Rügen on the Baltic coast is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.
By Andy Round
Mathias Schilling commutes to work by boat. It is one of the benefits of owning your own private island. In just three speedboat minutes he can cross the channel that separates his island from Rügen where his restaurant is based.
‘Myself, my wife Nicolle and my two-year-old son Oskar are the only inhabitants on Öhe with the exception of 120 head of cattle,’ grins Schilling. ‘What is it like to own an island? Hard work. We have a farm, we breed cattle, we have a restaurant and we work 24/7.’
Öhe has been in Schilling’s family since 1350. In 2007, at the age of 25 Mathias took over ownership and by 2011 he and his wife had opened Schillings’ Gasthof, a restaurant that naturally enjoys a strong reputation for fresh island beef.
It is a journey that has seen them featured in German television reality shows and made them stars of gourmet magazines. ‘We have sunk every euro we have into the farm and restaurant. We could probably sell the island and retire. But why would we do that? This is our life.’
The Schillings’ restaurant is just one of a collection of unique experiences visitors can enjoy while travelling along the 574-kilometre coast of Rügen. From natural wonders such as chalk cliffs, endless hiking trails and ancient beech forests to man-made attractions including 18th century theatres, seaside resorts and an abandoned Nazi holiday camp, this 900km² island on the Baltic Sea is extraordinarily diverse.
Yes, a Nazi holiday camp.
The five colossal six-storey concrete buildings of Prora stretch almost five kilometres along pristine Rügen beach. ‘The project was part of Hitler’s ‘Strength Through Joy’ programme. It was designed to accommodate 20 000 people but building stopped at the outbreak of the war,’ says island tourism executive Gudrun Krüger. ‘Today it’s empty, except for a hostel and museum; it has become a bizarre tourist attraction. There are always tour coaches visiting.’
It is easy to see why Hitler wanted his camp here. Rügen’s 85 kilometres of beaches have been attracting visitors since tourism was invented. Along the manicured promenades of elegant resorts such as Sellin and Binz, the elaborate holiday homes of wealthy sun-seekers date back well into the 19th century.
These gentrified villas, mansions and hotels are an unusual fusion of just about every architectural style you can imagine from French and Italian Renassiance to Gothic Art Nouveau. Loaded with ornate balconies, towers, gazebos and filigree flourishes, this confection of styles, all freshly painted white, gives the impression of being on an intriguing film set. But make no mistake! These resorts have the same air of exclusivity that infuses Biarritz in France, San Sebastian in Spain or anywhere on Italy’s Amalfi coast.
Still, there are endless contrasts to Binz or Sellin on Rügen. From the port terminal of Mukran giant ferries make their way to Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania or Russia. At Sassnitz, colourfully dressed tourists jostle for space in cake shops and queue up at fishing boats in the harbour for fresh herring snacks.
At the end of the day, the sunset over the tiny tranquil island of Vilm from the yacht harbour of Lauterbach is stunning. It is easy to see why this particular island became such a popular private retreat for heads of state during the time of the German Democratic Republic.
‘The nature here is unique and was very popular with 19th century romantic painters such Casper David Friedrich,’ says Susann Flade of Rügen’s Jasmund National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site. ‘These are the only chalk cliffs in Germany and the beech forest surrounding us is one of the last of its kind. Once these resilient trees stretched across Europe all the way to the Carpathian Mountains in Romania.’
Only authorised cars are permitted into the protected forest and like much of Rügen’s coastline, the park is perfect for hiking, biking and getting up close and personal with nature.
Follow the landscape from the fossil-filled cliffs of Jasmund and the communities becomes increasingly rural. In the district of Putgarten thatched cottages nestle in sheltered fishing coves such as Vitt and on the most northern point, Cap Arcona, are two lighthouses: a classic tubular tower built in 1902 and the earlier model it replaced, a squat brick building designed by Karl-Friedrich Schinkel in 1827.
‘It’s the oldest lighthouse on the Baltic coast,’ says Ernst Heinemann, enjoying the fresh air of the 19-metre-high viewing platform. ‘It’s now a popular venue for weddings. Down there you can see plaques couples have left with their notes of devotion and love.’
Heinemann gazes at the horizon. He has served the district as mayor for 23 years and grew up on Rügen. So, what’s his favourite place on the island? ‘I love it right here,’ he smiles. ‘Over there are the remains of an old Slavic cult site from the 9th century which was used to pay homage to the gods. Today I think it is still a mystically beautiful place.’
Theatre of dreams: ‘We have about 300 performances a year here,’ says Peter Gestwa, director of Rügen’s famous Putbus Theatre. ‘It was opened in 1821, but had to be restored in the 1990s. Look up, the wooden cupola is magnificent.’ The theatre was built as a focal point of Putbus, a town German Prince Wilhelm Malte founded as his main residence in 1810. Today the building is one of the highlights of a Northern European theatre tour that features famous buildings in Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
On the right track: One of Rügen’s most popular tourist attractions is the narrow gauge steam train ‘Racing Roland’. Travelling at a stately 30kmph, this century-old locomotive connects 10 stations between Putbus and Göhren.