KALININGRAD, RUSSIA: The first problem is language. If you’re a Russian speaker, it’s easier. This sign at the Kaliningrad bus terminal tells the story.
The destination beneath the number is ‘Bremen,’ the one at the bottom, ‘Tallinn’ and above that ‘Riga.’ There’s not a word in Latin script anywhere. Inside it’s no better as I found no one at any window who could speak English. I purchased a ticket to Elblag, Poland only by saying those words. Then the clerk wrote down the times of departure, I selected one, she wrote down the price and platform number. The price was the ruble equivalent of $14.
Once aboard, it was a delight. Every seat was taken. Most of the passengers were young Russians who are studying Polish in Gdansk. Most were no older than 17, two of my seatmates passed the time watching movies on iPads.
Reaching the Polish and European Union border, all passengers had to get off. Our baggage was x-rayed and passports inspected. The process took nearly an hour.
But this trip was easy compared to my journey from Klaipeda, Lithuania to Zelenogradsk, the Russian resort town on the Baltic Sea. I had informed the driver that I wanted to get off at Rybachy to visit the world’s first bird ringing station, that since the Germans lost East Prussia after the second world war has been run by the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.
Somehow the driver forgot and I didn’t see the turnoff sign that was in Cyrillic. Soon we were among the high rises of Zelenogradsk and it was apparent I had come too far. The driver was apologetic. I had no choice but to get a cab the 18 miles back if I was to keep my appointment with the scientists at the bird station.
Luckily I found an English speaker who arranged a cab that charged a reasonable $20 to get me back to my destination along Northern Europe’s greatest untouched natural attraction, the 50-mile long sand dune called the Curonian Spit.
Two unexpected animal sightings made the detour seem like we were in Yellowstone. Seeing a car stopped ahead of us, we also stopped to see a cluster of very large wild boars.
A short distance ahead another car had stopped. There a mushroom picker was preparing to feed a red fox that had come by for a handout.
Wildlife, including moose, is plentiful along the narrow wooded spit because the entire region was a closed military zone during Soviet times.
Klaipeda, the Lithuanian seaport at the top of the Curonian Spit, is a delightful town that deserves to be added to a list of adventure travel destinations. For 700 years the farthest German outpost in the Baltics, Klaipeda has been painstakingly restored and is now very much a European city with fashionable coffee houses and modern hotels.
I had reached Klaipeda via a four-hour bus trip from Riga, which until it was displaced by Vilnius (Lithuania) was the largest city in the three Baltic States. Despite being a majority Russian-speaking city, all signs are in Latin script.
Riga is a crossroads for north-south, east-west travel and its bus station is situated adjacent to the largest outdoor market in the Baltics.
I started my trip in Tallinn, Estonia at the top of the Baltics. From a modern bus station, where most travelers had purchased their tickets on line, many buses daily head south to Riga, a short four-hour journey away.
The Baltic States collectively comprise an extraordinary economic and political success story. They are modern, efficient and tourist friendly. Distances are relatively small and aside from July and August cities and resorts are not crowded. Kaliningrad, of course, is harder but well worth the effort. It is far more prosperous than on my last visit a decade earlier. The Russians are smart and welcoming, wanting very much to be part of the New Europe.
Barry Wood travels often in post-communist Europe. His book, A Bicycle Journey From Estonia to Albania, is coming in 2014.