In Baltic Region, Shades of Soviet Gray

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Europe editor Dinah A. Spritzer participated in an Amber Heritage Tour from Gdansk, Poland, to Riga, Latvia. The tour, which brought together journalists and operators from across Europe, was sponsored by the Baltic Sea Tourism Commission. Her report follows:

"Not everything has to look nice." -- Latvian tour guide, 1997.

KALININGRAD, Russia -- They call it "the monster." Amid a landscape of bleak, Kruschev-inspired cement block complexes that seem more like prisons than apartments is the mother of all communist building fiascos. Baltic Map

Symbolizing everything that didn't work in the Soviet Union, the monster is a gray, stand-alone box that was to be the House of Soviets but was never occupied and soon began sinking into the ground as a result of shoddy construction. The building has stood desolate for decades.

Not far off is the half-finished crossing Kaliningraders refer to as the "bridge to nowhere." Our guide, Olga, called this cement walkway to oblivion a "monument to stupidity."

Nothing could contrast more with these bizarre tourist attractions than the 14th century red brick cathedral, one of the few remaining vestiges of Kaliningrad's 700-year history as a leading Prussian/German city. In fact, what makes the entire Baltic region fascinating is the coalescence of two opposing cultural forces, one of pre-World War II aristocratic treasures, now being restored and improved upon, and the communist penchant for inefficiency and dilapidation, now slated for extinction.

Nowhere is this coalescence more poignant than in Kaliningrad -- Konigsberg before World War II -- where a once thriving city of Gothic edifices was leveled during that war and rebuilt as if to prove that ugliness is the most supreme communist virtue. In Olga's words, "Soviet architecture is an oxymoron."

But as our group beheld the restoration of the Cathedral, surrounded as it was by concrete clutter, a glimmer of hope shone through the ambience of despair that first clouded our visit here.

It didn't help that Olga, stunning and well educated, led us through a laundry list of the region's ills, which included one of the highest rates of alcoholism, HIV infection, unemployment and drug use in the former Eastern Bloc. After her detailed report, one operator exclaimed, "How can beautiful Olga survive in such a place?"

On the bright side, a trip to the busy central market revealed fresh produce, meats and Western knickknacks that proved commerce was at least existent, if not thriving.

Tourism is also a source of redemption: Baltma Tours, one of the first operators in the city, treated us to a spirited dinner and folkloric performance at Hansa II, a Soviet ship recently converted into a smart restaurant. The vodka, a passionate rendition of the Russian song "Kalinka" and audience participation -- which involved playing ancient Russian instruments -- was enough to cheer us even after hours of delay at the Polish/Russian border.

Back to the tourism centerpiece of Kaliningrad, the neo-gothic Cathedral was in ruins until 1990, when restoration began with the help of German exiles who still think of themselves as Konigsbergers. Here visitors can learn more about one of the city's most famous sons at the tomb of philosopher Immanuel Kant.

On display in the Cathedral's interior is an exhibit with precise color drawings of what appeared to be a beautiful and uniform city at the turn of the century. After World War II, Soviet officials set about a policy whose main tenant was: "Do everything the opposite way the Germans did," Olga explained. The results are nearly barren fields and struggling cooperatives in the countryside, which were fruitful before the Soviet era but then suffered under nonsensical production schemes.

The drive from the city to the coast was peaceful but eerie, since not much seemed to be happening. However, upon reaching the sea, the serenity of the barely developed shoreline was a rewarding sight. Here in an area called Svetlogorsk there were neighborhoods with prewar buildings still standing, characterized by an elegant shabbiness, inviting with their cheery brick facades and tree-lined streets.

But they were outshone by Hotel Russ, a hotel and restaurant overlooking the Baltic Sea, built in 1996 by Swedish investors. The modern, well-appointed rooms with a Scandinavian flair and an airy dining room were clearly intended to attract the region's burgeoning capitalists.

Another seaside resort of a completely different nature is just across the border in Lithuania. The fishing village of Nida, along the Curonian Spit, has colorful wooden houses reminiscent of Scandinavian cottages. Nida is one of the region's most attractive vacation havens, where small private seaside villas are pridefully maintained.

The spit itself is a wondrous strip of land known for its wildlife refuges of Baltic seabirds, elk and wild boar; aromatic pine; the highest dunes in Europe, and a narrow tip where less than a mile divides the Baltic Sea from the Curonian Lagoon. Many Germans still spend their holidays on the Lithuania side of the spit as this was German territory before World War II, contributing to one of the most secure economic hamlets in the country. Unlike neighboring Kaliningrad, the architecture here has changed little since the early 1900s.

The sands, however, are shifting. In Nida, a guide pointed out to us where 14 villages were buried in the 16th and 17th centuries by shifting sands. The country is now involved in a project to preserve the spit, so visitors are cautioned against walking on the dunes.

Nida also has something to attract art lovers. The town hosted a colony of German artists beginning in the 19th century until World War II. In 1930, Thomas Mann built a summer cottage in the woods here. His home is now a museum and cultural center that displays his personal effects and holds lectures on topics relating to the ethnic tolerance he supported.

From the tip of the spit, visitors can take a five-minute car and passenger ferry to the city of Klaipeda. Despite its history of destruction during several wars, the city's 700-year-old tradition of shipbuilding and fishing gives it a prosperous air.

The half-restored Old Town, worth an afternoon stroll, has Prussian buildings dating back to the 1600s. The centerpiece of the Old Town is a 19th century theater where Hitler proclaimed the annexation of Klaipeda, then Memel, into the Third Reich.

Lithuania's most visited resort is north of Klaipeda near the Latvian border. Palanga, also covered by dunes and pine forests, is one of the few Baltic resorts that did not suffer from a tourism decline after the Soviet Union collapsed and eastern Europeans were allowed to travel outside of the region. The few blocks near the sea are lined with more than 200 bars, cafes, discos and restaurants that served ethnic foods such as Mexican and Chinese long before such fare was common in the Baltics. The long stretches of sandy coastline are idyllic, punctuated by simple boardwalks that have none of the commercial enterprises one might find, say, on the boardwalk at the New Jersey shore.

Just as I was beginning to forget all about my preoccupation with the Soviets, we arrived in Liepaja, Latvia. We stepped back into the Cold War here and visited an abandoned Soviet naval base, where empty barracks and rusting submarines make this Latvia's version of a Western ghost town. Liepaja's vice mayor, Guntis Dambergs, brought us to a magnificent early 20th century mansion, built by Russia's Tsar Nicholas II -- now looking a bit like a deserted plantation in "Gone with the Wind."

The irony of the Cold War was brought home to us when we visited the naval graveyard where ships wasted away because the Russians did not have enough money to pay for their removal. They sold the ships to Germans, who stripped them for scrap metal. A rusting submarine sits half submerged like a prehistoric artifact.

"This shipyard is our black humor," Dambergs said, adding, "Liepaja was the most important naval base in the Baltics but it was never used for anything. The Russians built it just to scare people."

Back in town, renovated mansions stood aside decaying estates where houses were badly in need of renovation. The best of these homes, built between 1900 and 1930, are delightful examples of the Art Nouveau movement that was a dominant force in Latvian architecture.

Another pretty sight is the Sea Cathedral, also built under the aegis of Nicholas II. Although rather bare inside, the church is under restoration.

A brilliant interior can be found at St. Trinity, built by a German duke in the 18th century to rival the churches of Riga and notable for its 7,000-pipe organ and gold-laden, rococco decor.

Our final coastal destination was Jurmala, a string of small Latvian resorts west of Riga. Jurmala was popular with trade unions during the Soviet era and thus has some dreadful sanatorium-type hotels, as well as new builds that are up to international standards.

A number of spas offer curative treatments in a quasi-medical environment, not to be confused with American-style spas where pampering and luxury are key. There are also wooden cottages and sprawling turn-of-the-century estates.

As our tour began, so it ended with a night at Restaurant Orient -- an upscale bistro serving Asian and continental cuisine -- and at a nearby disco, where we got down to hits by Latvian, Russian and western European recording artists.

