Adrian Bridge checks out Germany’s very own riviera and discovers that what it lacks in glamour, it makes up for in quiet beaches, old-world charm and well-priced gourmet treats
So who did get their towels on to the beach first — the British or the Germans? I came across the answer to this tricky question in an unlikely spot: the pretty town of Bad Doberan, close to the Baltic Sea and on a stretch of coastline now being heralded as “the German Riviera”.
In an intriguing little museum dedicated to the history of bathing culture in Germany, I learnt that people have been taking to the waters here since 1793, when Friedrich Franz I, the Duke of Mecklenburg- Schwerin, decided that it would be good for his health.
But they were not the first. The duke had heard that in places such as Margate and Brighton, the English were already enjoying the therapeutic effects of spending time at the seaside.
And if it was good enough for the English, it was good enough for him: at a stroke, the country’s first proper seaside resort was founded on a stretch of coast just north of Bad Doberan at Heiligendamm (Holy Dam).
The museum charts the history of Heiligendamm with illustrations of its early days as a “cure centre” almost entirely the preserve of the court, of swimsuits throughout the ages (not that during the East German era people bothered with those) and with a model of an ingenious sea cart in which ladies wishing to preserve their modesty were able to change unobserved before slipping into the sea.
There is also an early list of 17 rules for “how to bathe properly” (including the injunction to be “fearless and full of joy”).
As with the Irish Sea and the Atlantic, an element of fearlessness is useful when swimming in the Baltic (known in Germany as the Ostsee). I used to live in Berlin in the 1990s and swam in the Baltic several times. It was always bracing.
But I wanted to give it another go, particularly when I heard that this stretch of coastline spanning the northern part of the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, almost unknown to Irish holidaymakers, had been proclaimed the new German Riviera.
The German Riviera? I had heard that, at times, the buzz on the beaches in high summer on the island of Sylt farther to the west had a certain Riviera-like frisson, but here in what had been the former East Germany?
It sounded unlikely.
Albrecht Kurbjuhn, a hotelier in Kühlungsborn, the region’s largest seaside resort and a driving force behind the attempt to lure international tourists to the area, explained the thinking: “We have miles of white sandy beaches and authentic wooden piers. There are promenades framed by the Baltic and pine-tree forests; we have warm [but not overly hot] summer temperatures and on cooler days there are spectacular towns and attractions.
“We have good, well-priced food and drink. We also have space — and time. The German Riviera offers something different. Come and see for yourself.”
I suspended disbelief and took up his offer, heading out at the end of August last year with my wife for a few days of what I hoped would be sun, sea and strandkorb — time on the beach relaxing in the sturdy wicker chairs that are Germany’s magnificent contribution to the culture of the seaside (invented in nearby Rostock in the late 19th century).
The plan was to lounge in a strandkorb, read a good book, drink Pils lager and indulge in some serious people watching (if this was the German Riviera, I had visions of its being filled with Claudia Schiffer lookalikes). And then to explore.
Initial impressions were favourable. In addition to the long white-sand beach, I liked the grand old “spa town architecture” villas and small-scale hotels that lined parts of the promenade — buildings that since German reunification had been restored, renovated and given a new lease of life (many by West Germans who had headed east).
I liked the easy-going pedestrianised main shopping street and some restaurants and cafés (in particular the Vielmehr and the cake-filled Röntgen). I also liked the marina and the long wooden jetty from which, every day, the MS Baltica passenger ship set off for trips along the coast. Kühlungsborn had the relaxed feel of a classic seaside resort and it was easy to see why it traditionally attracted the great, the good and the aristocratic of Berlin and beyond.
But it hardly had the buzz of St Tropez. Admittedly we were visiting at the end of August, just after the peak season when children were at school and most Berliners back in the city. If the beach had been packed with sun-kissed young Teutons weeks earlier, it wasn’t now.
But it meant that, at times, we had those white sands almost to ourselves, enjoying long walks along the shore. Like Friedrich Franz I before us, we found it therapeutic. And for my wife, not a lover of the scorching summers of southern Europe and sand too hot to stand on, the cooler temperatures were much more congenial.
