RÜGEN, Germany—Crashing surf, salty air, scenic vistas, tantalizing local cuisines—ah, the appeal and charm of an island vacation. Think Bermuda, Capri, Maui, Tahiti, Rügen. Rügen? Few Americans have heard of it, and judging from a recent visit there, Germans seem content to keep the place as their own seaside retreat.
Our recent Friday-to-Monday visit brought us in contact with no other Americans at all—a rarity for any visit to Germany.
At about the size of the Atlantic’s Nantucket and the Pacific’s Catalina islands combined, Rügen’s 376 square miles provide an ample but manageable array of bays, quaint villages, coastline, horse meadows, and the island’s impressive chalk cliffs, which rise over 400 feet from the Baltic beaches. Rügen’s population is only 77,000, dispersed over a land area similar to New York City’s five boroughs. Malta, by contrast, crams 452,000 people into an island nation less than a third of Rügen’s size.
Over the centuries, Rügen has changed hands more often than a Christmas fruitcake. At the time of Christ, Germanic tribes lived in Rügen, but by the 7th century, they were supplanted by Slavs. In 1168, the Kingdom of Denmark took the island and held it until 1325. The Danes encouraged Germanic settlers and immigrants, who became a majority. The Germanic Holy Roman Empire ran Rügen from 1325 until 1648, when the devastating Thirty Years War ended. From that point until the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Sweden owned the island. Napoleon’s French forces occupied Rügen from 1807 to 1813, during their great march eastward. In short order, beginning in 1813, the island was possessed by the Swedes, then the Danes, and given to Prussia in 1815, at the Congress of Vienna. It has been “Germanic,” then, for the last 204 years; though signs for the island’s Swedish Fest are quite visible in June.
In the 20th century, Rügen was the unfortunate locus of schemes concocted by the Nazis and later the East German Communists. But more about them later.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the unification of East and West Germany in freedom, Rügen has benefitted from a rising tide of investments, modernizing and building hotels, restaurants, and infrastructure. The hotel we inhabited had Dubai investors, and there’s a Radisson nearby. The efficient Deutsche Bahn (“German train”) system connects the island to the mainland, allowing for links to most German cities.
We drove to the island in a comfortable Opel rented from Hertz in Berlin, staying in the seaside town of Binz, which features a range of B&Bs, upscale casinos, spa hotels, apartments, and an array of restaurants. Binz became a “spa village” in the 19th century.
Visitors to Germany are often surprised to find the variety of restaurants that are available in all cities, contrary to the stereotypical expectation of sausage, sauerkraut, and dumplings, which began to crack in the 1960s. You can still find hearty meat-based German fare, but Rügen offers Italian, sushi, Chinese, Indian, vegetarian, and of course, seafood.
Although Germany does not have as much coastline as some west European nations, its North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts are nevertheless significant. It does have more coastline than Portugal or Ireland, with a quarter of Germany’s 1,485 miles of seashore being on Rügen.
This has had an obvious impact on the island’s cuisine, which relies much more on seafood than points inland in Germany, such as Bavaria or the Rhineland. Herring and salmon are plentiful in the Baltic waters around the island, and there is a plethora of restaurants to sample the catch of the day.
In Sassnitz, the harbor offers some inexpensive options for tasty, fresh herring and salmon. Heimat and Nancy are two fishing boats anchored along the pier, where customers can order fish on a baguette while standing on the dock, with the proprietor handing over his fare after taking payment in cash. Netting prevents food or money from falling into the drink.
Gastronomical research led us to the Gasthof Kliesow restaurant in the small village of Mittelhagen. A few circumnavigations of the small village and varied interpretations of our GPS instructions turned out to be most worthwhile when we located the restaurant, which abuts the owner’s vegetable gardens. The building was a barn when first constructed in 1574. We feasted on locally caught fish, village-raised pork, and vegetables picked prior to dinner.
Our hotel in Binz backed onto a promenade that separated an attractive half-mile stretch of restaurants, B&Bs, and hotels on the inland side, from shrubs, trees, a sandy beach and the Baltic on the other. After nearly four hours of driving from Berlin, we stretched our legs on the promenade and settled in at the Gosch restaurant to eat. Gosch offers perhaps the most attractive cafeteria setting we’d ever encountered. Choices ranged from German favorites to Thai-themed entrees to Italian and seafood. I waited briefly in line for our tasty entrees while my wife went to another queue for wine and local beer.
It is impossible to find a mediocre beer in Germany. Donning sweaters on a crisp June evening, we ate outdoors with a view of Binz’s main pier and the sun setting over the Baltic. Live pop music soon drew a crowd near the dock, and we made our way back to the hotel at around dusk, 10:30 p.m. in these parts in June. With darkness came a few curious rabbits to check out the human strollers on the promenade. On the Sunday of our visit, a fireworks display was reminiscent of our July 4th celebrations back home.
In the island’s southern seaside village of Lauterbach is the Am Bodden restaurant, located in an inn of the same name. A creamy shrimp soup with mango and curry seemed more American than Teutonic. But the husband co-owner of the establishment is the chef, and he spent his formative culinary years in Colorado Springs. The soup, by the way, was savory and worthy of any U.S. restaurant.
Surely the most photographed restaurant on Rügen is the Seebruecke (“sea bridge”), a bright, airy structure built on a pier in Sellin, an upscale village. Now a favorite with tourists, locals and wedding parties, Seebruecke had fallen—literally—into the Baltic, thanks to years of neglect by the Communist East German government. After the unification of the two Germanies in 1990, President von Weiszacker visited Sellin and committed German federal resources to building the pier and the restaurant. The results have been spectacular.
Sellin itself is at least a hundred feet above the Seebruecke pier (take the stairs or elevator), and the main street offers fine restaurants, vacation apartments, and spa services.
Topography and Climate
Rügen has quite a varied landscape and seascape packed onto one smallish island. Like the Mediterranean and other large seas connected to the oceans, the surrounding Baltic has minimal tidal action and a generally gentle surf. The beaches are mostly sandy, immaculate, and nearly Caribbean in their whiteness. At the beach near the Seebruecke in Sellin, the mini-cabanas available for rent do feed into the stereotype about German exactitude. The 100 or so white cabanas we saw were all lined up in perfect queues.
The temperatures of the Baltic waters track air temperatures to a striking degree. So in July, air temperatures average a high in the low 70s, with typical nighttime lows in the upper 50s. The average water temperature is in the mid-60s. In January, daytime highs normally reach the low to mid-30s, dropping to the high 20s overnight. Water temps are in the mid to upper 30s that month. The Baltic, though, is generally warmer than the neighboring North Sea.
Visitors who might be averse to the Baltic’s cool waters (similar to Cape Cod’s ocean temps) can easily seek out hotels with heated pools. Virtually all the larger lodging establishments on the island have them.
The most noteworthy features of Rügen’s topography are the dramatic white chalk cliffs that rise hundreds of feet from the Baltic. They are reminiscent of Dover’s white cliffs in England. The Rügen escarpments are significantly taller than Dover’s, and the tops of the German bluffs are heavily forested, as is the surrounding area. Rising more than 387 feet from the Baltic, the Koenigsstuhl (Captain’s Chair) is the tallest cliff, and the paths to the top, as well as to the rocky beach below, are great for fit hikers. There is also a bus that takes visitors through Jasmund National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, up near the Koenigsstuhl. Your ticket gains you entry to the visitor center’s multi-media presentation on the ecology and various species of wildlife and fauna on the island.
The views from this cliff are inspiring, with the green and blue Baltic below contrasting with the white chalk, and other escarpments, cliffs and forest visible from several vistas.
Hotels and Lodging
As mentioned, Rügen offers a variety of hotels to please most interests and budgets. There are outstanding five-star spa hotels such as the Ceres Hotel, the Beach Hotel Rugard and the Grand Hotel Binz in Binz, and the village offers family hotels such as the IFA, where we domiciled for three nights. My wife and I shared a comfortable, two-room apartment with our adult daughter, and used a small kitchen that included a roomy refrigerator.
The heated pool at Ferienpark IFA offered sliding boards and other child-friendly features, yet I was able to complete laps, even with an aqua-exercise class underway at the other end of the pool.
Most villages offer B&B inns, with the modern Haus Arkona earning top ratings for modern accommodations and responsive service. Vacation apartments and longer-term rentals are available.
The Schlosshotel Ralswiek gives the visitor an opportunity to sleep in a castle, enjoy an on-site restaurant, stroll expansive grounds, and test an indoor pool.
Near the harbor in Putbus is Am Bodden, a family-operated hotel that offers basic but clean, modern rooms for less than $100 a night, including breakfast.
The larger towns on Rügen, especially Binz, offer Spielbanks (gambling casinos), for those so inclined. These are usually located within upscale hotels.
Visitors who are traveling in cars may want to consider hotel bargains in the German mainland town of Stralsund, another UNESCO World Heritage site, right at the bridge to Rügen.
Rügen was not a primary target of Allied bombing during World War II, so minimal civilian housing was lost. Though the East German government did erect some Soviet-style buildings, much of Rügen’s traditional housing remained intact. This ranges from castles to Victorian residences to Greek revival buildings and the brown-timbered gingerbread homes most of us associate with Germany.
The oldest brick building in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) is St. Mary’s Church, built as an abbey in 1168. The three-aisled church’s basilica impresses. There are also the inviting manor houses built for the East German state Ministers on Vilm (see below) in the early 1960s.
Much of the new hotel and related construction since reunification in 1990 seems to co-exist well with nearby residential neighborhoods.
Remnants of Evil
Many of the world’s most beautiful islands have colorful, if malevolent, histories. The Caribbean has some of the most notable seascapes in the world, yet was a center for the slave trade into the 19th century and was victimized by pirates of many stripes into the 1830s.
Rügen has the sad distinction of experiencing, in short order, the two most “total” of totalitarian regimes, from the 1930s into the early 1990s. There remain today millions of Germans who lived under stultifying East German communism, which dissolved in 1991, and still many thousands who can recall the Nazi era terrors that ended in 1945. For nearly 60 years, residents of Rügen had no experience with democratic freedoms and varying rights to private property ownership.
In the late 1930s, Adolf Hitler had a vision of a massive seaside resort with 8,000 units to house 20,000 or more visitors at a time. The structure, now mostly abandoned but standing, consists of eight blocks and goes on for 2.8 miles, with visitors’ rooms facing the Baltic, while hallways and bathrooms look inland at the forest, away from the sea.
Hitler’s purported dream was to provide seaside vacations to German laborers and their families, but as British writer William Cook observed, Prora was “designed to hammer the individuality out of German workers and reduce every individual to a tiny cog in a titanic war machine.” The construction was supervised by Hitler’s weirdly named “Kraft duerch Freude” (“Strength through Joy”) organization.
Although he built what is still the largest hotel structure in world history, Hitler’s vision was never realized, as escapees from the bombings of Hamburg, not vacationers, took the first refuge in Prora’s buildings. Later in the war, the buildings were used as a German military hospital, and then for civilian escapees from Germany’s eastern provinces, as the Soviets advanced westward to Berlin.
During the Soviet occupation after the war, Russian soldiers cannibalized the buildings, ripping out copper piping and other infrastructure that had cash value. Still later, Prora was used by the Soviets and occupied Warsaw Pact nations as a secret location for war planning, as well as ordinary military training. As it headquartered what some call a “university of warfare,” East German cartographers actually erased the village of Prora from Communist-approved maps, in an era that obviously preceded Google Earth.
In the 1950s, the Soviet Army used Prora for billeting and training. In the ’60s and ’70s, the buildings were empty and unused. In the 1980s, East Germany’s “National Peoples Army” (NVA) used the buildings for recreation. After German unification in 1990, free Germany’s Army utilized parts of Prora for training, but they departed the area in 1992. In the 1990s, a documentation center was founded in a small corner of Prora, and one of the other eight hotel “blocks” of the Prora colossus is now a youth hostel.
What remains the largest vacation hotel ever built in the world is now seeing privatization and the development of attractive sea-side condominiums.
On the still-dormant, abandoned blocks of Prora, local artists and wiseacres tried out their spray paint cans. My favorite graffito: a Star of David with the simple word “PEACE” inscribed below. Another reflection in paint was: “The only good system is a sound system.”
Prior to the current luxury condo developments, Prora had that sterile look of buildings commissioned by totalitarians who seek to minimize the individual and maximize awe of the state. Hitler’s vision was uniquely unattractive concrete, poured just next to a magnificent seascape and forest. It will be worth seeing the current “before” Prora and the “after” of upscale condos and other developments.
Following World War II, Rügen was in the zone of Germany “given” to the Soviet Union, which occupied East Germany, directly or indirectly, from 1945 to 1990. As official occupiers, the Soviets were able to mold a state more in their own (i.e., Stalin’s) image than was possible in neighboring east European countries.
