This post is from a trip Katrin and I made to Usedom in February this year… another Baltic exploration:
The Europapromenade leads the walker or the cyclist, the jogger or the rollerblader, out from the town of Ahlbeck on the island of Usedom in a straight line between the trees. The surface is smooth, the path lined with benches to rest and public toilets and bike parks at the points along the route where there is access to the beach beyond the trees and the dunes. Ahlbeck is the last town in Germany, and the promenade is well-named, linking as it does the bathing resorts of Usedom on both sides of the German-Polish border.
The border itself is our target, three kilometres down the path from the resort town. As I have written on Under a Grey Sky before, there is something fascinating about land borders to me. Perhaps it is the classic response of someone born and brought up on an island, but it still gives me a shiver of excitement to look across a river and see a different land on the opposite banks, to drive a few hundred metres through a checkpoint and see not only a different language but a different script on the signs above the shops, or to walk, as we did from Ahlbeck, to another country in less time than I used to walk to university in Leeds… it is like the excitement we used to feel seeing the first Welsh-language road signs on the way to Anglesey, only more so.
On the Europapromenade the cyclists dismount at the border, the joggers pause for breath, and the walkers slow. Not because there are any fences or guards, but because they seem to share my fascination with the line on the ground. At the sculpture that marks the spot people take photographs, half in Germany, half in Poland, and then follow the wooden boardwalk through the dunes along the zig-zag of the border and down to the beach. There, however, there is no sign of the dividing line. We walk a little bit up and down the sands, trying to see whether we would have been able to tell had we come along the beach from Ahlbeck instead of the path. At some point the small signs warning about the need to protect the dunes shift language, but that is it. You would have to be paying attention.
Back on the promenade and we turn our attention inland. Here the border is clearly visible, a wide path cut through the forest that had once been a no-man’s land between the two countries but now looks like the kind of strip usually cleared for electricity pylons and wires. We pick our way along the uneven ground, past the remnants of the border fortifications – metal stumps and patrol paths, the occasional lump of abandoned concrete – following the footsteps of other off road explorers (and their abandoned beer bottles) in the sandy soil and frost where they mingle with the animal tracks of creatures that can now, like us, cross the border at will.
Soon we came to the road, where the checkpoint once stood. Now the cars stream back and forth, noticing the border only at the point that the rattle of cobblestones on the Polish side gives way to the smoother tarmac of Germany. As we reach the road we meet a group of young Germans walking back across the border, swinging bags of cigarettes at their side. Wooden shacks offer cheap smokes on one side. A cafe, proclaiming to be the “last German cafe before Moscow!”, stands on the other. Nothing stops you crossing the border any more, on the road, the promenade or the beach. But it still symbolises something, which is what makes it fascinating to explore.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig