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Beyond the sea

Julian Tompkin
September 29, 2015

Locked behind the Iron Curtain for nearly half a century, the pristine Baltic Sea peninsula of Fischland-Darss-Zingst has since re-emerged as one of Germany's prime tourist destinations - but not without a price.

Fisherman Siegfried Tornow and his son Andreas in Zingst. Copyright: DW / Julian Tompkin.
Image: DW/J. Tompkin

Far northern Mecklenburg-Vorpommern can be as equally confounding as enchanting. Pastures of golden rapeseed meander beyond the horizon, the bucolic undulation only interrupted by the battalion of wind turbines churning indefatigably, in what is the region's most potent symbol of modern economic progress.

Luxury cars jostle for position on the narrow and serpentine laneways, overtaking unhurried convoys of tractors and rusting Trabants. Birch forests skirt idyllic villages of thatched-roofed cottages that time seems to have long forgotten, while only a few kilometres away vast industrial complexes stand in ruin.

We're on the remote and rugged peninsula of Fischland-Darss-Zingst, driving towards the Baltic Sea. Once part of the Swedish-Pomeranian crown, this peninsula has been seducing sun-seeking tourist for centuries - renowned for its therapeutic waters and pearl-white sands.

But then, as the Cold War escalated to nuclear proportions, the Iron Curtain was drawn shut, locking the peninsula and its beloved beaches deep behind. Of course this region remained a popular tourist destination within the GDR, most notoriously as a centre for FKK - or free body culture, celebrating both nature and nudity.

But with little investment the serene villages and pristine beachfront of this 45-kilometre stretch of land remained largely untouched, as if locked in a time capsule.

When the Berlin Wall finally tumbled the locals say you could hear the convoys of Mercedes and BMWs thundering down the dilapidated autobahn from a hundred miles away - Westerners hungry to explore this alien terrain and perhaps snatch up a piece of prime real estate.

A naked man dips his toe in the water on the Baltic Sea coast in Zingst. Copyright: DW / Julian Tompkin.
At least one person is keeping the free body culture movement alive on the Baltic Sea coastImage: DW/J. Tompkin

"We decided to travel to Zingst right away," Hildegard Hoffmann says, of the most populous village on the peninsula. Born near the Baltic Sea, in the then Prussian, now Russian enclave of Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg) but living in West Berlin, Hoffmann had been in the throws of purchasing a family holiday home in France when the Wall fell. Suddenly she found herself driving north instead, arriving on the mysterious peninsula in the summer of 1990 and soon after purchasing a property.

Hoffmann describes her return to the Baltic Sea as highly emotional; a symbolic homecoming and a reunion of deep psychological significance to greater Germany.

"This was an unknown and forbidden country for us West Germans," she reflects. "But this sea belonged to all Germans. There is a real reunification of German people on the beaches and in the water each summer."

Today Mecklenburg-Vorpommern ranks in the EU's top 20 most-visited tourist destinations, alongside blockbuster regions such as the Canary Islands, Paris, Catalonia, Provence-Alps-Cotes d'Azur, London and Tuscany. The region has miraculously been able to withstand the pressures of discount air travel and package holiday tours to the warmer environs of the Mediterranean, continually attracting loyal domestic holidaymakers with its promise of pristine wilderness and a profound sense of serenity.

Mixed fortunes beyond the sea

But while its tourism industry is lauded as a post-GDR success story, in truth Mecklenburg-Vorpommern remains a state undergoing an all-too public existential crisis. Cobbled together from the remnants of the once mighty Prussian state following the Second World War, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern suffered a brutal shock with reunification - blighted by an obsolete industrial sector and an uncompetitive farming industry.

The roar of the Mercedes and BMWs thundering down the autobahn were only downed out by the sound of Trabants making a hasty exit for the more prosperous west and south of the country. The abandoned factories of the hinterland indeed tell a grim tale.

A traditional cottage in the municipality of Wieck in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Copyright: DW / Julian Tompkin.
This traditional cottage in the municipality of Wieck comes complete with an ecletic collection of gnomesImage: DW/J. Tompkin

Official figures put the mass exodus at three hundred thousand since 1990, a staggering figure for a population of just over 1.6 million. Today Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is the most sparsely populated state in Germany, and one of its most economically underperforming, with an unemployment rate nudging 14 percent, compared with 7.4 percent nationally. 'Ostalgie' - or nostalgia for the bygone GDR epoch - isn't merely an endearing sentimental notion here. For many, reunification was the beginning of the end.

