The weekend crowds, even in winter, patrol the boutiques of Binz’s main shopping street, aiming for the pier and its walkway out above the waters of Prora Wiek bay. Follow the beach away from the pier and, once past the last house, the cliffs begin to rise and the gentle sands turn to uneven pebbles and rock. The crowds thin. It is not easy walking, around the headland beneath the cliffs, and so it is left to the fishermen and the beachcombers, picking their way across the stones and the rock-pools in search of amber. Or perhaps “chicken gods”. These stones with holes were once seen as good luck charms, warding off evil spirits. Now they are used for necklaces or candle-holders. At the promontory we pause and luck across the bay, just about able to make out the chalk cliffs of the Stubbenkammer in the distance, topped with the beech trees of Jasmund. Casper David Friedrich found stirring landscapes upon which to build a romantic mythology. Theodor Fontane simply found it melancholy. Perhaps both are true, especially under January’s grey skies.
Even before the romantics headed for Rügen in the 18th century to help foster some of the founding myths of a as-yet-unfounded nation, this island has been a place of mythology and culture. At Kap Arkona, where Schinkel’s lighthouse stands above the carved plaques of married couples and the tubular air vents of an East German bunker complex, the Slavs who once lived on the island had built a huge temple to Svantovit, a god of war and fertility whose huge, four-face statue stood at the Jaromarsburg temple.
In its right hand the figure held a drinking horn, made of various metals. The priest filled it each year with mead and from that which had been lost over the year prophesied about the coming harvest .
So wrote Saxo Grammaticus… but regardless of the success or not of the harvests, history would swallow Svantovit in same way much of Jaromarsburg is lost, collapsed into the sea as the Baltic ate away at the cliffs. Rügen was Germanised, whether by assimilation or settlement, and successive rulers built their own structures on the cape. But the same forces that brought down the temple will one day take the bunker and the lighthouses too, not to mention wedding slates with their carved names reflecting Johannes and Mara’s most perfect day… but you get the feeling that whatever is to come, the cape will remain a place of importance and pilgrimage long into the future.
The path leads from the Jaromarsburg to the tiny fishing village of Vitt, a collection of thatched cottages huddled around a cover just down the coast from Kap Arkona. It takes its name from an old Hanseatic word for a place where fish was landed and processed, and for a long time this was a temporary settlement, occupied only when the silver from the sea – the herring that swam these waters in abundance – were brought ashore. It is hard to imagine now how important herring was, not only to the economy of Rügen but throughout the waters of the Baltic and the North Sea. According to historians, the cove was already settled in Slavic times, and it certainly has an old feel to it on a blustery January day. Whether that is true during warmer months, when the village is overrun by visitors is another story entirely.
There are plenty of ghosts on Rügen. At Prora, that huge Nazi holiday camp built in the 1930s and never used because of the outbreak of war, the developers who are attempting to turn the complex into an attractive (if colossal) collection of luxury holiday apartments, hotels and second-homes, are doing the best to hide them away behind paint-jobs and new balconies bolted onto the façade. The first time I came here the site was large, echoing and mostly empty; with just a collection of quirky and independent businesses, museums and organisations occupying but a fraction of the three-mile-long structure. Now the site buzzes with builders and plumbers, the first residents making use of the café and the coffeeshop, and curious onlookers visiting show apartments that promise an investment opportunity with tax rebates in a landmark-protected building, without ever explaining why it was landmark-protected in the first place. I leave asking question of what it is we mean when we talk about progress…
Above the treetops
The best place to get a sense of the scale of the size of the Prora compound is from above. A few hundred yards away the Naturerbe Zentrum Rügen offers a treetop walkway with commanding views across the bay, the inland sea, and much of this corner of the island. We climb the ever ascending loop to the top of the tower to look down across the rooftops of Prora to Binz. Different societies at different times build their temples. Some remain and some are swallowed by the sea. This wooden and steel walkway through the trees, with its information boards and education centre, is one of the more recent additions to the island. It makes no claims to the surroundings other than a desire to be a part of them and to protect what remains. It seems fitting somehow that it looks down upon Prora, and the Nazi’s failed, bombastic and grandiose dreams.
You can read more on Prora on this post on Under a Grey Sky, based on Katrin’s visit to the site a couple of years ago. From my recent visit, the development is progressing and the Documentation Centre are not sure if there will be space for them in the future. On the Elsewhere blog I wrote that “it seems that the intention is to hide the past in plain sight” at Prora… a troubling development.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Paul Scraton and Katrin Schönig