Natalie Holmes enjoys a leisurely weekend at Germany’s Baltic coast…
Arriving on Germany’s biggest island, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d fallen down a rabbit hole and landed in toytown. Impossibly clean and tidy villages host tiny houses. Litter, so prevalent in Berlin, is conspicuous in its near-total absence; the landscape is a compelling array of primary colours: intense greens, ever-deepening blues, soaring yellows.
Having decided to stop travelling by air three years ago, Rügen is for me the sort of destination that makes such a lifestyle choice not only bearable but highly enjoyable. It’s one of those places I’d have probably never visited given the option of jumping on a plane destined for some far flung beach resort with guaranteed sunshine and dirt cheap accommodation.
In this sense, there’s a lot to be said for Slow Travel: for me, one of the movement’s main pleasures has been busting the myth that the further away a place is, the better it must be.
A collection of diminutive, bucolic seaside resorts on the Baltic Sea coast, Rügen holds a special place in the German imagination. Frequented by famous names during the early 20th century, from Otto von Bismarck to Albert Einstein to Christopher Isherwood, the island was then concealed behind the iron curtain until relatively recently. Since German reunification in 1990, the destination has undergone rigorous renovation to become one of the country’s most popular retreats, where young and old alike go for some reinvigoration of their own.
Amusingly, Rügen is often dubbed the Brighton of Berlin, but that comparison is tenuous at best. For a start, Brighton is famous for its nightlife, but you won’t see any boisterous stag do’s or clucking hen (bachelor/bachelorette) parties on this island. Secondly, it’s 300km from Berlin – hardly daytrip material, as Brighton is from the British capital. Finally, despite an area of almost 1000 square kilometres, Rügen has less than 80,000 inhabitants, compared to tiny and densely populated Brighton with its population nearing quarter of a million.
Putbus, the island’s oldest holiday resort, is a show-town for the archetypal Rügen scene: bright white villas and carefully manicured rose bushes – hence its two nicknames, Weiße Stadt (white town) and Rosenstadt (rose town) – as well as a recently restored theatre and church.
Founded in 1810 by Prince Wilhelm Malte of Putbus, who is credited with the significant accolade of having introduced sea bathing to Germany, the town was constructed in the Classicist style, intending to create harmony between the palace and park. Despite the destruction of the palace in the 1960s, its ornate park remains a harmonious arboreal retreat, home to rare and ancient trees such as sequoias, cedars, horse, and tulip poplars that shelter red and fallow deer.
Continue past Putbus along the slim and – in places – cobbled road through to the island’s most southeasterly point, and you’ll arrive at a fairytale castle called Jagdschloss Granitz. Really a hunting lodge, the Disneyesque structure was designed and built in the mid-19th century by Berlin architect Johann Gottfried Steinmeyer for our old friend Prince Malte. A climb up the impressive spiral staircase to the top of the single, central tower, rewards with views across the island and over the sea back towards Germany’s coastline border with Poland.
Berliners are used to dystopian and dilapidated architecture; for the ultimate ruin porn, head to Prora. On a beautifully long and sandy stretch of coastline about nine kilometres north of Binz, lies what can only be described as a monstrosity. Built by Hitler as a holiday retreat for workers as part of the ominous Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) initiative, the incomplete structure imposes row upon oppressive row of residential blocks that cast a sombre shadow across the beach. Despite its sinister history, Prora has listed heritage status as a powerful example of Third Reich architecture.
Though the buildings provide plenty of eye-candy, Rügen’s main attractions are natural. Boasting not one but two national parks as well as an extensive nature reserve, the island is a nature-lover’s paradise. The entire southeast of Rügen is a designated biosphere reserve (Biosphärenreservat Südost-Rügen) that provides a classic cross section of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern region’s landscape and coastline. One of the main towns in this area is Göhren, which we chose as our base for the long weekend.
From the tiny, sleepy town you can take a breathtaking walk out along the soaring, cliff-lined peninsula to the island’s most easterly point. Strolling down again towards the sea you’ll emerge either at the north or south beach. On a sunny day, as the thick trees give way to white sand and crystal clear, lapping waves, it’s not hard to imagine you’re in some tropical paradise.
Göhren’s north coast is a picturesque but typically Rügenisch beach, littered with Strandkörbe – Germany’s canopied, more sturdy and practical answer to the deckchair – a seaside promenade, and a long, narrow pier. But it’s the deserted, undeveloped south beach, evocative of an undiscovered Cornish cove complete with rock pools and sand dunes, that will really overwhelm.
Aside from being one of the few English phrases whose length competes with its German equivalent, the Nationalpark Vorpommersche Boddenlandschaft (Western Pomerania Lagoon Area National Park) encompasses the stunning western coast of Rügen as well as the islands of Hiddensee and Ummanz. Characterised by shallow water, it’s home to unique coastal fauna and best known as a resting place for of cranes and geese numbering the tens of thousands.
Pictures of Rügen often feature the iconic white cliffs, and these can be found in the Jasmund National Park in the island’s northern peninsula. The area has a primeval beech forest that was added to the to UNESCO World Heritage List in 2011. Unfortunately, not even UNESCO can stop the coastal erosion that threatens the soft chalky precipices, which are being slowly but surely eaten by the unforgiving Baltic Sea.
Trains to (Bergen am) Rügen are direct and take three and a half hours on Deutsche Bahn’s EC service. If you want to take advantage of the cheaper group or weekend tickets, there’s a direct Regio train to the nearest mainland station, Stralsund, and then a connection to the island, which only adds about half an hour to the EC journey.
Alternatively, the drive from central Berlin takes about four hours, and while the train is usually quicker and cheaper, driving on the island is a pleasure in itself. The country lanes that make up the majority of Rügen’s road infrastructure are flanked by woods and charming villages, with dendriform tunnels that strongly reminded me of the South of France.
Just when you think things can’t get any more quaint and rustic, along chuffs the Rasender Roland (Rushing Roland), the island’s very own historic narrow-gauge steam train. Offering regular services along 24 kilometres from Göhren to Lauterbach Mole, Roland not so much rushes as languishes through vivid forests and glistening beaches. Great for a novelty experience, the steam train takes the notion of Slow Travel to a leisurely new level.