"Fishing has become 90 percent worse since reunification," Siegfried Tornow says, loading a fresh catch of herring into ovens for smoking. Replete with grey beard and a worn fisherman's cap, Tornow is one of only three commercial fishermen still in operation in Zingst - down from 40 at the time of reunification.

His makeshift shop, wedged between a Subway store and a luxury hotel, has a small but steady supply of customers, ordering anything from smoked herring to fresh Baltic Sea cod, perch, flounder, eel and turbot.

"Before we had no trouble and prices were good," Tornow says, clearly perturbed and flanked by his son Andreas, the third generation of family fishermen and probably the last. "First came reunification, which was hard, but now the EU is making it really difficult. The quota of what we are allowed to fish is decreasing every year. But the costs are always increasing. It's becoming impossible for small operations like us. People come to holiday here for the ocean but most of the fish sold in restaurants comes from abroad."

Tornow gazes out upon the waters he's fished almost every day for 55 years and takes a deep breath. "There was more community, before reunification. Now it's each to their own - it's an elbow society. You have to battle to survive, otherwise I wouldn't still be working at the age of 69. But young people don't want to do this sort of job anymore, and I don't blame them. There're only three of us left, including my son. Once we stop that's it."

A traditional house in the municipality of Wieck in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Copyright: DW / Julian Tompkin.
Tourism has boomed in the region, while the farming and fishing industries have witheredImage: DW/J. Tompkin

Riding the tides of change

Driving west from Zingst, through Prerow - the epicentre of free body culture tourism during the GDR times - is Ahrenshoop, arguably the most picturesque village on the peninsula. Home to an artist colony since 1892, Ahrenshoop's reputation is intrinsically tied to art, and what painters refer to as its unique light. The town enjoyed a privileged status and a modest level of artistic freedom during both the reign of Hitler's Third Reich and the GDR and, unlike Zingst, has resisted the temptation of mass development.

"Each village on the peninsula has its own approach to the drastic changes that have taken place here since reunification," Ahrenshoop mayor Hans Götze explains, from his own sunlit art studio. "There was a strategy in Ahrenshoop for a balanced development. We wanted to maintain the triad between healthy nature, a historic town structure and the relevance of the arts. That's our recipe for success."

Back in Zingst, three labourers from nearby Poland are enjoying a cheap meal of fried fish and chips in the quaint harbour that faces onto the estuary of the Western Pomerania Lagoon Area National Park - migratory home to the largest crane population in Europe.

"I came for six months, that was four years ago," one says, refusing to give his name for fear of losing work. He throws back a glass of sandthorn liquor, made from the bitter orange berry that is ubiquitous in this region. "It's 'investment, investment, investment' - this town isn't recognisable anymore, from what it was."

Industrial ruins east of Zingst in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Copyright: DW / Julian Tompkin.
Since reunification, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has been blighted by an obsolete industrial sectorImage: DW/J. Tompkin

The figures are telling. With a population of just 3,200 Zingst now offers 15,000 guests beds and boasts over one million overnight stays per year - a drastic transformation of the once sleepy fishing village. And while tourist numbers are levelling out, the building boom here shows little sign of abating.

"It's changed completely," Hildegard Hoffmann says, recalling her first night on the peninsula back in 1990 and being served little more than a plate of potatoes in one of the village's only restaurants. "Many people did not believe that the GDR really had come to an end. We were confronted with curiosity, with stiffness, with anxiety and there was still espionage. Some people hoped capitalism would be overcome."

Capitalism may theoretically have won the day but it remains a divisive issue in this land of immense contradictions - a land where GDR-era campsites stand alongside luxury hotels, charging anywhere up to 500 euros a night for a room.

The sun lingers for a brief moment before plunging dramatically beyond the waves of the Baltic Sea. Locals and tourists have gathered at the tiny beachfront Zuckerhut bar to watch the daily spectacle, and enjoy the dark and gut-warming beer that's ubiquitous in these parts.

"It's true, there have been great, irreversible changes here," the bar's manager, Stefan Meilecke says. "But one thing will never change - I still have the best office view in the world."

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