Thursday, March 6, 2008

22 October: The Königstuhl and Kap Arkona

We awoke to an extraordinary blue-and-gold sunrise over the Baltic (right). To the north the white cliffs of the Stubbenkammer headland gleamed in the pale morning light. We wandered through the glass-roofed atrium of the Kurhaus and into the older wing of the hotel in search of breakfast. We passed through a richly-decorated salon done in red and gold brocade and finally found the breakfast room, where we discovered an incredible buffet. It was hands-down the best breakfast we have had anywhere in Europe. An entire room was devoted to the buffet and we had our pick of a seemingly endless variety of hot and cold dishes (including more than a few unidentifiable pickled fish salads). Sitting at our elegantly-laid table looking out at the calm waters of the Baltic, it was not hard to imagine this place full of 19th-century vacationers here for their “summer cure.” We stuffed ourselves silly and then walked out to the pier to take in the gorgeous sea views (below). The beach was lined with more of the classic canopied beach chairs in bright shades of yellow and green, but they were all folded up for the season. (In the summer, you can rent the chairs by the hour and relax out of the sun under their striped awnings.) We wandered the quiet shopping streets for a while (failing in my mission to find an appropriate Rügen magnet) and then ambled down the beachfront promenade, admiring the beautiful old mansions and hotels.

We decided to drive out to the Stubenkammer headland to check out the Königstuhl, a 350-foot-high chalk cliff that is one of Rügen’s star natural attractions. En route we drove through Sassnitz, which seemed a bit run-down compared to Binz. We followed the rather confusing signs for the Königstuhl, located in Jasmund National Park, and ended up in a huge parking lot at the head of a trail leading into the woods. We walked a full 3 km on a forested path that must have once been a road, since the old cobbles still showed through in places. (I pictured horse-drawn carriages carrying ladies in lavish dresses through the woods to marvel at the white cliffs.) The walk itself was just lovely – it was another brilliant autumn day and the sunlight angling through the yellow leaves was simply gorgeous – but the white cliffs were a bit of a letdown. Let’s just say they have nothing on Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. To make things worse, we had to pay a ridiculous amount of money (I think it was 6 Euros each) to enter the site and we were there for all of about 15 minutes – and that was on top of a parking fee we had to pay back at the lot. We walked out onto a narrow observation area on the cliffs where we were crammed in with about forty other people, took our pictures, walked quickly through the visitor center, and left. I should note that the cliffs would probably be more dramatic if viewed from below; a steep trail can take you down to the shore but we didn’t have time to make the hike.

On the walk back, we veered off the trail to check out the Opferstein (“sacrificial stone”). Human activity in the area dates back to the Stone Age and apparently some of the people who lived here performed the occasional ritual human sacrifice. The stone itself wasn’t much to look at but someone had thoughtfully smeared it with red paint to simulate blood. Unfortunately John refused to pose as a model for my photo.

We decided that as long as we were all the way out here on the outer shores of Rügen, we might as well go a few more miles up the coast to Kap Arkona, the northernmost point in East Germany. We had to park outside the tiny hamlet of Putgarten and walk another 2 km out to the three lighthouses that mark the tip of the peninsula (photo, right; who knew we were going to get such a good workout today!). Along the way we passed another new development of pastel-hued thatched-roof cottages. We bought tickets to climb the highest of the lighthouses and were rewarded with a nice 360-degree view of the island (photo, below). Way off in the distance we could see the Danish island of Moen.

There was a sort of mini-carnival set up near the parking lot so on the way back to the car we bought a bagful of sugary roasted almonds to tide us over until dinnertime. It was 4 pm by the time we finally got on the road and we hoped to make it to Lübeck in under three hours. On the way back across Rügen we drove by some run-down apartment blocks that gave us a taste of what most of eastern Germany still looks like. They’ve obviously done a lot of work to spruce up places like Rügen but the whole of eastern Germany is still way behind the west economically.

We think we may have been among the first travelers to cross the new Rügenbrücke – as we drove across, people were flashing their headlights, waving, taking pictures, and we even saw a car go by with a TV camera hanging out the roof. We waved at everyone and smiled – maybe we were on TV tonight! On the way back to Lübeck I drove a nearly 200-kilometer stretch of unlimited, empty Autobahn at speeds of around 200 kph and managed to cut a full half-hour off our estimated travel time.

We arrived in Lübeck after dark and managed to find our hotel, the Park Hotel am Lindenplatz with just a bit more difficulty than usual. I had discovered this hotel on Trip Advisor (it was ranked much higher than the places listed in Fodor’s) and we found it to be a surprisingly nice place, located just a couple of blocks from Lübeck’s famous gate, the Holstentor. The Park Hotel takes up two restored townhouses and is decorated in a cozy modern style, with high ceilings and clean-lined wood furnishings. We checked in with the friendly gentleman at the front desk and dropped our things in our pleasant two-room suite on the ground floor, from which we could keep an eye on our car parked out on the street.

We ended up walking nearly all the way across the old city, past the magnificent Holstentor and Rathaus, to arrive at the Fischergesellschaft (Mariner’s Society), a famous restaurant that I had read raves about. John was annoyed by the long walk but it was so worth it! At first we were afraid the place wasn’t open because the entry was so dark, but the door was open and as we walked through we literally stepped back in time. We felt like we had stepped onto a movie set. The restaurant opened in 1535 and was a gathering place for shipowners and merchants for centuries (they didn’t allow women in until 1870). The cavernous room is full of long church-style pews and 400-year-old oak tables. Each pew is marked with the coat of arms of a city along the Baltic shipping routes, and each shipowner had their own pew and table. The huge oak beams supporting the ceiling sag visibly with age; huge model ships hang from the ceiling along with enormous brass chandeliers lit with real candles, and elaborate painted murals of shipping themes line the walls. We were seated along the side of the room so we had the perfect vantage point from which to absorb the atmosphere.

I was worried that it all might just be too good to be true, but the food was excellent as well. I had the classic Ostseescholle, a whole Baltic sole fried with crispy bacon and served with potato and cucumber salad, which was simply delicious. John had salmon with spinach, parsley potatoes, and hollandaise sauce. For dessert I had apple-marzipan Struedel and John had Rumtopf – vanilla ice cream smothered in rum-soaked berries. Our waiter was polite but aloof until the end of the meal, when he asked if we were living in Germany. We told him yes, and then he said, “But you are American,” and we told him our story. He said it was uncommon to meet Americans who spoke such good German and we proceeded to have a nice conversation with him. I just wonder why he took so long to open up! We enjoyed the long stroll back to our hotel and turned in, marveling over our day’s full and fascinating journey across the northern reaches of Germany.

More photos from today:

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