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.
“Münster, Molli, Moor und Meer” the tourist board trills happily to tick off the attractions of Bad Doberan – its minster, the Molli (train), a moorland health centre and Baltic beach resorts of Heiligendamm and Kühlungsborn 15km northwest. None is really worth a journey on its own – together, however, they comprise a happy day-trip that’s easily accessible from Rostock.
The pull of history is ever present in central Bad Doberan. Leafy and light-hearted, it blossomed into a spa resort in the early 1800s under the guidance of the Mecklenburg dukes, who spent their summers here. Pale Neoclassical edifices from the resort’s formative years line August-Bebel-Strasse; now council offices and a good hotel, they are worth a look for their foyers. Spa-goers took the air in the park opposite, Kamp, when not taking the waters in two Chinese-style pavilions that add an unexpectedly rakish air. The smaller Roter Pavilion holds a gallery, the Weisser Pavilion a café. By 1886, spa-goers were all aboard the Molli steam engine to add sea bathing to their water cures. The Mecklenburgische Bäderbahn Molli (see Heiligendamm), to give the splendid narrow-gauge train its full name, chuffs hourly through high-street Mollistrasse – one for the photo album.
No question that the Münster is the premier reason to visit BAD DOBERAN, not just a thirteenth-century Cistercian church but perhaps the crowning achievement of ecclesiastical Gothic architecture in the Baltic. Completed in 1362, in a fusion of Hanseatic and French high-Gothic styles, the abbey church is poised at the brief point where architectural form is stretched to its limits but unencumbered by the embellishments that follow. Nowhere is this clearer than at the crossing, whose two tiers of slender arches are arguably the most graceful feature of the church. Having come through the Reformation without a scratch, the furnishings are just as impressive – a leaflet provided on entry pinpoints 22 artworks, including what is claimed as the oldest existing wing altar (1300), crowned by flamboyant Gothic spires, and an audacious tabernacle. Also within the grounds are a curious octagonal ossuary known as the Beinhaus (bone house) and a complex of agricultural buildings, one of which contains a café.
A compact Altstadt is one sign that GREIFSWALD was always a bit player in the Hanseatic League. Another is the lack of grand edifices compared to those of fellow leaguers in a pretty Altstadt that was immortalized in the paintings of local son Caspar David Friedrich. Instead it is north Germany’s second oldest university, Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-Universität, that is the focus of a neat town you can tick off in a day. Thanks to its large student population, Greifswald has a youthful energy out of all proportion to its size, and a few bars to boot.
Once a capital of the Mecklenburg duchy, GÜSTROW lives in its dotage as a pretty provincial small town on the fringes of Mecklenburg’s lake country. For centuries its hero was Albrecht von Wallenstein, a duke who distinguished himself as supreme commander of the Habsburg armies during the Thirty Years’ War. Today, however, Güstrow declares itself Der Barlachstadt (the Barlach Town) in honour of Expressionist sculptor Ernst Barlach, who spent half of his life here and whose humanist works chime more comfortably with our age. In his wake have come a few galleries that add to the appeal of Güstrow’s cobbled lanes.
Ernst Barlach (1870–1938) is the finest artist no one knows outside Germany. Empathetic and with a keen sense of pathos, the Expressionist sculptor and graphic artist was born in a village near Hamburg as the son of a country physician. He studied sculpture in Dresden and Paris, then travelled. It was a trip across the Russian steppes in 1906 that made him. His sketchbooks filled up with figures of exaggerated facial expressions – tortured, helpless, radiant, primitive – based on the peasants he met. In them he saw an intense Christian humility that chimed with his passion for German medieval art. These sketches served as the basis of his vigorous, rough-hewn works whose archaic power and inner spirituality has sometimes seen Barlach pigeonholed as “modern Gothic”.
The horrors of World War I only intensified his humanism – Barlach, by now a reader of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, quickly lost his early enthusiasm for war as a means to shake up the ruling elite – and by 1930 he was a leading figure of German art, commissioned for a large war memorial in Magdeburg Cathedral. Such socialist leanings did not square with the militaristic hubris of the Nazis, however. His bronze of Christ and St Thomas was labelled “Two Monkeys in Nightshirts” in their Munich exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) in 1937, and many of his works were smelted. He died in Rostock a year later and was buried beside his father in Ratzeburg. Like fellow Expressionist and “degenerate” Käthe Kollwitz, Barlach’s place in the German canon was restored after the war: direct and immediately accessible, his works celebrate an empathy and humanism that strikes a chord.
