The walk took us along a narrow, sandy path that followed the top of the dyke. It was not so high, perhaps half a metre above the road and the gates to the cottages on one side, and the field of reeds that stretched out into the Bodden – the inland sea – to the other. Somewhere, beyond the cottages and the fields and dunes was the Baltic Sea, but we were taking the long way around.
The peninsula, curving around like a crooked arm to create the Bodden, goes by the trip-off-the-tongue name of “Fischland-Darß-Zingst”. Each of the three territories along the peninsula’s length are tiny, but they each are marked at different points along the road and at one point there was even an international border between two of them, back when the German lands were a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities and duchies, and the Swedes came across the sea to claim some portion of this flat and melancholic landscape all for themselves.
Now it is all part of the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, one of the poorest in the Federal Republic, although up here where they are blessed with beaches and sea air you would not necessarily know it. Inland, where there is nothing for the young people who move out as soon as they can, leaving their villages and towns to a slow and crumbling, paint-peeling decline. But on the coast, much of which was restricted during communist times, the fall of the Wall meant an opening up of many kilometres of mild and beautiful coastline that could be developed for tourism without the mistakes their western neighbours made during the sixties and seventies.
Still, join the steam of cars, caravans and campers and try and get onto the peninsula on a Friday evening or off it on a Sunday afternoon and you will see that however carefully they are managing the development of tourism in the villages the infrastructure is already close to its limit. But all these places have their seasons, and we were walking on a blustery day in May, the sun only occasionally breaking through the clouds, and apart from the odd cyclist ringing their warning bells as they approached from behind we had the path pretty much to ourselves.
At the village of Ahrenshoop we stopped for smoked fish and an ice cream at the tiny harbour. All the villages have them, but they face not out onto the Baltic but inwards to the Bodden. Fish is still caught here, smoked in the cabins out the back of wooden huts, but most of the traditional red-sailed sailing boats are used to ferry tourists around rather than providing for the smokehouse. Ahrenshoop itself is a pleasant collection of thatched houses, developed in the late 19th Century as an artists’ colony, and regular haunt of the cultural elite during East German times. It has a nice bookshop housed inside a Bauhaus-building, and a handful of new boutique hotels that play on the village’s artistic tradition. Indeed, even in the past five years, Ahrenshoop has become decidedly up-market, as if the gentrification wave that has subsumed parts of old East Berlin has washed up here at the narrowest point between the Baltic and the Bodden.
We followed the cobbled lanes towards the sand dunes, the old war time bunkers, and the long strip of sandy beach. The sun came out as we made our turn for home, but out at sea there was the first sign of a storm brewing. Passing the highest point of the peninsula, where a man slept beside the picnic table of the Bakelberg (all of 18 metres above sea level), and the winds began to whip the sand up off the beach and across the dunes. We shielded our eyes and followed the path, having to turn back at one point where the cliff had simply collapsed into the sea. The cyclists were pushing their charges by now, heads bowed and shoulder hunched against the wind. We made it to the shelter of the trees just as the rain began to fall in heavy droplets, like a summer storm.
Words and Pictures: Paul Scraton