To the left are rolling hills, aglow in the light drizzle; to the right, a stand of pine trees that seem to swallow the trail leading up to it; behind is a row of well-spaced vintage mansions; and in front is a breathtaking view of the Baltic Sea.
Just an hour earlier, corn fields had rushed past in a blur on either side of the Autobahn (highway) from Hamburg to the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Germany’s far north. Soon, the van veered off the highway onto smaller roads, past farms and silent woods. Here, along the southern shores of the Baltic, is the German Riviera.
As the van clambers over a hill, a new panorama unfolds—the waters of the Baltic rippling under an overcast sky. It disappears in the next instant as the van dips on the rollercoaster road. Like a fleeting daydream, it leaves me craving for more until I finally stand on the promenade of my destination, the town of Kühlungsborn, the region’s largest seaside resort.
Founded on the Bay of Mecklenburg in 1938 after the union of three villages, this spa town by the Baltic Sea—known as Ostsee in Germany—serves scrumptious feasts of perch, cod and salmon. The town gained popularity as a seaside resort and spa as early as the 19th century due to its salubrious environs, and today draws over 4,50,000 visitors annually.
A walk along the four-kilometre-long promenade, the longest in Germany, is a good way to start exploring the town. The promenade runs along the beach and gives you a glimpse of Bäderarchitektur, or resort architecture, which characterises the town’s seaside manors. Some have been converted into retreats and restaurants, but still preserve their original character. To keep Kühlungsborn’s small-town charm alive, even newer structures are built keeping in mind the long-cherished rule that no building can be higher than the town’s tallest trees. Many of these manors have interesting stories: Villa Baltic housed Adolf Hitler’s close aide Josef Goebbels, while Hotel Upastalsboom was transformed into a medical facility during the Second World War.
Renting a bike is the best way to explore Kühlungsborn and the 133-hectare woods embracing it. Traffic is scant in the main street that features laid-back cafés, restaurants and shops. Ride about five kilometres to neighbouring Bastorf to soak in the sights: Fields of corn dance about in the breeze, while the forested ridge of Kühlung (which gives Kühlungsborn its name) rises in the distance. To the north of Bastorf lies Leuchtturm Buk or lighthouse Buk. A trail leads to the 68-foot-tall tower. Standing atop the tor Buk, and with a combined height of over 300 feet, it is the highest lighthouse on the German coastline. Besides panoramic views of Kühlungsborn, on a clear day you can see Denmark’s skyline across the Baltic.
At the eastern end of town is a chapter from history kept alive since 1886. The Molli, short for the Mecklenburgische Bäderbahn Molli (Mecklenburg Seaside Resort Railway Molli) is a narrow gauge steam-powered railway that snakes its way across 15.4 kilometres between Kühlungsborn West, Heiligendamm and Bad Doberan. Besides sitting back and watching the countryside, what makes this journey unique is that the train runs through quaint towns, which go about with business as usual, oblivious to the smoking behemoth. The old-world Heiligendamm train station buzzes with the chatter of passengers devouring cakes and sipping tea while awaiting the short ride that will take them to the historic town of Bad Doberan.
Minster of Doberan
A short walk from Bad Doberan train station, is the Doberaner Münster or the Minster of Doberan. Founded in A.D. 1171, it was Mecklenberg’s first abbey and the burial site for the dukes of Mecklenburg. A visit to France and a chance to see the gothic red-brick architecture greatly inspired the resident monks, who then recreated the style in Bad Doberan. The cathedral’s main altar was constructed around A.D. 1300, and is believed to be the oldest wing altar in Germany. Alongside the cathedral are the ruins of a three-storeyed building that housed the monks’ living quarters, in addition to a malt house, a brewery and a granary.
An hour and a half drive from Kühlungsborn, Prerow lies on the Darss peninsula, close to the industrial hub of Rostock. Originally a fishing village, it began to develop as a seaside resort in the late 19th century. Even today, the beaches here remain relatively uncrowded, making it an ideal picnic spot. Some of the older homes have intricate seaweed thatched roofs, which keep the interiors insulated from cold Baltic winds and add to the aesthetic appeal of the coastal abodes.
The Darss Forest
A hiking trail through the boardwalk of the ancient Darss Forest takes you past forests of oak, beech and pine, and open grasslands that run all the way up to the lagoons, before hitting sandy dunes as one approaches the Baltic coast. Entry points, well marked on a map, lead to the forest that is now part of the Western Pomeranian Lagoon Region National Park. It is the largest nature reserve near the Baltic and has a maze of hiking routes throughout its 4,500-hectare area. It’s surreal to see the transformation of the landscape across a few kilometres. Over the years, the waters of the Baltic have reshaped the coastline, creating a unique environment that has only flourished with the conservation efforts of the local community. While there is a chance to spot wolves, red deer and wild boar, the forest’s marshland ecosystem is also birdwatchers’ paradise and an important winter home for migratory birds, especially cranes.