The natural heart of Mecklenburg Vorpommeron are the two swathes of forest, heath and moorland that make up the MÜRITZ NATIONAL PARK (Nationalpark Mürtiz) around the Baroque backwater of Neustrelitz. By far the largest area is that to the east of the town, which represents nearly three-quarters of the park’s total 322 square kilometres and is characterized by its large pine forests and open moorland, although there are also ancient beech woods in the Serrahn area, whose virgin forest is largely thanks to a former incarnation as the hunting ground of the Grand Dukes of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The focus west is water, namely the Müritzsee, which at 115 kilometres squared is the second largest lake in Germany after Lake Constance. Most of its reed-choked east shore falls within the park boundary, as do over a hundred smaller lakes lying further east: one reason why this is known as the “Land of a Thousand Lakes”. Not surprisingly, the park is a haven for water birds: ospreys and white-tailed sea eagles breed in the area, and storks and cranes stalk among water lilies in the shallows. Sky-blue moor frogs are usually heard rather than seen among the reeds, while red deer roam the remote woodland areas.
Too small to be dynamic, too large to be quaint, ROSTOCK is the principal city in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The most important port on the German Baltic has been everything from a powerful Hanseatic trader to a major ship-building port at the head of the deep-water Warnow River. Its townscape bears the scars of Allied bombers and GDR planners alike. Even the reunification welcomed elsewhere proved a bitter pill when it ended the subsidies that had sustained the ship-building industry, prompting mass unemployment. Although pockets of historical charm remain in the Altstadt, an oval cat’s-cradle of streets above the harbour, and renovation has buffed up the centre into a pleasant enough place, the core is unlikely to detain you for more than a day. The Kröpeliner Tor-Vorstadt district, where a 12,000-strong student population helps fuel the liveliest nightlife on the German Baltic, is one reason to hang around. Otherwise there’s nearby Warnemünde, a chirpy sister resort with one of the finest beaches in Germany. It also hosts the town’s best festivals: regatta week Warnemünder Woche (warnemuender-woche.de), straddling the first and second weeks of July, and classic sail extravaganza Hanse Sail (hansesail.com) in early August.
Ever since the Romantics eulogized an island where coast and country collide, RÜGEN has held a semi-sacred place in German sentiments. The great, good and fairly unsavoury of the last two centuries – Caspar David Friedrich, whose paintings did more than any poster to promote its landscapes, Brahms and Bismarck, a couple of Kaisers and assorted grand dukes, Thomas Mann, Hitler and GDR leader Erich Honecker – not to mention millions of families, have taken their holidays on an island renowned for chalk cliffs, 56km of silver sands and beautiful deciduous woodland. Notwithstanding a newfound sheen as coastal resorts reassert themselves as the fashionable bathing centres they were in the early 1900s, Rügen is timeless and uncomplicated, with an innocent, Famous Five quality. Its rural southeast is a gorgeous preindustrial landscape where a steam engine chuffs around small seaside resorts and inland villages knot around cobbled lanes shaded by ancient trees.
Those on a flying visit usually only tick off premier resort Binz, a classic Baltic holiday destination renowned for its handsome Bäderarchitektur, and the Königstuhl at Jasmund, a chalk cliff immortalized by Friedrich in 1818. Do so and you may be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about – together, they are the busiest destinations on Rügen, and can be overcrowded. With an area of 926 square kilometres, Germany’s largest island has less-populated corners to discover. Places like Putbus, not so much a planned town as a Neoclassical folly writ large; smaller resorts near the rural Mönchgut peninsula; or the Jasmund National Park’s chalk cliffs cloaked in spacious forest. There are curios such as Prora, Hitler’s holiday camp falling into ruin behind the beach, or the lighthouses of Kap Arkona and former fishing village Vitt in the windswept northwest. And then there are places like Hiddensee, a car-free sliver of land just off the west coast that may be the most idyllic spot in the area.
The apogee of the Nazis’ “KdF” or Kraft durch Freude (“Strength through Joy”) movement, their seaside resort known as Kolos (“Colossus”), at Prora on the east coast of Rügen, was built to provide R&R for the German people – up to 20,000 at a time – before the nation’s forthcoming military expansion east. However, construction stalled upon the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 – ironically, the only families to stay here were those bombed out of Hamburg by the RAF in 1945 – then, under the GDR, it was strictly off-limits as a military base. The camp is classic dictatorial architecture – megalomaniac in size, brutal in style – its six-storey reinforced-concrete blocks arcing away behind the coast for over three miles. It takes over twenty minutes just to cycle along the length of the entire complex, which can only be seen from the air, and it is slowly falling into ruin, screened by pine scrub as the debate continues over its future. A proposal to convert it into a hotel came to naught although one building at the north end has been rehabilitated as Europe’s largest youth hostel.