* * *
The Amber Road Sixty million years ago, pine tree sap solidified and became amber. Now, amber is fueling tourism development along the Baltic Sea, the source of nearly all of the world's fossil resin. The Baltic Sea Tourism Commission (BTC) last year received $200,000 from the European Union to promote the Amber Road, a heritage route from Alexandropolis, Greece, to Liepaja, Latvia. The BTC represents the tourism interests of the nine countries bordering the Baltic as well as Norway. According to BTC general secretary Arne Ellefors, the project is intended to stimulate infrastructure development along old trade routes between the Mediterranean and the Baltic. Amber On a recent trip around the Baltic coast, I discovered why amber is given such importance by the people in the region. At a tourism conference here, I learned that primitive people worshiped amber because light transmitted through it resembled the sun's rays. Amber was used over the centuries as a talisman by the Greeks and Romans, as a healing amulet by the people of the Baltics and as ornamentation by European royalty. In Gdansk, where I began an Amber Road journey with tour operators and journalists, there are dozens of amber jewelry shops lining the streets of the Old Town. In case visitors have not had their fill of amber at the shops, they can check out the open-air amber market in the last two weeks of August. To see how Polish amber was carved 2,000 years ago, I traveled to Malbork Castle, the seat of the Teutonic Knights in the Middle Ages. Amber-studded belts, swords and exquisitely delicate silver and amber necklaces show off the star quality of what is now a a relatively cheap stone. Our group then went in search of amber in Russia. We toured a giant amber pit outside the city of Kaliningrad. Ninety percent of the world's amber comes from there, according to the experts, one of whom explained that the pit has been mined since the 1970s. The amber pit looked deserted, and we later learned that the market is oversaturated . If the pit looked a bit tired, I was not prepared for the amber factory, which was a Dickensian nightmare. As interesting as it was to see how the stones were polished and cut, the conditions of the factory, where there was little light or fresh air, were among the most abysmal I have seen in the former Eastern Bloc. Neighboring Lithuania has its own take on amber. At the Lithuanian seaside resort towns of Nida and Palanga, amber washes up on shore like seashells after a storm. A Lithuanian legend claims that the amber comes from the palace of a goddess who betrayed her lover; the smallest pieces are her tears. Sometimes, it's fun to save the best for last, and the best place in the Baltics to learn about amber is at the Amber Museum in Palanga. The museum is housed in a 100-year old mansion surrounded by fountains and gardens. Its many rooms are filled with jewelry exhibits that show amber's significance to the Baltic aristocracy and, my favorite exhibit, amber amplified through glass and filled with bugs and flowers. Our group next headed for amber workshops, where Palan-ga's craftsmen showed how the jewelry is made. At what we were told was the best gallery in Palanga, owner Feliksas Pakutninska accepts U.S. dollars for his neo-Gothic creations. For more information about tourism products that incorporate the amber route, contact: The Baltic Sea Tourism Council in Norrkoping, Sweden. Phone: (011) 46-11 123-503, Fax: (011) 46-11 103-103, E-mail: [email protected] * * *
Range of accommodations The hotels I saw in the Baltics ranged from new builds of international quality to cozy seaside cottages and communist-era monstrosities, worth a stay for anyone with a touch of Soviet nostalgia. Here's a rundown:
  • Kaliningrad, Russia. The 247-room Hotel Kaliningrad is an unattractive hotel with tiny rooms, but the bed coverings were new, the water was hot and staff was helpful. At breakfast, for instance, when I requested an egg, the manager feverishly set his entire wait-staff on the project. Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to visit the new four-star 59-room Hotel Comandor, but a Danish tour operator did and said it was gorgeous. Prices for the two properties are close: $80, double for Hotel Kaliningrad and $90, double for Hotel Comandor. On the coast, in Svetlogorsk, the newly built 42-room Hotel Russ looks like a Swedish beach resort with blonde woods and down duvets. The restaurant serves international and Russian cuisine. The room price is $82, double.
  • Nida, Lithuania. At Nidos Pusynas, a lovely collection of fishing village villas, one person can get a room the size of a small house. The furniture runs the gamut from '70s suburban American to Scandinavian woodsy, but it is warm and well maintained. There are sitting rooms, fireplaces, villa kitchens and satellite television. Agents should request the villas and not the main hotel. Summer prices for the 19 rooms and four villas range from $68, double, to $78, double, half-board. To book any of the hotels listed above and to find out about itineraries, contact Baltma Tours: Phone: (011) 7-0112 228-419, Fax: (011) 7-112 211-840 E-mail: [email protected] Locally, contact: Uniontours in New York, Phone: (800) 451-9511, Fax: (212) 683-9511
  • Palanga, Latvia. The recently opened, nine-room Hotel Sachmatine looks like the Pompidou Centre in Paris with its glass exterior marked by bright green and purple piping. Rooms and apartments have a post-modern appeal, much like those in an Ian Schrager hotel. There is a restaurant that serves international cuisine, a swimming pool and a sauna. The hotel is only a few minute's walk from the beach. In summer, the three apartments, which sleep four, start at $200 per room; the six room start at $150, double. Contact Uniontours orphone/fax (011) 370 365-1655.
  • Liepaja, Latvia. I will never forget arriving at the sleek, modern 83-room Hotel Amrita. A four-star property, rooms and public spaces are what you would find at a business hotel in western Europe and the queen-size beds and mahogany furniture are a delight. But the best part was the Swedish chef. After countless pork and cabbage buffets, I was treated to spaghetti with real Italian tomato sauce. Contact Uniontours or call (011) 371 348-0888, fax (011) 371 348-0444. Prices range $81, double to $109, double, including breakfast.
  • Dzintari (Jurmala), Latvia. The 270-room Hotel Baltija is reminiscent of the days when trade unions traveled en masse to the Latvian coast, staying in abysmal accommodations. I encountered barely lit halls, shabby rooms with cobwebs and overall dilapidation here. There is however, a breakfast restaurant with an excellent Scandinavian buffet. Double rooms range from $34, double to $46, double. Contact Uniontours for details.
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