Thursday, March 6, 2008

21 October: Hamburg to Rügen

It was Sunday morning so we decided to splurge on breakfast at the hotel (a whopping 22 Euro per person, but at least they had an elaborate buffet and a mouth-watering menu of eggs made-to-order). I had eggs Benedict and John had scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. We didn’t roll out onto the road until 11 a.m., but one has to indulge a little at a 5-star hotel, after all!

Today’s agenda was a leisurely drive from Hamburg to the former East German resort island of Rügen. We knew it would be a stretch to get all the way to Rügen on this trip, but I had heard many good things about it and I thought it would be nice to finally be able to say that we had ventured into the former East Germany. I mapped out a route for us that would take us north towards Lübeck, east past Wismar, and north to Rostock on the Autobahn, then we would veer north to Ahrenshoop, a tiny village on the Darß peninsula, a curved slip of land that juts out into the Ostsee (Baltic Sea). I had seen a picture of Ahrenshoop in the “My Favourite Deutschland” Mercedes calendar that John was given when he picked up his B-Class last year, and ever since I have been saying “I want to go there.” It looked so peaceful, with its windswept beach and quaint thatched-roof cottages.

The drive into East Germany was blissful thanks to the gorgeous new Autobahn (West German tax dollars at work!). The rest areas were so new that some of them weren’t even open yet and it looked like they had just planted the landscaping. We crossed the old border somewhere east of Lübeck; it is now marked only by a sign along the freeway. It was exciting to finally see signs for Berlin and even Poland as wee headed further east. The drive took us through gently rolling countryside as we skirted Lübeck, Wismar, and Rostock, stopped for gas in Roggentin, then headed north towards the Darß peninsula.

We arrived in Ahrenshoop in the early afternoon and the first thing we noticed as we drove into town was all the thatched-roof cottages, including a brand-new residential subdivision in which all the houses were painted cheerful shades of periwinkle, orange, yellow, and green. I wish I knew more about this ancient form of northern architecture – the roofs are simply beautiful constructions, with rounded corners and crossed wood beams at the peaks that are carved in the shapes of animal heads. We parked in a visitor lot next to a Frischemarkt supermarket that also sported a thatched roof. In fact, most of the buildings in town – old and new, commercial and residential – had thatched roofs, which I thought was very cool.

We took a stroll down a tree-lined promenade past more thatched-roof vacation cottages (now mostly shuttered up for the season) and out to the grassy bluff overlooking a long stretch of smooth white beach. A few dozen striped beach chairs were scattered across the sand and several families were out for their afternoon walk (photo, right). We followed a trail up the beach back towards our car and, without realizing it at the time, I took a picture of the very same cottage that is pictured in our Mercedes calendar (photo, above).

Back in the car, we crossed the Darß peninsula, which is mostly a nature preserve protecting an ancient stand of beech-juniper forest, then returned to the mainland and continued east to Stralsund, gateway to the island of Rügen. We had to follow an elaborate detour to cross the old bridge over to the island; above us we saw hordes of people walking on the brand-new suspension bridge, which was apparently being opened this weekend.

The barren, windswept island of Rügen has been a mecca for artists, writers, and vacationers since the railroads began bringing visitors to its shores in the mid-19th century. The island’s major resort centers are Sassnitz, Binz, Sellin, and Göhren, and I had booked us a room for the night at the Kurhaus Binz, described as the “grand old lady of the Baltic Sea” in our guidebook. The drive across Rügen’s empty countryside on lovely tree-lined roads was simply blissful; it actually reminded us a lot of northern Michigan. We finally arrived at the seaside village of Binz around 5 pm. We have never been to Michigan’s Mackinac Island, but I immediately made the comparison based on pictures I’ve seen – Binz is all about grand Victorian hotels and shops, all painted out in crisp white with elaborate gingerbread trim. We were pleased to find that the Kurhaus Binz was among the grandest of them all, and the interior was every bit as lavish as the exterior. We had a bit of trouble navigating ourselves to the hotel entrance because Susie kept trying to take us around to the front, which is directly on the beach, but we got a nice tour of Binz in the process. We brought out bags into the lobby, John parked the E-Class in the subterranean garage, and we were shown to our spacious and elegantly-appointed room, done in ocean-inspired tones of yellow and blue. John commented that it had a very “American luxury hotel” feel to it, unlike any other hotel we have stayed at in Germany. From our balcony we could look east to the sea, where the peach glow of sunset was just visible under a thick bank of gray clouds.

I decided to take a stroll out to the pier to see the last of the sunset (photo, below) while John stayed inside to watch the final Formula 1 race of the season. It was quite chilly and windy, so I didn’t stay out long, but I did walk a ways down the beachfront promenade to check out our dining options (the hotel’s restaurant menu looked interesting but it was very pricey). I talked John into having dinner at the casual, modern Fischküche nearby because they were showing the F1 race on a largescreen TV. There were hardly any people in the restaurant; Binz is obviously a summer-oriented resort and it was nice to be there when everything was quiet. I had the Pfannefisch platter on special, with steinbutt, perch, and a third kind of fish, scattered with tiny poached shrimp and green onions. John had three kinds of smoked fish with Rösti-style potatoes. For dessert John had a sabayone cream with berries and hazelnut ice cream and I had a nut-filled pancake concoction that was simply delicious!

Photos from today:

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