Rügen (round lips as if you want to say ‘u’, but say ‘e’ instead) is Germany’s largest island (51 km long, 42.8 km wide), situated in the Baltic Sea, it’s part of the land Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, one of the five lands of the former GDR (German Democratic Republic).
It’s advisable to drive there by car so that you can get around, you drive from Hamburg to the east via the towns of Rostock and Stralsund to the dam connecting the island to the mainland.
The first road sign welcome you to the island of sunshine, the second asks you to switch your lights on. You’ll soon understand the reason for this seeming contradiction: 85% of the roads are avenues with old and high trees on either side whose crowns meet in the middle forming a dark green tunnel - nice to look at, not without danger for drivers.
Until WW2 Binz, the biggest and most beautiful resort on the east coast of the island and the one where we found an apartment for our summer holidays was a thriving seaside resort, after the war refugees filled the hotels and boarding houses. In 1953 the government expropriated the owners - many of whom fled to West Germany - and created a spa for the working masses. After unification in 1989 many owners got their property back, renovated the villas and hotels, and now Binz and the other resorts on Rügen sparkle again in their old beauty with white buildings with balconies sporting filigree wooden ornaments looking like lace.
I’ve been to Scarborough and Brighton and can tell you that the German seaside resorts are different from the English ones, no fun fairs, no game arcades, no bingo halls; you may find holidays in such an atmosphere boring, I find them relaxing and civilised. It won’t come as a surprise that the age group of active adolescents doesn’t go to Rügen, young families and elderly people do.
What do they do in Binz?
Well, first and foremost they go to the beach to sunbathe and/or swim. The tide is not noticeable in the Baltic Sea, i.e., the water is always there and you can always swim, but the water is a bit cold for people spoilt by the temperature of the Mediterranean Sea (not for Brits used to the temperature of the North Sea, of course!).
If swimming is not your thing, what then? Long walks along the well-kept beach with fine powdery sand. All beaches are divided into the sections ‘textile beach’, ‘FKK’ and ‘dog beach’. The last term is self-evident, the first is understandable if you know that ‘FKK’ means ‘F-rei K-örper K-ultur’ = Free Body Culture, in other words: nudism. ‘FKK’ is a movement going back to the beginning of the last century, there are even organisations in Germany, Austria and Switzerland whose members enjoy nature naked, but you don’t have to be a member if you want to be naked on the beaches, everybody can undress if they feel like it.
The majority of the holiday makers in the former GDR used to enjoy the beach and the sea naked; as they were restricted in nearly every aspect of their professional and private lives this shedding of clothes is an interesting psychological phenomenon. You aren’t forced to be naked on an ‘FKK’ beach, however, often the Ossis (Germans from the east) are naked and the Wessies (Germans from the West) are dressed, but nobody walks around naked on a ‘textile beach’. Naked elderly, non-slim peeps playing volleyball is a sight to be seen. (to be honest I prefer the young ones!)
One walk along the beach took us to the neighbouring village of Prora with Germany’s biggest building: eight grey blocks of concrete, six floors high, each 550m long - that means 4.5 km all in all, you need more than an hour to walk from end to end.
It was Hitler’s idea to have this complex built, 20 000 holiday makers should relax there at a time with the ‘KdF’ organisation. (‘KdF’ = K-raft d-urch F-reude = Strength through Joy) to be made fit for work, it should also be possible to use the buildings as a war time hospital. A hall for cultural events with 20 000 seats and a central place for marching up were also planned but never begun.
When the war started the work on the buildings was stopped. The Soviet Red Army tried to blow them up but couldn’t due to the solid steel concrete. The army of the GDR used parts as barracks as did the German army after unification. Since then some museums have been set up in one block, an art gallery and a café and a youth hostel with 800 beds will be built in the near future, but the arguments go on what to do with the whole megalomaniac monstrosity.
When Germans hear ‘Rügen’, they think ‘chalk’, nowhere in the country is there more, it’s quarried for industrial use, it’s not the school board kind. But tourists aren’t interested in the chalk processing plants, they go to the National Park Jasmund on the east coast and admire the white cliffs, the most famous being the ‘King’s Chair’ of 117m glistening white like a huge stone sail against the blue of the sky and the sea and the green of the trees on either side and on top. If you’re able to you can climb down into the gorge on wooden steps to the beach, collect your souvenirs there - flint stone covered with chalk - and then up on the other side again. Another souvenir could be amber, priceless if you find it yourself on the beaches, not too pricey if made into jewellery and sold in shops.
The highlight of our stay were two trips to the Isle of Hiddensee (we liked it so much that we went a second time), an 18 km long and 1 km wide island off the west coast of Rügen, no private cars, there are only a school bus, a police car and one for the fire brigade, people move around on foot, by bike or in Western style horse-drawn coaches. The island is four villages with mostly thatched cottages, meadows with cows, dunes covered with heather, a beach of 15 km (only ‘FKK’!) and a wide, wide sky. What do I need mountains for which only obstruct the view!
A large part of Hiddensee as well as Rügen are nature reserves, some can be visited with guides, others are completely off limits. Every year approximately 40 000 grey cranes come in spring and autumn and rest here for some weeks on their tour from the north of Europe to Africa and back.
What do we eat on Rügen? Fish, fish and fish again, salt water and fresh water fish. (If you don’t like fish - there are more than enough Italian restaurants) prepared in all possible ways. A speciality is smoked fish, there are fish smokeries (?) at every corner. The fresh water fish comes from Rügen, too, the island is not a compact land mass but has an indented coastline and many shallow lagoons, called Bodden ( related to the English word ‘bottom’), they don’t have real fresh water, but a mixture of salt and fresh water.
Going to Rügen in 2003 meant also visiting the former GDR in the year 14 AU (After Unification). I was interested to see what had been done with my tax money; I’m content, it looks much better than the last time I visited, things are moving, unfortunately this is only true for the seaside resorts and not for the rest of the land Mecklenburg - West Pommerania. If only there were more jobs and people didn’t have to leave, agriculture (badly paid), fishing (badly paid) and tourism (only seasonal) don’t feed the people.
A man said that he had a good job in winter, he walked along the beaches turning the shells, sharp side down, so that the tourists wouldn’t cut their feet the following summer. Sounds fine, but can’t be the solution I’m afraid, not that there aren’t enough beaches, there are 56 km altogether, but what are the career chances in this job?