Stralsund and Rostock

Monday 22nd September 2008, Pruchten, Germany
Cosy as yesterday evening sounded, by this morning we were getting a bit fed up with the rain, the huge puddles around the campsite and the constant tapping of raindrops and pine needles from the overhanging tree. We'd had a lovely day yesterday but a remote island in the Baltic loses its charm in such miserable dank weather.

So we packed up and left. Before returning to the mainland however, we simply had to see the highest chalk cliff in Germany! Such a superlative must surely rank with that other Baltic splendour, the highest waterfall in Latvia!!

The cliffs lie within one of Germany's national parks, accessible only after a three kilometres walk through a protected beech wood that is included on the UNESCO heritage list. It was a rather damp but beautiful walk surrounded by the eerie green light of the woods, the ground covered in rusty brown leaves and the trunks rising tall and straight to the green canopy of the treetops. Amongst the moss and wet leaf-litter there were many mushrooms but most did not look as if they would be edible.

It was only after the long walk that we discovered it would cost us six euros each to go onto the cliffs! Cliffs, in the rain, that are almost certainly not as spectacular as those we have back home in Devon! So we turned round and walked all the way back again! We felt fitter for the walk and the woods were worth the effort.

Beech woods in Jasmund National Park, Rügen

Woodland pool, Jasmund National Park, Rügen

Back at the car park our tummies told us it was lunch-time. So there we were on a rain-soaked Baltic island with the wind whistling across, eating raw, pickled Bismark herrings from a fish stall. It's not exactly what we expected from retirement.

As we continued towards the long bridge that links Rügen to the mainland at Stralsund, we passed through the little town of Sassnitz. Road signing is not always very obvious and as we exited the town, having left all the buildings behind we thought we were outside the restricted speed area. We were just accelerating when we were flashed by mobile speed unit in a car sneakily parked in a lay-by. Wonder what they will do. We were only just over the speed limit and as we are not local hopefully they will decide it's not worth the bother of chasing us. Is it a case for Interpol? I've been neurotic about our speed for the rest of the day.

In Stralsund we parked by the quayside and stumbled off with our umbrellas across the bumpy, glistening cobbles to explore yet another Hanseatic town. They are coming thick and fast now in this area of the Baltic. Like most we have seen, it developed as a rich mercantile city during the 14th century. Despite the bombings of WW2 and the neglect it suffered during its GDR days, it still has many splendid buildings. In particular we found its red brick gothic town hall to be a delight. It has been well restored with beautiful carved and painted woodwork doorways, lintels and columns. Inside we found an exhibition of historic church organs arranged by the Baltic Organ Centre. Its aims are the restoration and conservation of the many historic church organs to be found in the churches of countries surrounding the Baltic. It is certainly a fact that they are exceptionally impressive both from the point of view of sound and simply as beautiful objects, frequently with delightful mechanical automata. We have visited several Baltic churches and cathedrals just as organ recitals were in progress and can vouch for the awesome sound produced as it reverberates around the building, bursting against the walls. There seems to be the perfect, symbiotic relationship between the power of the organ and the acoustics of the brick gothic buildings that house them. In Stralsund alone there are three historic organs in the three most important medieval brick churches, an important factor in the World Heritage status of the city.

Medieval town hall and Nikolaikirche on the Old Market Square, Stralsund

Renaissance colonnade inside medieval town hall, Stralsund

"Resounding world heritage" exhibition by the Baltic Organ Centre inside medieval town hall, Stralsund

Doorway to Nikolaikirche beside medieval town hall, Stralsund

Many of the architectural splendours of Stralsund are concentrated around the two main squares, linked by rows of ancient merchants' houses and warehouses in various states of repair. Some have been restored while their immediate neighbours are no more than crumbling grey impressions of their former beauty. Eventually though, the city will emerge again.

Marienkirche, the main building on the New Market Square, Stralsund

Restored and unrestored houses, Stralsund

Meanwhile, around the Old Market Square, most of the buildings are so beautiful you almost forget you are standing in the pouring rain. Most are red brick gothic, dating from mediaeval times. Brick is an interesting construction material as some of these thirteenth and fourteenth century buildings are visually similar to nineteenth century neo-gothic brick buildings to be found in England, even down to the glazed brick decoration. Unfortunately a couple of GDR 1960s brick buildings on the square, replacing bombed-out buildings, are less in keeping with the original style than might have been hoped for.

Medieval and renaissance houses on the Old Market Square, Stralsund

Quiet corner behind the Nikolaikirche, Stralsund

Monument to Jewish holocaust victims in the Johanniskloster, Stralsund

Half-timbered houses in the Johanniskloster, Stralsund

Medieval town gate, Stralsund

Returning to the harbour to collect Modestine we noticed that many of the 17th and 18th century port buildings and warehouses reflected a strong Dutch influence.

Harbour office and the masts of the training ship Gorch Fock, Stralsund

It has hardly stopped raining all day and was still falling as we left Stralsund behind and headed towards Rostock, turning off towards the coast at Pruchten to camp for the night. It has been too wet to go down to the beach, just beyond the dunes, but we have wifi here and after several days unable to get access to the internet we have so many things to deal with the rain isn't really a problem tonight.

