Thursday 25th September 2008, Rerik, Mecklenburg, Germany
Today the sun has been shining non-stop! Despite a passing seagull using our breakfast table for some well aimed target practice, we ate outside for the first time in ages. So pleasant was it we changed our plans and decided to stay an extra day. Ian was keen to cycle around the area again after forty-five years so off we set along the cliff-top cycle paths towards the seaside resort of Kühlungsborn where Ian and Hubert arrived by train from Rostock together all those years ago. On the way we passed through the hamlet of Mechelsdorf where they stayed. Most of the houses looked far too smart and too recent to have been there in those old GDR days but Ian wanted the photos for Hubert.
Nearby stands the Mechelsdorf dolmen, a Neolithic tomb from about 3,000BC, giving an aura of mystery to the wide empty cliff-top fields and the vast expanse of the sea.
The countryside around here is perfect for cycling. There are more bikes than cars and lovely smooth cycle tracks. Across the fields was the wide blue expanse of the Baltic freckled with white – sailing boats and white horses that crested the incoming waves. Passing a wayside shop we stopped to buy Bismark herrings, not because we were particularly hungry, it was just fun to sit on our bicycle saddles looking across ploughed fields and the sea, eating pickled fish.
Kühlungsborn is a quiet, rather genteel, coastal resort that has to look hard for anything extraordinary that happened there. The Rheingold guesthouse proudly proclaims that Herr Dr. Wolfgang Wagner, the grandson of Richard Wagner stayed here with his wife Gudrun Wagner in September 2003. They must have been even older than most of the clientele who were strolling or being wheeled along the promenade this afternoon!
Generally, the town is very pleasant and exists purely for tourists. There is nothing there but guest houses, holiday homes, a campsite and dozens of places to eat ice creams, cakes, smoked fish, and chips with tomato sauce. The clientele made us look young, but they were all having a grand time. They arrived on huge, hired bikes and made their way systematically around the town trying out the different coffee shops. They were all happy and cheerful.
We spent a pleasant couple of hours walking the seafront and marvelling at the hardy Germans in their woven basket beach chairs, determined to enjoy the sea and sand despite the strong wind, even if it did mean sitting there wrapped up in warm blankets.
At the top of the town we found the train station of the Mollibahn, with its narrow gauge track. It looked rather smarter than it would have done in those GDR days when Ian stepped down from the grimy old steam train. With excitement Ian stood poised with his camera on the platform awaiting the very same train, all these years later! It arrived, smart and clean, chuffing into the station with a hiss of steam and a wonderfully nostalgic tang of coal smoke. It has been chugging up and down the same few miles of track several times a day, every day, every since! Opened in 1890 the line is a rare survival of an extensive narrow gauge railway network in northern Germany where it claims to be the only 900 millimetre gauge steam railway in regular daily use.
After the excitement Ian needed coffee and chocolate mousse cake to make his happiness complete. Uncomfortably full we climbed back on our bikes for the homeward journey, deciding to follow a cycle route right along the cliff edge. Unfortunately we discovered too late that it was intended for mountain bikes and the terrain was uncomfortable in the extreme for our tiny folding bikes. The views were wonderful but several ploughed fields later we were relieved to find a track leading inland to a surfaced cycle route. Twenty kilometres is quite far enough on bikes without any springs when your tummy is full of chocolate cake and pickled fish. Once we were home we crossed to the campsite bar to recover with cold beers while we used the free wifi to send another blog. One beer led to a second, and soon it was dark and the barman waiting to close. Ian had previously mentioned to him that he'd been in the area back in the 1960s. The barman would have only been a baby back then! As we were about to leave, he, his wife and a couple of friends invited us to join them for a beer as they were curious to know how Ian managed to be in a restricted area during GDR days. We ended up having a really good time with lots of laughter. Why a tiny village like Mechelsdorf, they wanted to know. They seemed impressed Ian had not been arrested as a spy or that Hubert had not been in trouble for bringing him there. Ian was in his element with a real opportunity to use his German properly. When we eventually left, long after they had closed the bar, we still hadn't eaten any supper and had consumed a considerable quantity of Rostock beer. We were too weary to eat and went straight to bed where we slept exceptionally well.
Friday 26th September 2008, Hamburg
There was a chill in the air this morning, the grass was saturated and a hazy mist was still rising from the ground as we left Rerik.
Although today's destination was Hamburg, we wanted to stop at Wismar on the way. Together with Stralsund they are inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list as typical Hanseatic towns that have retained their original ground plan, have several magnificent brick gothic churches each, and have many original or restored mediaeval merchants' houses, trade guilds and a number of beautiful civic buildings.