Kühlungsborn definitely has its charms, not least its extensive promenade (linking what were previously three distinct communities), and exudes a quaintness associated with a bygone era. It was reminiscent of a British resort of times past — a feeling reinforced by the frequent sound of seagulls and by our base, the Hotel Polar-Stern. This is a 100-year-old “spa town” building renovated by Albrecht and his wife Dagmar, with a bar stocking an extensive selection of single malt Scotch whiskies and a restaurant serving Angus fillet steak.
In addition to its beaches, Mecklenburg- Vorpommern is famous for its lakes and quiet rural charm. As we drove around the countryside exploring some of the newer tourist provisions — a recently created golf course (considered too bourgeois for East German communists), quiet retreats for horse riding and a country-house garden with hundreds of rose varieties — we were struck by the feeling of space and emptiness, partly due to the fact that, economically, Mecklenburg- Vorpommern has struggled since reunification and much of its younger population has headed west.
Culturally, the region contains the cities of Schwerin, with its fairytale castle on an island, and the Unesco-listed Hanseatic treasure of Wismar. Further along the coast are the wilder beaches of Darss and the island of Rügen, complete with Dover-like white cliffs.
We contented ourselves with attractions closer to hand, taking a trip on the MS Baltica (cheesy folksy music but great views of the coast) to Warnemünde, the stopping point for cruise ships and an attractive town with cobbled streets and shops selling creatively designed jewellery fashioned from the amber found further along the Baltic coast.
The feeling of stepping back into the past was reinforced when we boarded the region’s most cherished attraction, Molli, the steam train that has run along this stretch of coastline for more than 100 years.
We joined parents and grandparents with wide-eyed toddlers on a journey from Kühlungsborn to Bad Doberan, the train huffing and puffing its way through woods, forests and town and attracting smiles and waves from walkers, cyclists and the curious alike.
Younger passengers returned the waves from the plush-looking restaurant car, where salmon sandwiches and sparkling white wine (Sekt) were being served for the princely sum of ¤6 — a long way from prices of the Côte d’Azur.
The end station was Bad Doberan where, in addition to the museum on sea bathing, there is an outstanding red-brick Gothic Cistercian monastery dating from the 14th century, an atmospheric spot that attracts coachloads of cruise passengers on excursions from Warnemünde.
From Bad Doberan we headed on to the place where it all started, the sanctuary created by Friedrich Franz I at Heiligendamm. Here we enjoyed traditional afternoon coffee and cake (flavoured with local sanddorn berries) in the main bar/lounge of what is now a fivestar luxury resort and spa.
Friedrich Franz would no doubt have approved. Heiligendamm today is a very grand affair, occupying several white buildings and possibly the only place along the German Riviera that could be mentioned in the same breath as Nice.
It was here that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, chose to entertain world leaders gathering for the G8 summit in 2007 (Merkel, Vladimir Putin and George W Bush were photographed sitting in a strandkorb during a break in negotiations).
That said, no one should come to this part of the world seriously expecting it to compete with the sophistication, glamour and sheer sexiness of the French and Italian rivieras. It offers something else: uncrowded beaches, unspoilt nature and a sense of returning to a simpler, older way of life.
On our last night we sat on the balcony of our hotel room enjoying a clear view of the Plough and listened to the sounds of the Baltic. I thought back to late that afternoon when, with the last rays of the sun hitting the waves, we had headed down to the beach for a final burst of sun, sea and strandkorb.
There was a breeze, but I couldn’t resist another swim. As ever it was bracing — but I was fearless and full of joy.
NEED TO KNOW GETTING THERE
Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com) flies daily from Dublin to Hamburg, a two-hour drive from the Baltic Riviera. Ryanair (0818 303 030; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Lübeck, a one-hour drive from Kühlungsborn.
Hotel Polar-Stern (0049 382 938 290; polar-stern.com) offers doubles from ¤80 a night in low season/¤112 a night in high season. Check website for special offers.
The Grand Hotel Heiligendamm (0049 382 037 400, grandhotelheiligendamm. de) offers doubles from about ¤180 a night.
See german-riviera.com; kuehlungsborn.de; germany-tourism.de.