If any one area is responsible for Rügen’s stellar rise from rural backwater to holiday haven it is JASMUND. A thumb of woodland and fields poked into the Baltic, much of it protected as the Jasmund National Park (nationalpark-jasmund.de), the peninsula north of Binz is famous for its wooded chalk cliffs. These are the Stubenkammer popularized in works by Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, a stretch of cliffs that extends for several kilometres. Its most celebrated section is the mighty Königsstuhl cleft that juts from the cliffs – the name “king’s stool” derives from a folk tale that whoever scaled its 117m face could claim Rügen’s throne. Partly thanks to Friedrich, it’s a landmark lodged in the national consciousness.
Whether an artist who eulogized raw nature would have set up his easel today is a moot point because the Königsstuhl is one of Rügen’s premier natural attractions. Notwithstanding buses direct from Sassnitz or walking, access is from a sight car park by the main road at Hagen; the car park for the Gasthaus opposite is cheaper for day-long stays should you intend to walk in the area.
Until Grand Duke Paul Friedrich Franz II shifted court to Schwerin 35km north, LUDWIGSLUST was the heart of the Mecklenburg-Schleswig court, realized as a spacious planned town laid at the feet of the Schloss – no doubt about priorities here. His predecessor, Grand Duke Friedrich I, commissioned the first court palace in the hunting grounds of his father Christian Ludwig, and was dogged by money problems almost as soon as the building began in 1772 – as the joke went, Ludwig’s Lust (pleasure) was Friedrich’s Arbeit (work). Behind the majestic late Baroque facade is the same humble brick used for the courtiers’ houses on approach road Schlossstrasse. Architect Johann Joachim Busch was even more creative within. In place of stucco and carved wood, he employed papier-mâché, euphemistically named Ludwigsluster Carton. The pinnacle of his achievement is the Goldene Saal, a Louis XVI-style galleried ballroom fit for a Cinderella ball whose gilded Rococo mouldings are all glorious fakes. Even the reliefs of putti above the door turn out to be trompe l’oeil. A carved grandfather clock and Venus de’Medici in later rooms also prove to be papier-mâché. Many of the oils, however, are genuine works by French court painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry.
Encircled by lakes and with a fairytale Schloss that goes straight to the head, SCHWERIN punches far above its weight. Although the names of Puschkinstrasse and Karl-Marx-Strasse give away the past, communism was a hiccup in its history – its centre at least is spared the concrete vandalism of Eastern Bloc architecture – and, crowned as capital of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in 1990, Schwerin is settling into its time-honoured role as the state’s cultural dynamo. After Saxony’s Henry the Lion swatted aside an early Slavic settlement on its islet in 1160, the dukes of Mecklenburg took up residence in the fourteenth century, then moved in and out of the royal seat for nearly five centuries. None was more illustrious than the nineteenth. After its elevation to the duchy residence over Ludwigslust in 1837, Schwerin blossomed into a cultural heavyweight with a vigorous arts scene and showpiece architecture, not least that impressive Schloss. Its legacy remains today as a pocket-sized city with the airs and architecture of a historic capital yet none of the urban grit.
STRALSUND’s fate is to be en route to one of Germany’s favourite holiday destinations. Most people slow to marvel at its silhouette defined by its mighty churches then whiz on to Rügen. Nor do industrial suburbs suggest you do otherwise. However, within lies a cobbled kernel Altstadt which is as evocative of a Hanseatic past as more acclaimed members of the medieval league. During its fourteenth-century golden age, Stralsund ranked second only to Lübeck. Indeed, it was chosen as a venue in which to broker the 1370 “Peace of Stralsund” deal between the league and Denmark that represented the league’s high-water mark. The legacy is a UNESCO-listed gabled streetscape where Gothic showpieces are interspersed with Baroque monuments from two centuries as property of the Swedish Crown. Ringed by water, without the crowds of nearby Rügen, the most westerly town of western Pomerania ticks over at sleepy pace, with only a commercial port to ensure it’s no museum piece.
