We arrived as the storm picked up, the narrow lane to our destination already beginning to freeze. In the darkness the trees whipped back and forth and we hurried across the slippery car park to lock ourselves away… it’s just a breeze our receptionist said. Welcome to the Baltic. The next morning it had blown itself out, and we walked the icy cliff-top path and then along the crunchy, frozen sands beneath. The water was glassy and still. We spied boats offshore and birds in the shallows. A long figure stalks the clifftop, picking his way along an overgrown path with large, unbalanced steps. Stay away from the edge! Only we could see that beneath his feet was a curving lip of sandy rock, punctured by holes that had been last-summer’s sandmartin nests, and beneath that… nothing.
Red-brick houses with crow-stepped gables told, us we were in a town with a Hanseatic past, that chain of towns that stretches along the Baltic coast from Lübeck to Tallinn and around the other side. We paused in the square in front of northern Europe’s oldest university and ate sausages from a grill attached to a bicycle. Down by the harbour the the Warnow river was frozen in parts, the ducks and cormorants standing atop the waters with messianic ease. Old warehouses had been turned into bars and clubs, waterfront apartments and steakhouses… but across the river, beyond the reeds of the opposite bank it was possible to make out the cranes of Rostock’s port, where lorries were no doubt queuing for the late crossing to Sweden or Finland.
The first time I visited Warnemünde I hated it. It was an August day and yet cold and damp. the beach was too big and windswept and the row of shops by the river too twee. I was lovesick and found myself sitting in a truly terrible mediocre restaurant with nothing better to do than get drunk to make the long drive home to Berlin bearable. That was my first experience of the Baltic Sea and it is amazing I ever went back. This time it was cold and damp but it should be in January, and in any case, I’m not lovesick anymore and the twee shops were closed. We walked the wide expanse of beach and watched tankers emerge from the mouth of the river to the sea. Warnemünde: This time I quite liked it.
Rostock-Lichtenhagen was built in the 1970s, a newbuild neighbourhood on the fields between Rostock city centre and Warnemünde, a collection of GDR-Plattenbau apartment blocks made infamous for events in 1992 when an asylum-seekers shelter and Vietnamese residence were attacked by a mob featuring neo-Nazi thugs and cheered on by around three thousand onlookers, including local residents. We walked around the Sunflower House in the drizzle. Nothing speaks to those events, there are no traces. But it does not matter. Type in “Rostock Lichtenhagen” into google and see what you get. The shame of 1992 will take a long time to be fade from the consciousness of a nation and beyond, especially those who know little else about this Baltic city. Even if, as you walk the neat streets and look across green, open spaces to renovated apartment buildings, only a few kilometres from the sea, you know that there are many worse places to live than this…
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig