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Introducing Kaliningrad

Old photos attest that until 1945 Königsberg was one of Europe's finest-looking cities: regal, vibrant, cultured and an archi- tectural gem. But WWII, later Soviet destruction of German-era constructions and misguided building projects saw to it that today's Kaliningrad is not exactly eye-candy.

However, there are lovely residential corners of the city that predate the war, a forestlike park and a few large ponds which work as effective antidotes to all the concrete. A number of central areas have been given a recent and friendly face-lift. It's also a vibrant, fun-loving city that feels larger than its population would suggest.

Founded as a Teutonic fort in 1255, Königsberg joined the Hanseatic League in 1340, and from 1457 to 1618 was the residence of the grand masters of the Teutonic order and their successors, the dukes of Prussia. The first king of Prussia was crowned here in 1701. The city centre was flattened by British air raids in August 1944 and the Red Army assault from 6 to 9 April 1945. Many of the surviving Germans were killed or sent to Siberia - the last 25, 000 were deported to Germany in 1947-8, one of the most effective ethnic cleansing campaigns in European history.

The city was renamed on 4 July 1946 (City Day celebrations are thus held on the first weekend in July) after Mikhail Kalinin, one of Stalin's henchmen who had conveniently died just as a new city name was needed. After opening up in 1991, it struggled through extreme economic difficulties. A wave of elderly German tourists revisiting their Heimat (Homeland), often weeping upon seeing what it had become, resulted in a complete reconstruction of Königsberg's cathedral thanks to their donations. Slowly, Kaliningrad has emerged as one of Russia's most Western-minded cities and, due to its mix of historical legacies, one of its most intriguing.