Parking was a doddle for once and minutes later we were in the heart of the old town, entirely surrounded by some of the most beautiful buildings northern Germany can offer. The large central square alone was flanked on all sides by gabled facades dating from the 15th century right through to Art Nouveau buildings from around 1900.
In the late 1640s, following the Thirty Years War, this part of Germany was ruled by Sweden and there is a strong Swedish influence in Wismar, including its architectural style. Every street leading from the square was lined with similar renaissance and baroque houses, but the most beautiful and typical for northern Germany were those in brick gothic.
Wismar has, or had, six magnificent gothic churches. Several have been restored, one seems in the process of being entirely rebuilt after allied bombing in WW2.
Lured by the buildings, we wandered down from the main square to find ourselves in a quarter that resembled Holland with its canals, bridges and gabled houses.
Here we found the red brick gothic church of St. Nicholas. The inside made an immediate, pleasurable impression. After the number of beautiful churches we've seen this year it takes a lot now to bring out the wow factor, but this one did the trick! One does not think of the humble red brick as a likely material for such a splendid creation, but the slender columns soaring up to the gothic arches and the light shining through the high clear windows, bathed the entire church in a rosy glow. The altar, pulpit and organ were dark baroque, but the building was so cavernous and splendid they actually added to its charm.
Down by the port we passed through the only surviving town gate – there had originally been five. On the water's edge herring boats were doing brisk business selling fish rolls to passing tourists. We bought a couple and sat watching the boats as we ate them. Never have we eaten so much fish as over the past few days. Mediterranean seafood does not generally appeal – too many bones and too expensive. North Sea and Baltic fish however, is really good and very cheap.
The church of the Holy Ghost was different from the other major gothic churches in Wismar. It was smaller and the main church was a single space without aisles or columns, its wide roof supported by richly coloured beams. It had been a hospital in earlier times and it was still possible to see the corridor with the individual cells for patients, the doors colourfully decorated. The pulpit, stained glass and statuary was also very attractive.
We discovered a small lake and a pretty park near the Swedish Provisions house. A couple of ducks were arguing over a pecked apple and becoming quite vicious with each other. Meanwhile, a water rat was darting around behind them trying to reach the apple. Both ducks promptly united in attacking him. The rat disappeared into the grass and the ducks forgot what they were quarrelling about and waddled off. Immediately out popped the rat, right near our feet, and rolled the apple with his paws into the grass and out of sight! The ducks, remembering what it was they were doing, came back and walked around us in complete puzzlement, their expressions proclaiming "I know there was an apple around here a couple of minutes ago. Do you think those two humans have taken it?" We were rather chuffed for the rat.
We spent the entire day exploring the city. It was such a happy discovery, being small enough to do it justice but leaving us wanting to return again for more. Here are a few extra pictures we cannot resist.
We took the motorway as we had lingered so long in Wismar. Near Lübeck we passed a sign demarcating the former division between East and West Germany. No border controls now. We arrived here on the edge of the city of Hamburg around 6pm. Finding a campsite anywhere near a city rather than at a seaside resort invariably means being shunted to a waste patch of ground on a suburban industrial estate, and Hamburg is no exception. Here we are camped just beyond the car park for IKEA! As the campsite is devoid of restaurants, bars or even a lounge area of any kind, we decided to take a short-cut through a gap in the fence and nip across to IKEA for a plate of their Swedish meatballs with cranberry jam, exactly like we had in Karlstad in Sweden. So exact was the experience we had a touch of déjà vu as we sat in the restaurant gazing up at the exact same poster on the wall and ate off identical crockery. The only difference was that in Germany you get two fewer meat balls! Is this an international menu? Has anyone had the IKEA meatball experience in Milton Keynes or Leamington Spa? For a dreadful moment we feared we’d slipped through a time warp and would need to travel right the way round the Baltic all over again! Fantastic as it has been we have no desire to repeat the journey again quite yet!
We have now moved away from the Baltic. Just a few kilometres north from our route here lies the wonderful city of Lübeck. We visited it in 2006 and it made a stunning impression on us. Wismar is in many ways very similar and has lessened our urge to return to Lübeck again so soon.
Some of you who have been following our travels around the Baltic may care to complete the journey by reading again of our travels on from Lübeck up through Schleswig-Holstein into Denmark. From there you can follow our route right the way to Skagen at the northernmost tip where the waters of the North Sea meet those of the Baltic. You can even cross to Norway in our footsteps and follow the route through the fjords right up to Haugesund, where we landed back in July to start this massive journey. Marilyn Monroe will still be sitting on the quayside waiting for you when you arrive, just as she was for us at the start of this round of our travels.
You will have to make that stretch of the journey without us this time however. We are turning our attention to the two remaining countries we have not yet visited with Modestine, namely Holland and Belgium. Pop off to finish the entire Baltic by all means, but we hope you will come back to join us for the final bit of these travels as well.