At the end of the 19th century Usedom was the beach destination for the Berlin elite. Two wars, decades of decay and a totalitarian regime later, the island in the Baltic Sea has reinvented itself. From this week onwards, tourists will be able to stroll and recreate.
They like to call themselves the Kaiser-bäder. Heringsdorf, Ahl-beck and Bansin, three historic seaside resorts on the island of Usedom in former East Germany. But it was not the German emperors who made this island famous. Already Emperor Wilhelm II regularly came to Heringsdorf to drink tea with Elisabeth Staudt in her seaside villa, according to the official lecture.
The popularity of the island among the elite of 19th-century Berlin is mainly due to writers and artists. In stories and on paintings they polished Usedom into a heavenly place in the empire. When the first bankers and speculators had built their villas there, the rest soon followed. Aristocrats, artists, businessmen.
The German emperor was not tempted to stay in a summer house or one of the unprecedented luxury bath hotels. He stayed on his ship in Swinemünde and hurried to Heringsdorf by horse-drawn carriage for tea and biscuits. For completely unclear reasons, there is now a bust of his father Wilhelm I in the garden of Villa Staudt, who was only in Heringsdorf as a child.
The old seaside resorts are full of stories. About oblique marchers and heroes, Nazis and brave resistance, about healthy socialist summer camps and GDR repression. It all blows a bit as soon as I walk into Ahlbeck the Seebrücke. The old wooden pier is 170 metres long and I turn around at the very end for spectacular views of the coastline with its beach, low dunes, stylish villas and classic bath hotels.
Not all piers are as beautifully preserved as in Ahlbeck. For example, heringsdorf’s – formerly usedom’s showpiece – was rebuilt in the 1990s with an ugly pavilion made of steel and glass.
Concrete construction and ‘Badearchitektur’
This car recalls the GDR past.
This car recalls the GDR past. © Hnas Adventure
On the 12-kilometre promenade I walk back to my location of Heringsdorf, in the early 20th century called the Nice of the Baltic Sea. The route takes you along the sea, dunes, park, villas and classic bath hotels such as the Ahlbecker Hof, Villa Oppenheim and Villa Oechsler. Fortunately, in the GDR era, the money was missing to break them down or convert them into functional holiday complexes according to socialist model.
It is clever how the architects have managed to make such pompous buildings look so light and cheerful. For this they used frivolous elements from all kinds of architectural styles: balconies, verandas, columns, wrought iron decorations, staircases and turrets. The result is called Badearchitektur.
Due to its turbulent history, the seaside resorts have not become open-air museums. The wars, the Russian occupation and the GDR era have also left their mark. For example, holiday colonies and concrete flats were built where workers who had behaved well were allowed to rest and blow out for thirteen days. Hundreds of thousands of families drove their Trabant of Wartburg across the bridge in the summer for a carefree time.
Memories of that period behind the Iron Curtain occasionally re pop between the beautiful 19th- and early 20th-century villas. Like some concrete flats at the pier of Heringsdorf or the art pavilion on the promenade. It was built in 1973 after a design by the famous GDR architect Ulrich Müther and you can still visit changing exhibitions there.
On the small piece of Usedom that remained in Polish hands after the fall of the Wall, much more concrete construction can be seen. Also because the center was badly damaged by Allied bombing during the Second World War. I visit Swinemünde, which is now called Swinoujscie. In the early 19th century all bath tourism was born here. New resorts have to give the town that role back. The atmosphere there is undeniably more Eastern European with large squares and parks, shiny new construction and neglected old villas.
With these bath cars the ladies used to be driven into the sea.
Nature and rockets
With these bath cars the ladies used to be driven into the sea.
With these bath cars the ladies used to be driven into the sea. © Hnas Adventure
Usedom owes its popularity to the sea, the beach and the bathing culture. But also the hinterland is beautiful. In the past, the nobility used to hunt here. A large part of those forests and inland waterways has been preserved, but now as a safe place for the animals. There are waterfowl, otters, beavers and also the bald eagle is back.
More than 200 kilometres of cycling route and 400 kilometres of hiking trail leads through hillcountry, marsh and nice villages like Karnin with its small lighthouse and Stolpe, which is built around a small castle. Between 1908 and 1921, the German-American painter Lyonel Feininger captured the landscapes on canvas. Millions are paid at auctions. On Usedom is a cycling route past his favourite painting spots such as the Benz mill, the hills of the Usedomer Schweiz and the long promenade of Heringsdorf.
Less fine in terms of cultural history is the north of the island. During the Second World War, the construction and testing site of the V2, the wonder weapon of the German war machine, was located here. The flying bomb brought death and deply in cities such as London and Antwerp, but claimed the greatest toll among the forced labourers who had to make it. An estimated 12,000 of them died from illness and exhaustion.
The power plant of the factory in Peenemünde is as a museum and a large part of the former base is considered a protected nature reserve where you can walk. Inside, you will learn, among other things, that the development of the Vergeltungswaffen 2 was led by Wernher von Braun, who, despite the blood on his hands, later became a celebrity in America: he was the most important man in the rocket program that brought the first man to the moon in 1969.
The German emperor made of sand.
The German emperor made of sand. © Hnas Adventure
The Second World War ended the fame of Usedom and Heringsdorf. Just as the Nazis seized houses and hotels from Jews, so did the GDR regime of individuals who were out of step. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it took a long time to determine and find the rightful owners.
But see how beautiful the weather is. On the Kaisermeile between Heringsdorf and Ahlbeck for example, or take the Bergstrasse in Bansin. There the villas on both sides of the street were built so that they all had sea views. It still is. The seaside resorts have gradually regained the allure of its heyday. We are even thinking about building a direct fast railway to Berlin. It disappeared during the Second World War, causing the train journey to take more time than it did 75 years ago.
It’s wonderful strolling through the streets of Ahlbeck, Heringsdorf and Bansin. But zinnowitz, further down the island, is also beautiful. Although the beach, the bath architecture and the wooden piers are the main attractions, there are also attempts to modernise and attract a younger audience. For example, Heringsdorf has a concept store consisting of a fashion boutique, lounge bar and excellent restaurant in one.
The sea side of the island consists almost entirely of beach. And everywhere you see the so-called beach baskets, benches of reeds with a hood that protect you from wind and sun. They were there as early as the 19th century and have remained. I see them criss-crossing the beach as I walk on the Seebrücke of Ahlbeck on my last evening. As the first stars appear in the dark blue sky, the setting sun draws an orange stripe on the horizon. Below, the water of the Baltic Sea gently rips towards the coast.
Out & Home
Usedom is 750 kilometres from Utrecht. The ICE or IC train will take you to Züssow or Stralsund. You’ll step on the Usedomer Bäderbahn that connects the seaside resorts. There are also domestic flights to the small airport of Usedom.
Anything is possible. From camping at the farmer’s office to luxurious stays in a bath hotel. The magazine slept in Hotel Esplanade Heringsdorf, partly with the atmosphere of 1896 when it was built.
Food and drink
The Fischbrötchen is the speciality of the German Baltic Coast. Tip: try the Bischmark herring, a German herring variant that is prepared with a marinade of vinegar, onions and mustard.