, where we will unearth a rustic charm only known to those with an adventurous spirit.
With less than 40,000 inhabitants, Chernyakhovsk (the city once known as Insterburg) holds the title as the region’s second largest city, a stoic runner-up to Kaliningrad herself. The town’s mosaic of history has been re-assembled, thanks to a generous federal beautification grant it earned in 2019. Now, each step taken within the city echoes back to the days where Swedish Queen Maria Eleonora used to stroll its avenues, where the mind of Immanuel Kant found solace, and where the likes of Peter the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte sought refuge.
But it’s not just about history; it’s about embracing change. The federal money became an artistic scalpel, painstakingly restoring the city’s face to its days of yore.
Allow me to lead you to some must-see locales in this enigmatic city.
- Castle Insterburg, a relic of the 14th century, whispers tales of defense against Lithuania as a Teutonic outpost. Its walls have tasted the flames of destruction twice, yet its determination remains unscathed. Today, the remains – a stoic defense wall and scattered outbuildings – are slowly being resurrected by the tireless hands of locals, guided by the artistic vision of a resident artist who’s made the castle his home.
- Water tower, an unmistakable beacon of the town’s identity. Its facade sports a bas-relief of Insterburg’s ancient coat of arms, featuring a bear poised on a mountain with the letters G and F, an ode to the Margrave who gave Insterburg its city rights. Though modern law frowned upon the Latin letters in the national heraldry, causing their removal, the spirit of the symbol remains as robust as ever.
- For equine enthusiasts, the Georgenburg Horse Farm is a must. It’s more than just a horse breeding facility; it’s a testament to the city’s commitment to preserving traditions. Dive into the secrets of breeding elite sport horses while hand-feeding these majestic creatures, and if you’re feeling daring, experience their power firsthand with a ride. Don’t forget to book in advance!
Getting to Chernyakhovsk from Kaliningrad is easy, with bus options such as № 680e, 515, 526, 55 and 583.
Where to eat? As for your gastronomic desires, “Hercules,” a homely European restaurant, and “Ellada,” a cozy pizzeria, stand ready to satiate your taste buds.
Accomodation. And when the day’s exploration tires you out, the welcoming arms of Park-Hotel “Angel” are just a reservation away. With double rooms starting from 3000 rubles, you’ll have a restful sanctuary to recount the day’s adventures.
Sovetsk (Tilsit) – A Cheese-Loving City with Vintage Homes and a Bridge with a View
Meet Sovetsk: a city of about 38,500 souls that once bore the name Tilsit. A place where historical echoes reverberate through cobblestone streets and where a unique blend of architectures can make you feel as if you’re straddling time zones. This city is steeped in stories; it’s where Alexander I and Napoleon Bonaparte sketched the outlines of the Peace of Tilsit in 1807 and where the cheese carrying the city’s former name was first crafted.
Stroll around Sovetsk, and you’d be forgiven for feeling like you’ve stepped into a time machine and landed in a classic German town. The quaint burgher houses lining the cobbled paths elicit a nostalgic vibe. And the Queen Louise Bridge, with its picturesque border post with Lithuania, adds a touch of modern reality to the romantic scene.
But let’s peel back the layers of this quaint city and uncover its hidden gems.
- Pobeda Street – a confluence of European charm and Soviet austerity – is a pedestrian’s delight. Its houses are living art pieces, each with its own unique elements that tickle the curiosity. House 24, for instance, flaunts atlantes decorations, while house 43 brings chivalry to life with a knight sculpture.
- Don’t miss the city’s beloved symbol – the moose sculpture, a gift from the Prussian Prime Minister in 1928. This charming sculpture was relocated to the Kaliningrad Zoo in the 1950s, but its heart remained in Sovetsk. In 2006, the city welcomed it back with open arms, and the moose is so adored it now has its own Instagram.
- No visit to Sovetsk would be complete without a walk on the Queen Louise Bridge, a stunning twin-towered structure that commemorates the centenary of the Peace of Tilsit. This isn’t just a bridge; it’s arguably one of the world’s most beautiful border crossings.
Getting to Sovetsk from Kaliningrad is a 120-kilometer journey that can be easily navigated by buses № 601e and 600e or a daily electric train – costing roughly 250 rubles.
Where to eat? For your sustenance, the delightful cafe-pizzeria “Cipollone” awaits, ready to serve up delectable dishes.
Accomodation. And when the night draws in, the Hercules Hotel, with its single rooms starting from 2400 rubles, is the perfect place to retire and dream about the city’s yesteryears.
Znamensk – The Village With Eerie Secrets and an Unconventional Appeal
Let me introduce you to Znamensk (once known as Wielau), a village of 4000, tucked away from the usual humdrum. Yes, it has the hallmarks of pre-revolutionary architecture, and the ruins of the 13th century St. Jacob’s Church still whisper tales of its past glory. But it’s not these relics that pull in the curious crowd; it’s something much more mysterious and spine-tingling – the desolate Allenberg Psychiatric Hospital.
The former Allenberg Psychiatric Hospital complex now serves as an uncanny magnet for the curious and the brave. This vast and striking edifice was a beacon of 19th-century psychiatric care, providing a sanctuary for over a thousand patients. The phrase “He’s from Allenberg” had a chilling connotation, alluding to someone’s mental health struggles. Don’t expect to find padded rooms or bed-lined wards in this eerie complex; it morphed into Soviet army barracks after World War II. The troops retreated in 2013, leaving the structure to surrender to time and elements.
Though the property is technically guarded, the lure of the forbidden draws in dozens of explorers every day, slipping through a gap in the fence. Savvy local kids have turned this into an entrepreneurial venture, offering rudimentary tours for a fee. While some may negotiate a small outlay (a mere 300 rubles in my case, spent on treats from a local store), others might demand anything from 1000 to 2000 rubles. The tours won’t rival any professional operations, but the enthusiasm and tenacity of these young guides add a charming layer to the eerie experience. The complex, remarkably, still houses a gym, a bathhouse, a water tower, and a kirkha.
Beyond the hospital, Znamensk has other offerings as well. The Lava River waterfall, a ruined spillway dam, offers a backdrop worthy of postcards.
Znamensk is a 55-kilometer drive from Kaliningrad, and buses № 534 and 567 can get you there. After a day of exploring, “Tyuninykh Farm,” a welcoming tourist center complete with a cafe, can replenish your energy. The adventurous can rent rafting equipment and bicycles here. In summer, a two-seater kayak or sapa costs between 450-500 rubles per hour or 1800-2000 rubles for the whole day. Welcome to Znamensk, the village where the ordinary and the extraordinary mingle.