Vilm is an example of the excesses of the East German regime’s 45-year run. Eventually a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Vilm (pronounced film in German) is an island measuring a third of a square mile accessible only by boat, unless the harbor freezes in winter. Vilm is a sliver about a mile and a half long from north to south.
It was a popular, inexpensive Sunday retreat in post-war East Germany, as incomes and staples were limited by state policies, and travel by ordinary citizens was circumscribed. As many as 1,000 visitors came to Vilm on warm Sundays in the 1950s, and a popular restaurant once fed more than 700 people in one day.
In 1959, however, Communist Party leader and head of state Walter Ulbricht banned all public access to Vilm, converting the pristine atoll into an exclusive getaway for himself and the ministers of the East German government. They constructed comfortable manor houses for the enjoyment of their families and themselves, and the local restaurant served only them. A police force of 12 men kept potential visitors from landing on the island. When Erich Honecker replaced Ulbricht as head of state, he maintained Vilm as an exclusive playground for the communist elite. A local patch where fresh vegetables were grown for the ministers became known as “Frau Honecker’s Garten” (Mrs. Honecker’s garden). As George Orwell remarked in “Animal Farm,” in a society supposedly marked by social justice, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Today, just 30 people are allowed to visit Vilm each day, and only then on an arranged tour that begins with a 10-minute boat ride from Putbus to Vilm. The tour guide was a knowledgeable, witty fellow, but he spoke only in German. If you go, wear durable shoes as the group will walk more than a mile and a half, mostly on dirt paths.
The odds are good that a fellow visitor can provide you with ongoing English highlights of the German tour guide’s monologues.
In an odd twist, the abuses of power by East German leaders may have helped to preserve Vilm so that it has biosphere status today. A few dozen ministers of the government certainly caused much less environmental havoc, after all, than tens of thousands of summer campers, sunbathers, picnickers, and other visitors would have caused over the last 54 years.
Elsewhere on Rügen
In 1953, a visit to Rügen by notorious East German leader Walter Ulbricht left him with frustrations that the conversion to communism he had commanded was not proceeding apace across the land, and particularly not on Rügen. Ulbricht was annoyed that many surviving hotels and guest houses remained in private hands on the island. In February 1953, he ordered the infamous “Aktion Rose” (Project Rose) initiative, where 621 private properties were confiscated and given to the so-called Free German Trade Union Federation (FDGB), an arm of the government.
Many hotel owners were convicted of “economic crimes” in kangaroo courts, and 447 of them were sent to prison, some for as long as 10 years.
In that year of Aktion Rose, tourism on Rügen came to a near standstill. Later in the decade, the FDGB controlled vacation access to then government-owned inns and hotels, rewarding workers for their loyalty to the Communist Party with privileged vacation rooms.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the East German state and unification with West Germany in 1990, some owners of confiscated properties, or their descendants, were able to gain back the hotels and inns stolen from them nearly four decades earlier.
Rügen was a historical footnote in another significant yet barely known tragedy. In January 1945, as the Allies were encircling Berlin and the war in Europe all but won, many thousands of German civilians were fleeing the Soviet invaders, trying to get to western Germany, Scandinavia, or anywhere but the east. The passenger ship Wilhelm Gustloff, with a capacity of 3,000, departed from the Baltic mainland of Germany, with the Danish-German border as its destination. Over 10,000 were jammed into the boat, nearly all of them civilians.
Without warning, a Soviet submarine launched four torpedoes, three of them landing fatal blows to the Gustloff. The official death count from the ship’s sinking was 9,343 dead, over 5,000 of whom were children. Of the 1,252 rescued from the freezing, pitch black Baltic Sea, some hundreds were taken to Rügen, where many transferred to Red Cross ships.
The Gustloff sinking remains, by far, the single greatest maritime catastrophe in history, with Rügen providing a temporary haven for some of the rescued children and other frozen but still living civilians.
Few islands offer the visitor such topographical variety, interesting cuisines, range of lodging possibilities, and opportunities to see the folly of 20th-century dictators up close and in relative quietude than does Rügen. We look forward to our next trip to the Baltic island, perhaps in winter, for even more of that valued quietude.
Herbert W. Stupp, a former NYC Commissioner appointed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, won an Emmy award early in his career for “best television editorial” in the New York market. Stupp also served in the federal administrations of President Ronald Reagan and President George H. W. Bush.