Darsser Ort Lighthouse
An hour-long hiking route through the national park leads to a lighthouse on the Darsser Ort coastline. Starting in the forest, the boardwalk route goes past marshland and sand dunes, before hitting the coastline. Built in 1848, the lighthouse stands right across a beach. This area was once controlled by the military and closed to public until 1990. A steep climb up the 115-foot-tall tower’s winding wrought-iron steps is worth the dizzying effort for the 180-degree views of blue Baltic waters, inland forests and the coastline’s sandy dunes. A maritime and natural history museum and an aquarium in the lighthouse compound provide insight into the region’s deep history. The effort of the hike can be capped off at the local café, which whips up delectable fare comprising the catch of the day.
The charming Hanseatic town of Stralsund lies on the way from Prerow to the island of Rügen. Today, the historic centre of Stralsund, along with the town centre of neighbouring Wismar, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Brick Gothic architecture is ubiquitous in Stralsund and defines the grand St. Nicholas’ and St. Mary’s churches that dominate the town’s skyline. Cobbled streets lead to a pier where fishing boats transform into restaurants by evening and serve the fresh catch of the day, even as seagulls screech about in search of treats. A short distance away, the grand aquarium, Ozeaneum, and the German Oceanographic Museum showcase Baltic marine life, while right across in the water stands the museum ship, Gorch Fock I, a training ship used by the German Navy until 1945.
An almost three-kilometre-long bridge links mainland Germany and Prerow to the island of Rügen. With a coastline of about 600 kilometres, it is Germany’s largest island; yet no spot on Rügen is more than six kilometres from the sea. The island’s coastline is composed of chalk—often referred to as “white gold” by locals—and dotted with glacial erratics, blocks of rock brought in by glaciers during the Ice Age. While bays and peninsulas mark the island’s edges, pockets of lush beech forests flourish inland.
Naturerbe Zentrum Rügen
The 1,900-hectare Naturerbe Zentrum Rügen on the eastern shore of Rügen boasts of beech forests, alder groves, wetlands and open flint fields. The region is home to over 100 threatended species. Inside, a 1.25-kilometre-long trail passes through the Prora DBU Natural Heritage Site, originally a military area. Natural transformation and conservation efforts have rejuvenated the region and today, it is the domain of the magnificent white-tailed eagle. Named after the raptor, Eagle’s Nest, a 131-foot-high viewing platform in the shape of an eyrie, gives a bird’s-eye view of Rügen while an exhibition centre chronicles the devastation caused by military activity and highlights the efforts made to revive the region.
Jasmund National Park
About half an hour from Naturerbe Zentrum, the 3,100-hectare Jasmund National Park is Germany’s smallest reserve and a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site since 2011. The lush, deciduous forest is dominated by beech trees and ends at dreamy chalk cliffs, overlooking the Baltic Sea. Walking through Jasmund—standing beneath beech trees with hardly any sunlight creeping in through the canopy— might remind you of enchanted fairy-tale woodlands. The stands of trees seem anything but plain as the wonders of the forest emerge through the experienced eyes of a guide from the national park. Hiking trails crisscross the forest, the most popular being an 8.5-kilometre trail along the coastline which gives a clear view of the famous natural cliff tower, the 118-metre-high Königsstuhl or King’s Chair.
For the history buff, Prora, a 20-minute drive away, provides a glimpse into the ambitions of Adolf Hitler and the architectural accomplishments of his time. In the 1930s, Hitler wanted to create the world’s largest seaside resort and a mammoth 4.5-kilometre-long network of interlinked buildings was built as a recreational and training facility for his men. Though the six-storeyed structures are impressive and the location ideal for soaking in the charms of the Baltic, the buildings’ dank, concrete exteriors exude a grim aura. When the Second World War began, all plans for the facility were abandoned. Today, a museum and discotheque have taken over a section of the labyrinth, while the rest is being converted into a series of luxury apartments.
Tucked away in the far north of Germany, the German Riviera, though less glamorous than its French counterpart, has much to offer. There’s enough activity to pack the day with, followed by a visit to the local spa for some sweet pampering, rounded off with a wholesome meal and sparkling white wine. Then of course, there’s the soothing sound of the Baltic Sea to keep one company all along.
Getting There The German Riviera region is well connected by road to Hamburg (190 km/2.5 hr) and Berlin (270 km/3.5 hr), both of which have international airports. Bad Doberan, Rostock and Wismar are well connected to the German railway network.
Shail Desai is a freelance writer based out of Bombay. The thrills and uncertainties of being on the road has kept him rolling for the last two years. While he considers it work, most choose to call it one long holiday.