Second to Rügen in terms of size, USEDOM is overshadowed by its larger sister as a Baltic resort, too. This low-lying undulating island, around 50km long and only split from the mainland for much of its length by the narrow Pennestrom channel, lacks the scenic variety of its much-mythologized neighbour. Yet during the early 1900s Usedom was a summer playground for a wealthy elite in resorts that now brand themselves the Kaiserbäder (literally “Emperor’s Baths”). Since reunification Bansin, Heringsdorf and Ahlbeck have renovated their handsome Second Empire villas and Art Nouveau hotels to recapture some of that imperial pomp and shake off an image as workers’ playgrounds acquired in GDR decades; regime top-brass claimed private villas on the spurious legal grounds they were for the benefit of trades unions. Each resort has its own market, from families to pensioners to spa-goers. What keeps all coming is 42km of fine sand, spread up to 70m deep along the north coast and drenched in more sunshine than anywhere else in Germany, an average 1906 hours a year.
Fate had it in for WISMAR. The first Hanseatic city east of Lübeck has similar looks to the league-leader on which it was modelled in a cobbled Altstadt stuffed with gables and red-brick Gothic. And it retains the backbone of the central harbour that made it a rich port with considerable diplomatic clout during a medieval golden age. Unlike Lübeck, however, Wismar was conquered. Snatched by the Swedes in 1648, it became a southern bulwark of the empire and suffered the consequent woes of siege, fire and pillage – the legacy of their hundred-and-fifty-year occupation is scattered throughout, not least the fabulously mustachioed “Swedish heads” that are a town mascot. Worse still were air raids in 1945 that obliterated two massive medieval churches.
Since reunification, Wismar has taken tourism seriously. It again declares itself a Hansestadt (Hanseatic town), and a major renovation programme has buffed up its once neglected Altstadt, something that elevated it onto UNESCO’s World Heritage list in a joint application with Stralsund. Yet it remains refreshingly untouristy. Away from the set pieces, the historic streets have an air of glories past. It may be one reason why film director F. W. Murnau turned to Wismar as a backdrop for his 1922 Gothic-horror classic, Nosferatu: shots include the prewar Markt and the vampire’s ghostly ship drifting into the old harbour. It also makes it one reason to go. Others include the Hafentage (wismarer-hafentage.de), which brings fleets and a funfair to the harbour in late June, and the jolly, historic Schwedenfest (schwedenfest-wismar.de) over a weekend in late August.
Nowadays Wismar is only too happy to point out evidence of its annexation by Swedish forces from 1648. Most prominent are the colourful “Swedish heads” scattered at strategic locations throughout the town. With their fabulous handlebar moustaches, rakish cravats and lion’s-head caps worn over flowing black curls they present a dashing image in front of Alter Schwede on the Markt and the Baumhaus at the end of the harbour.
Whether they are actually Swedish is another matter. An original in Schabbelhaus is one of a pair that was mounted at the harbour entrance for a century until they were rammed by a Finnish ship taking evasive manoeuvres in 1902. At the time they were known as the “Old Swedes”. But because documents mention “The Swede” harbour boundary from as early as 1672 their origins remain a mystery. Historians date them to approximately 1700, the time of the Swedish occupation of Wismar, and suggest they are a Baroque depiction of Hercules. The most plausible theory suggests they were mounted on a Swedish merchant ship, possibly glaring from the stern or mounted before the captain’s quarters. However, another suggestion moots that their name derives from their “Schwedenköpf” (literally Sweden head) haircut, short for its time and a powder-free style as a sign of modernity and enlightenment.
Artists have long acclaimed the vast land-, sea- and skyscapes of these conjoined former islands that hook around east of Rostock. In 1880, they founded an artists’ colony in AHRENSHOOP, which must have been a surprise for a modest fishing village. Today it’s a gentrified holiday village, as are its neighbouring settlements. Treasured as a getaway by north Germans for its nature – kilometres of wild beach and birdlife drawn by rich lagoons of the Western Pomeranian Boddenlandschaft national park (www.nationalpark-vorpommersche-boddenlandschaft.de) – as much as the chic boutiques that occupy many thatched houses, the peninsula is a fine way to lose a day between Rostock and Stralsund. Ahrenshoop is the focus for shopping and culture alike, a chic village-resort which maintains its artistic credentials in a slew of galleries. Kunstkaten, (generally daily 10am–1pm & 2–5/6pm; kunstkaten.de) a gallery in a traditional house in the village centre, has been going strong for over a century. A glass pavilion at the centre lists current exhibitions at the other fifteen galleries in the village or source free what’s-on booklets in the tourist office. The rest of the peninsula is almost wilfully low-key by comparison: a place for simple pleasures like a stroll and a cycle. A popular option is the eastern tip beyond Zingst, where Europe’s largest crane roost – up to 50,000 birds – occupies the coastal marshes to the south (the Bodden of the national park’s name) in spring and autumn. Bike hire is available at a hut by the car park.