Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Insel Rügen Experience

Last week we had a holiday on the enchanting island of Rügen. You can see my holiday snaps here -photos of Rügen (give it a moment to load, and then remember to click for bigger - same as with photos on this page).

Rügen is an island (with small satellite islands) just off the North Germany coast in the Baltic (Ostsee), and has an outline like a Rorschach test.


It is made up of chalk cliffs, joining spits of land with long beaches and sand-dunes, and lush green forests and farmland. It really is a spellbinding mixture of all the best bits of Cornwall, Anglesey, Brighton, and Beachy Head, though all on a smaller, more intimate, scale. I don't know why it hasn't been picked up by British holidaymakers, because it is everything you remember from childhood days by the sea and without the present-day UK reality of a wave of chip cartons, drunkenness, amusement arcades, and seedy discount shops. In fact, we didn't overhear a single English-speaking voice the whole week. Though on the other hand there wasn't the mix of folk from all countries of the world that makes e.g. Berlin so vibrant. We only saw one Turkish kebab Imbiss all week (in Putbus) and they didn't even do falafel. If you like smoked fish or matjes herring though, you were in fish heaven. Rügen is like a smörgåsbord; a buffet of small nibbles full of variety linked by a theme of the sea. Enough of the simile - we're vegetarians after all.

We hired a car for the week so that we could take our cat Cassie on holiday with us. Things didn't get off to a good start as we reversed into a car in the Herz Rental car-park, but we soon got the hang of driving on the right side of the road.

Kunstof Salsitz, Lohme, Insel Rügen
We stayed the week in an apartment at the Kunsthof Salsitz at Lohme on the edge of Nationalpark Jasmund. They didn't mind us holidaying with our cat, and indeed had one of their own. Cassie was quite impressed too, though we didn't dare let her out until later in the week. The last time she had been in a car she had ended up a thousand kilometres away in Germany so on the whole she was pretty cool about it.

The Kunsthof ('art courtyard') was most individual; it was adjoined and owned by a sculptor/artist and the apartment was appropriately quirkily designed with a crazy-marble floor and artwork on the walls. The grounds too were laid out with interesting sculptures around every corner:

One of the sculptures in the garden of the Kunsthof Salsitz, Lohme, Rügen
The Kunsthof Salsitz proved to be a great choice, ideally located for rambling along the cliff-tops and beaches and only a short walk into the village of Lohme with its small harbour and spectacular sunsets.

Sunset over Lohme harbour

Sunset over Lohme harbour II
Around the coasts of Rügen there are numerous large granite boulders in the sea or on the beach. These are called 'der Findling' in German (plural 'Findlinge'), which is also the word for 'foundling' as in 'an abandoned child'. This is appropriate because what they are, are boulders that have been carried away from their native rockbeds by glaciers, then just left behind when the glacier changes course because of an obstacle (such as the cliffs of Jasmund peninsular). Lohme has the fifth largest Findling on Rügen, and it is named the Shwanenstein or 'Swan Stone'. The reason for its name is this: Children are told a fairytale that the babies of Lohme are brought to their parents by the stork in Summer, and the swan in Winter. Up until that time they are hidden in the Schwanenstein and emerge from a crack down its side. Of course. We were also rather sceptical that there would be any swans on the Ostsee - do they live on salt-water? During the week we were proved totally wrong.

der Schwanenstein
Probably the best walk from Lohme is East along the 'Überuferweg' (upper coastal path) through the forest, with tantalising glimpses of the sea, to the Königsstuhl, a famous protruding cliff of brilliant white chalk.

We set out from Lohme along the path at 7am on the Sunday morning. The guide book hinted that in high Summer this walk would be like joining a very long queue of other searchers after the Königsstul, but this early in the morning in September we didn't see another soul.

A seat to rest on along the Überuferweg
It would be a marvellous view from here  ...
if it wasn't for the trees in the way
When we arrived at the summit of the Königsstuhl we found that to get to it you had to enter the Jasmund National Park Visitors' Centre, or the 'Erlebniswelt Kreideküste' as it is called. This translates as the 'Chalk-Coast World of Experience', and admission was 6€. Luckily it wasn't open yet and we just wandered in and stood on top of the Königsstuhl viewing area. We missed out on all the interactive exhibitions and cinema that the Erlebniswelt offered, but frankly anything that has the word 'experience' in its title puts me off; if you want to experience something then actually go up to it and see the real thing, not through some hi-tech, virtual reality interface. Well, maybe the centre is amazing and a good place to visit if it is pouring down with rain, and at least it isn't a theme park like the tacky Land's End Experience in Cornwall is (or was - it might not be there anymore. Hopefully).

On the top of the Königsstuhl
At night, as a spectacle for visitors, they used to set fire to balls of brushwood
 and roll them down the side of that cliff opposite. You had to make your own
entertainment in those days.
Anyway, even standing on the viewing platform you can't really experience the Königsstuhl. It is like coming out of the woods and finding that you are stood on top of the Eiffel tower - great views, but what does the tower actually look like? Well, for that you need to find the steps down to the beach below, starting in the NE corner of the visitor centre car-park. They are free to go down, but be warned that there are over 400 wooden steps and walkways zig-zagging down a forested ravine. OK for going down, but a killer if you want to climb back up. Thankfully we didn't want to retrace our steps, and continued the rest of our coastal walk at sea-level around the Jasmund peninsular to Sassnitz.

The name 'Königsstuhl' means 'the chair of kings', and the legend is that to prove themselves worthy of kingship over the tribes of Rügen, candidates had to climb the cliff from the beach to the very top. Well, here is the view from the beach of the Königsstuhl:

Der Königsstuhl from the beach
Not only is it a sheer 118m in height, but that white stuff is pure chalk that crumbles away when you try and get a hand-hold. It would be like climbing something the length of a football field that was made of slightly wet flour.

Der Königsstuhl from further down the beach
The walk around the peninsula is totally stunning. You go around one headland to discover an amazing view of white cliffs present itself, then go around that headland and discover an even more beautiful vista, and then the next, and then the next, each more breathtaking than the last. It really did bring a tear to our eyes, the views were that gorgeous. The sea itself was unbelievable, with the chalk making the waves an incredible milky turquoise.


The chalk cliffs of Jasmund Peninsular, Rügen

Chalky, milky sea around Jasmund Peninsular
More chalky Jasmund cliffs
Further chalk cliffs on the Kriedefelsen coast
Yes, more chalk cliffs.
We couldn't get enough of seeing them, they are gob-smackingly amazing.

The beach walk was relatively easy, with just the occasional tree-fall or chalk-slide blocking the way. And here's a fashion tip for goths and heavy metal fans - don't take a walk along this beach dressed in black unless you are going for the look of the Fields of the Nephilim riding into town after crossing the Nevada Rad-lands. Let me point out again that eveywhere is made of crumbly, powdery, very white chalk.

Tree fall on Jasmund beach
One thing though, at least you don't need to keep an eye out for the tide cutting you off; the tides in the Baltic are hardly noticeable. Unnoticeable also were the other people: I believe we have visited the shores of remote lochs high in the middle of the Skye Cullin Mountains that were busier. You can well understand why this coast caught the imagination of the great German Romantik painter Caspar David Friedrich.

Eventually we came to signs of people again, and the lovely harbour-town of  Sassnitz where we had a cooling Bier and a meal beside the harbour.

Sassnitz Old Town
Sea-front at Sassnitz
Sassnitz Harbour
More of our Rügen holiday coming soon!

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