Wednesday 24th September 2008, Rerik, Mecklenburg, Germany
We recently received an email request, from the North American Space Agency, to use one of our images of the Mayan storm god, taken during our visit to Central America last winter. They needed it for an online article about hurricanes. We were rather tickled to think that our blogs are browsed by NASA staff in their tea-breaks and were obviously delighted to agree to their request. When we think back over the past summer we are led to wonder whether we inadvertently packed the spirit of the rain god Chac into our suitcase along with our souvenirs and sandals before leaving Mexico. If so, he's certainly been enjoying himself all over Europe ever since!

It rained all Monday night and all day Tuesday. We lingered during the morning yesterday, until our time ran out on the campsite wifi, and eventually decided to stay put until the rain had worn itself out and the wind, howling in from the sea, had subsided. During the afternoon the rain eased enough for a quick scamper down to the reed-fringed beach where one lone windsurfer was scudding across the water at a tremendous speed. We returned to the shelter of Modestine, read, planned our onward route and watched a DVD. All rather boring but we needed a bit of "down time" to recharge.

Bay with reeds, Pruchten

Not the Norfolk Broads, Pruchten

Nets drying, Pruchten

Typical horses head gable end found on thatched cottages from Estonia to Germany, Pruchten

This morning everywhere was transformed by sunshine! Although we would never dream of spending a couple of weeks on the same campsite with nothing around but sand, sea and sky, once the sun came out we could at least understand that others might enjoy the tranquillity. The previous day we'd thought them crazy when our neighbours told us they were there for three more weeks.

We stopped off at the nearby little town of Barth as we left. It's pleasant, clean and smart, full of bakeries and shoe shops. It also has several very attractive old buildings, a harbour and was the wartime location of the prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft 1. It has also eagerly seized upon the claim of a couple of researchers that the fabled town of Vineta was sunk, Atlantis-like, beneath the waves just offshore and has appropriated Vineta as a sort of brand-name to market itself.

Main square, Barth

Even street sculptures are red brick round here! Barth

Alms house, Barth

Harbour, Barth

We moved on towards Rostock following the coastal route, though the sea was hidden from view most of the time, either by forests or a high dyke with a busy cycle path along the top.

Just outside Rostock is the German equivalent of a shopping village with a garden centre, clothes, books, wines and food shops all bundled together and branded as a "Erlebnis Hof", a sort of rather twee shopping centre. We've never seen so many pumpkins gathered together before and it's still a month until Halloween. Already the Christmas market was in full swing with wreaths of fir cones selling almost as fast as the Weißwurst and Gluhwein.

With the usual German peculiarity concerning lavatories all the toilet doors had been designed with gaps between the panels so privacy was impossible. Which reminds me, here on tonight's campsite the window in the gents' toilet is placed so that once the light is on, anyone can monitor the use of the urinals, if so inclined. Whereas most countries manufacture their sanitary ware with discrete anonymity, in Germany toilet roll dispensers in many of the ladies toilets have an irritating character named Big Willie that stares you in the face as you use the loo! But enough of this scatology …

We bought a snack lunch of sausage and chips at the centre. It arrived swimming in an ocean of tomato sauce that must have been 90% sugar. It is just assumed everyone wants ketchup. Most German people seem to be addicted to sweet flavoured food with cake shops, waffle makers and Eiscafés doing a brisk business at all times of the day.

We parked Modestine just outside Rostock and took the tram into the centre. There are some very attractive, well restored buildings in the old town, perhaps one of the most important being the town hall, a mediaeval brick building that had been given a pink and white baroque façade during the 18th century. It looked rather peculiar with the ancient brick towers sticking up above, like candles on a pink-iced cake.

Town Hall, Rostock

Main square, Rostock

University building and a modern fountain, Rostock

Gothic brick façade of the public library, Rostock

Buildings in the main shopping area, Rostock

1960s GDR buildings showing a successful attempt to create new buildings using traditional red brick, Rostock

Rostock is yet another of the 100 plus mediaeval Hanseatic trading towns around the Baltic and North Sea. It is also an important port and suffered severe damage during the Second World War, so much has been rebuilt. Consequently it struck us as rather a long, sprawling, uninspiring city. It was the regional capital of Mecklenburg and part of the GDR until 1990; though generally Germany has done wonders in removing all possible evidence that less than twenty years ago it was a country divided.

We are working at a disadvantage during our passage through northern Germany having forgotten to pack any guidebooks. With more time and a book we could have done Rostock better justice. We only spent a couple of hours in the town before moving on to avoid rush hour in a city of 250,000 people and to seek out a campsite.

Ian has just informed me that he has been to this area before when it was part of the GDR with Hubert. We are camped on the coast just a few kilometres from the farmhouse where they stayed and explored the countryside by bike. In those days butter was rationed in the GDR and people mostly used margarine. As a foreigner Ian was permitted an extra butter ration which they shared as the margarine tasted foul. That's about all he can remember about his visit.