With only 1.8 million people in 23,170 square kilometres, no Land in Germany is as sparsely populated as Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (Mecklenburg-Vorpommeron). Bar the odd towerblock, the conjoined former duchies of Mecklenburg West and Pomerania, the eastern rump pressed into Poland, were barely developed under the GDR and, without any city worth the name, the state lay off the radar for most foreigners. Since reunification, however, its profile has grown alongside the fame of the quartzite beaches that fringe the longest coastline in Germany – 354km from the Trave River at Lübeck to Usedom on the border. That swish Baltic hotel-resort Heiligendamm hosted the G8 summit in 2007 is testament to an area that’s on the up.
In fact, the coast is simply returning to form. During the late 1800s, Germany’s first and second largest islands, Rügen and Usedom, were the preferred playgrounds of the German glitterati – the moneyed elite, assorted grand dukes and even the occasional Kaiser sojourned to dip an ankle at their smart sea-water bathing resorts. An injection of capital after decades of GDR neglect has brought a dash of former imperial pomp to both and also taken the resorts upmarket. Rügen is one of the most popular holiday destinations in the country, celebrated for its chalk cliffs above the Baltic Sea as much as its Bäderarchitektur (coast resort architecture of the belle époque). Elsewhere, the Baltic coast is true Hanseatic League country; the Backsteingotik architecture (decorative Gothic red-and-black brick) of the UNESCO-listed Altstadts in Wismar and Stralsund are wistful reminiscences of the former grandeur of this medieval mercantile power bloc. There’s some heritage, too, in Rostock, the state’s largest city and its chief port, but you’re more likely to visit for its bar scene, the superb strand at Warnemünde, or to use it as a launch pad for a superb Münster in Bad Doberan – a must-see for anyone with a passing interest in ecclesiastical architecture.
You don’t have to travel far from the coast to enter a bucolic backwater whose ruler-straight roads are lined with avenues of trees and whose rape fields light up the scenery with gold in early summer. It’s a place to drop off the radar, just as it was when favoured as a summer retreat from Berlin among Prussian aristos; many of their manors are open as grand hotels. The heart of the plateau is the Mecklenburg Lake District (Mecklenburgische Seenplatte) centred around Germany’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Müritz, and the Müritz National Park. Nicknamed the Land of a Thousand Lakes and home to the largest contiguous area of waterways in central Europe, its aquatic mosaic is beloved by canoeists and birdwatchers alike. Ducal seat turned state capital Schwerin at its western end is the only large town hereabouts, albeit pocket-sized and packing a cultural punch to match that of its fairytale castle; while Güstrow, another ducal seat, is dedicated to the memory of Germany’s greatest Expressionist sculptor, Ernst Barlach.