My travels: R is for Rügen

September 22, 2017

The island of Rügen, off the northeast coast of Germany, is one of the places that’s long been on my ‘must visit’ list, and I’ve finally made it. German friends had recommended it, and there are the famous chalk cliffs that inspired some of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. It was a long trek, but really worth it: I’m not sure I can recall more stunning scenery in any other place I’ve been to…

I stayed at Prora, which apart from having beautiful beaches, is home to the Colossus of Prora, Hitler’s holiday camp for 20,000 German visitors at a time, a strip of concrete six-storey blocks which stretches for three miles: it truly is vast. The war broke out before it had a chance to welcome any holiday-makers; parts were used by the German army, then some bits were blown up by the Russians when they overran the area, so two blocks are ruins, but the rest still stand in varying states of repair and disrepair, and they are gradually being transformed into luxury apartments for wealthy German holiday-makers of the 21st century. During the time of the GDR, parts were a training centre for the People’s Army, and part a sort of sanatorium and rehabilitation centre. The history of the place is documented in a fascinating museum on the site which is crammed with memorabilia from the nineteen-thirties to the nineteen-nineties.

The geology of the island is curious, and it’s littered with granite boulders and fields of flint; there are a lot of flint beaches. Near where I stayed was a curiosity and rarity, the feuersteinfelde or flint fields, an area a couple of miles long and half a mile or so wide which was entirely flint, with its own flora. Because of its remoteness, the eastern edges of Rügen are home to primaeval beech forests were never used or exploited, and these now form the Jasmund National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site; there is much wonderful walking here. And then, of course, there are the famous chalk cliffs, two hundred feet high in places, spectacularly beautiful with their forest covering. Dangerous in many places partly due to sea erosion, and also because of winter frosts causing collapses, the views are stunning as you walk along: glimpses of precipitous, creamy-white cliffs, trees dangling perilously off the edges. Occasionally there are wooden staircases which allow fit walkers to get down to the beach below (and back up again!) and admire the cliffs from below. I could see how the painter was inspired.

On the south-eastern corner of the island lies the Mönchgut peninsula, which is completely different, being far less forested, and also slightly hilly, so that it’s possible to survey the sea and inlets in all directions and get the feeling of being on an island. There, I found a restaurant which offered me “the best poppy-seed cake you’ve ever had in your life”: I tested the hyperbole, and found it to be accurate.

Sadly, large parts of the island I never got to see for lack of time. Many of its villages have ancient redbrick churches, tiny but perfectly formed, and which reminded me of some of the churches in the Romney Marshes in Kent; there are picturesque thatched cottages, and the remains of a number of ancient Slavic fortifications. At times, I was reminded of Cornwall by the sheer touristiness of the place, where every other house is a holiday let, and wondered what it was like in winter, and what life was like for the locals… Other places I visited included Kap Arcona, the most northerly and easterly part of the island, with its lighthouse, and the village of Altenkirchen which has the oldest church on the island; magically, the organist was practising when I visited… this is a holiday I’ll never forget.

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