Dear fellow travellers
It is that time of year when Baltic seaside resorts come into their own, reminding the rest of Europe that beach culture is not solely a Mediterranean prerogative. The sedate charms of Sellin (on the German island of Rügen) are a world away from Spanish sun and sangria, though only those with the strongest constitutions brave the chilly Baltic waters in late May. Sellin with its delicate white pier pavilion is one of the most engaging of Baltic resorts, one that somehow evokes a mood of a gentler age, a more ordered world where Germany's well heeled elite contrived to spend long summer months at their favourite Baltic watering holes.
Russia's Baltic coast has something of the same flavour. The town of Svetlogorsk is just an hour from Kaliningrad by local elektrichka - those rattling electric trains which are a mainstay of travel in Russia and eastern Europe. We have been exploring the Kaliningrad region these past days, and yesterday was an idyllic, beautiful Sunday - as good as they come. While the devout attended the liturgy at Kaliningrad's new Orthodox cathedral on Victory Square, the platform at the nearby Kaliningrad North station was full of day trippers bound for Svetlogorsk.
It was the railway that gave Svetlogorsk its resort status, though back in 1901, when the first train rolled into town, the coastal community was German through and through. The entire territory of what today is Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast was until 1945 part of the German province of East Prussia. So Svetlogorsk once had much the same appeal to Germans as Sellin on Rügen. It was a place where well-to-do German women in search of better health or a better husband might come for the summer season. It was a place to which politicians escaped, or where artists and writers came for inspiration. In those days, the town had a German name of course: Rauschen. Thomas Mann spent the summer here in 1929, using the time to pen Mario and the Magician, a novella with a powerful critique of fascism.
Today's excursionists from Kaliningrad still find in Svetlogorsk a town with a palpably German demeanour. True, there is a very visible admixture of new Russian wealth, with impossibly extravagant fortress holiday homes protected by high metal fences. But old Rauschen is still there for the taking - an old German church, Jugendstil villas, and even some classic East Prussian dishes, like Königsberg dumplings, popping up on modern restaurant menus.
new routes east
Reaching Russia's Kaliningrad region used to be an absolute pain. The introduction of a once daily direct sleeping car from Berlin in December 2003 was a great boost, though a fifteen hour overnight train journey is not for everyone. So full marks to KD Avia, the local Kaliningrad-based airline which now offers direct flights into Russia's Baltic exclave from a dozen west European cities. For travellers in London, Paris, Barcelona, Munich and Milan, as for many others, Kaliningrad suddenly becomes the most accessible of Russian cities, and KD Avia's hub-and-spoke network allows passengers to use Kaliningrad as a useful transit point for connections to a dozen regional cities in Russia. A wave of flights from western Europe arrives in Kaliningrad mid-evening, affording onward connections within a couple of hours to cities such as Perm, Omsk, Samara and Kazan. It is an interesting operation, one which makes the most of Kaliningrad's peculiar location on the edge of the Russian Federation.
It was Icelandair's similar development of a hub-and-spoke network that secured a very substantial boost for tourism to Iceland in the seventies. Transatlantic travellers quickly realised that Reykjavík was not just a useful transit point, but well worth a stopover. Kaliningrad might similarly benefit from KD Avia's initiative. Those who take the trouble to stop off and explore Russia's unsung Baltic exclave will be pleasantly surprised.