The rain started to fall as I waited for the car ferry to take me from Travemünde across the mouth of the river that gives the town its name to the village of Priwall, on the opposite bank. Priwall sits at the end of a peninsula that belongs to the city of Lübeck. The hinterland to which the peninsula is attached belongs to the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. None of this really matters, except for the need to use the ferry if you want to stay within the limits of the Lübeck transport system. But from the end of the Second World War until early 1990 it did. Priwall was cut off by the inner-German border, surrounded by water and wire, and gazed down upon by watchtowers. The ferry I am waiting for was the only connection to West Germany, of which Priwall was a part. For the best part of half a century, the peninsula was – to all intents and purposes – an island. Continue reading
The road to Heiligendamm takes us through a snow-covered landscape rendered white and shades of grey because of overcast skies. A few kilometres inland from the Baltic shore and the villages betray the poverty of places with nothing to offer the weekend visitor or the summer holidaymaker. No access to the sea here. No promenade or spa hotels. A place to pass through, barely glimpsed at, as you make your way to the White Town by the Sea.
You could always take the train, the narrow-gauge steam railway called the “Molli” that will deliver you to the station of Heiligendamm as if the twentieth century never happened. Walk across the fields between the towns of Kühlungsborn, Heiligendamm and Bad Doberan, and you will come across Molli’s tracks. In 2007 hundreds of protesters used them to navigate their way as close to Heiligendamm as possible, where Merkel, Bush and the rest of the G8 leadership met at a Grand Hotel transformed into a fortified compound.
I took the bus north, from the shabby concrete concourse of the Berlin ZOB. Waiting for the bus reminded me of travels that seem a long time ago now, catching the bus from Zagreb to Sarajevo or along the Croatian coastline, the entire series of Rocky films dubbed into the local language playing above my head as some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world passed by in darkness. As I stood in the cold with my fellow passengers I thought of Cape Town to Durban and the loss of feeling in my legs after thirty-odd hours, and the longest journey of all, from Berlin to Ormskirk via Hannover, Amsterdam and London. I have never been particularly fond of long distance bus travel.
On the first weekend of the year we decided to escape not so much the madness – for that was all reserved for New Year’s Eve and the early hours of the following morning – but the debris and the feeling of the morning after the night before. Outside our apartment on Osloer Straße the street was strewn with firework casings, empty and smashed bottles, piles of grit from the snow flurry earlier in the week, and first of the abandoned Christmas trees, branches drooping and the needles scattered across the pavement.
We caught the S-Bahn from Bornholmer Straße, that famous bridge where the Berlin Wall was first opened and – with its dramatic views south towards the city centre – the venue for one of the larger impromptu firework displays on the 31st December. The half-empty train took us north, through Pankow and towards the suburbs, always close to the Panke river that flows, mostly hidden, by the raised railway tracks. At Karow – still Berlin and yet, with its detached houses and neat village centre, feeling like a place apart – we sought out the river and the route to the Karow ponds.
When most people travel to the Baltic island of Usedom, the attention is taken – understandably – by the sea. Most of the island is in Germany – with only the town of Świnoujście at the eastern end in Poland – and from north to south it is a line of holiday resorts that date back to the nineteenth century, the coming of the railway, and the development of seaside rest cures and vacations for the growing populace of the cities of northern Germany.
But the island is not only built on tourism. Before the first bathers arrived, the main economic activities on Usedom were agriculture and fishing, and that continues to this day. But whilst some of the fish would be and are pulled from the Baltic, a good proportion of the industry is focused on the inland sea that separates the island from the mainland. The communities that face the Achterwasser as it is known still target the tourists, with campsites and signs advertising rooms and apartments for rent, marinas offering boat trips and kayak tours, but it feels less developed than those resorts along the coast, and that these are still places where people live and work, even in the off season.
The history of this village at the bottom end of the Scharmützelsee lake about an hour from Berlin is all there in the name. The Wends were West Slavs, who settled in the land between the Elbe and the Oder rivers over a thousand years ago. Divided into a number of different tribes, they were the majority population of the area that now makes up most of the state of Brandenburg until the arrival of German colonists between the 12th and the 14th centuries. By the 18th Century most of the Wends had been assimilated into the German population, except for the Sorbs, who continue to live as Germany’s only indigenous minority in the Spreewald region, not far from Wendisch-Rietz.
A few days into the New Year and we have headed down to Wannsee, the resort on a lake that sits within Berlin’s city limits. In the summer thousands head for the bathing beach, or walk and ride the shoreline path, but in the early days of January it feels as if we have the place to ourselves. As we leave the villas that line the lake behind us and walk through the trees with the water just a few metres away, all we can hear are the birds, the distant hum of a main road, and the occasional airplane. The lake is still, and there is little breeze. It is almost as if the weather has taken a holiday, along with most of the city.
After a walk out to the headland and a long view down the Havel towards the Teufelsberg in the north, we head back to the statue of a lion that stands above the boathouses and marks the beginning of town. There are still remnants of the New Years Eve fireworks standing at the foot of the statue, and the odd discarded beer and sekt bottle. From the balcony where the lion stands it is possible to look out over the lake from a slightly elevated position, but there is little to see, except for a pair of kayakers chasing the slipstream of the BVG ferry that crosses each hour between Wannsee and Kladow on the opposite bank.