From the resort of Binz, on the coast of Rügen island, the path into the Granitz forest starts at the point where the promenade runs out, the neat paving stones giving way to a sandy track of dirt that skirts the beach until it plunges inland and up towards the high cliff-top trail. Germany’s Baltic coast can in general be pretty flat – a landscape of big skies, dykes and dunes, where the only things reaching up towards the clouds are electricity pylons or windfarms. But Granitz is a bit different, formed as it was during the ice age; an undulating moraine landscape that marks the furthest extent of a glaciers journey, like rubble pushed across a wasteland by a mechanical digger.
The beech trees that make up much of Granitz are the remnants of those ancient forests that once covered two thirds of Germany, and they swallowed me quickly. Although the path took me high pretty quickly I only had a view from the handful of lookout points above the cliffs along the way, and approached those warily, unsure if there was much ground beneath my feet or if the sea had eaten out a hollow and I was hovering above thin air. In January the forest was empty of human life, and I met only one other person during the first five miles, that took me along the high path towards the resort of Sellin. He appeared at the moment the forest gave way to the first of the holiday villas. Sellin itself was a strange place, a resort built upon a cliff-top with steep steps (and an elevator) leading down to carefully raked sands and the pier.
I went down, walked along the pier, and came back up again. There was nobody on the pier and seemingly nobody in the town. There was a light on in the bakery but the boutiques and souvenir stores had not yet opened for the day, if they would at all. A car crossed the street in front of me. A solitary smoker on a colonnaded veranda. A twitch of net curtains. That was the visible life in Sellin, on a Monday morning in early February.
From Sellin I had planned to head back along the cliff-top path to Binz but I was running, and the hills had been tough, so I plotted a different route on my map. It would take me through Granitz within sight of the railway tracks along which the heritage steam railway travelled between the two resorts. It was a longer route, but I presumed it would be flatter. Once more I plunged into the woods. For a while I ran alongside the tracks, for a long enough stretch that the train passed me. The driver waved. As did a kid standing with his dad at the back of the carriage. By the time I raised my own hand in acknowledgement I could no longer see them. The tracks and the paths were engulfed in steam. The driver sounded the horn, causing a hurried flap of wings somewhere above my head. It wasn’t possible to see what exactly had been startled from its perch.
At a crossroads I took a gamble and turned right, in the direction of the Granitz Hunting Lodge. This Italianate palace stands, out of place like a garish marzipan cake on a greengrocer’s display, at the highest point of the Granitz forest, just over 100 metres above sea level. I made slow progress up the steep cobbled street through the trees to get there, cursing my route planning, to be dismayed at the folly that greeted me at the top. In front of the palace a small group of people stood nursing morning mugs of coffee or glühwein outside the beer garden. I didn’t join them. I had no money with me, and in any case they stared at me as if I was an alien visitation, so I headed back down the hill towards Binz.
Back in our apartment in the town I looked up more details about where I had just been running. The name Granitz came from the name of a Slavic Prince – Granza – who once called this corner of Rügen island home. Like the beech trees both here and at Jasmund on the opposite side of the bay, the name is a trace of an earlier moment in history, like the moraine landscape and the kettle bogs in the heart of the woods. The forest is always home to stories. Somewhere in the woods were the graves of Finnish warriors, but in my haste or tiredness I had somehow missed them. A reason, then, to go exploring among the beech trees once more.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton