When I saw that the hotels on Germany’s Baltic Coast were reopening on May 25 after a two-month shutdown, I faced a real dilemma. Should I write a news story about it? Or book a room?
Don’t tell my editor, but I went for option two. This was my first chance to get out of Berlin since coronavirus struck, and nothing was going to stand in my way.
As it turned out, I was right to act fast. Thousands of others had the same bright idea, and hotels filled up with incredible speed. When we arrived on the coast, it was already heaving with tourists enjoying their first seaside holiday since the start of the pandemic. I’d rarely seen Germans looking so happy.
We had booked a short stay in a village that has long been on my bucket-list — Born auf dem Darss. Its picturesque thatched cottages, with their carved wooden doors and ornamented gables, are justly famous. The area around it is a cyclist’s paradise and it has one of the best beaches in Germany. I could hardly wait.
But how to get there? Born is hard to reach, if, like us, you’re car-less. We ended up taking the train from Berlin to the beautifully restored Hanseatic town of Stralsund and cycling 60km to Born — tricky in places, especially when the bike path suddenly disappeared and we had to share a road with a bunch of German petrolheads shouting insults at us.
The route does, though, take you through the charming seaside town of Barth, fields dotted with poppies and cornflowers and right across the Fischland-Darss-Zingst peninsula, flanked by the Baltic Sea to the north and west and a series of dreamy “Boddens” or lagoons — complete with cranes and thick reed-beds — to the south.
The area is remarkably untouched, and for this we have East Germany to thank. At its very last meeting before German reunification in 1990, the GDR cabinet created five national parks, one of them encompassing the Boddens of West Pomerania. As a result, the lagoons and beaches avoided the mass tourism that has blighted other parts of the Baltic coast.
Still, the Boddens live from tourism. So it was a blow when, on March 16, the German government closed down all hotels for private tourists until further notice, to stem the spread of corona. Restaurants would be forced to shut their doors at 6pm — a week later they were shuttered altogether. In April, overnight stays in German hotels declined by 89 per cent, their biggest drop since records began.
However, as the numbers of new infections steadily fell and the pandemic eased, Germany’s states began to ease the restrictions. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the north eastern state that includes Born, was one of the first to act, announcing in early May that its hotels could reopen to non-locals from May 25, in time for the Whitsun holidays. That was my cue to bash the phones.
Now Germany has gone further, opening the borders this morning to arrivals from EU countries and the UK, while also dropping its warning that German citizens should avoid travelling to those countries.
The travel industry is delighted, even if, for once, the relative international obscurity of places like Born and a strong domestic market have proved a blessing. Yves Scharmberg, a tourist official in Born, says bookings for June are actually up on last year, and most accommodation is booked out for July and August, Born’s busiest months. Germans, worried about the Covid-19 risk in places like Italy and Spain, are increasingly opting for staycations on the North Sea and Baltic coasts.
But the mood remains tense, he adds. “Nothing can compensate for the loss of earnings in April and May. Restaurants are also taking a financial hit because they have fewer, more spaced-out tables.” Plus all staff have to wear masks, which is hard in a hot kitchen, he says.
There are similar worries elsewhere in the country. Ingrid Hartges, head of Dehoga, the trade body for German hoteliers, told Reuters last week that strict social-distancing rules would lead to massive declines in revenue and higher costs in the sector. Bookings were up in German resorts, but “business travellers are still staying away”, the conference trade is dead and there’s a “lack of international guests”.
“It’s still a long way from business as usual in the hotel industry,” she said.
In our hotel in Born, the Walfischhaus, the pandemic was barely in evidence — though some rules had changed. Breakfast buffets were out; instead, waitresses wearing face-masks brought us individual glass jars filled with jams, chunks of herring in mustard sauce and yoghurt with rote Grütze — traditional red-fruit jelly. It was all delicious.
Meanwhile, we enjoyed the pleasures of the Darss peninsula, especially the cycle-ride through pine forests to Weststrand, the nearest beach to Born. With its massive, romantic dunes and Windflüchter — rows of trees twisted into bizarre shapes by the wind — this was a revelation. Then there were the great local restaurants, especially Peterssons Hof Cafe in Born, with its freshly caught zander and cod and cakes flavoured with Sanddorn (sea buckthorn).
Our journey back to Berlin was less strenuous than the trip there, a 45km cycle-ride to Warnemünde, through Ahrenshoop, home to an artists’ colony founded in 1890, and the busy seaside resorts of Wustrow and Dierhagen, with a detour to a spectacular rhododendron park in Graal-Müritz. Then it was back on the train with a smoked halibut sandwich and a piece of peppered mackerel, oily but delicious, to keep us going till Berlin. Freedom had never tasted sweeter.
Guy Chazan is the FT’s Berlin bureau chief
Germany opened its borders to arrivals from EU countries and the UK this morning, June 15 (with the exception of Spain, from where arrivals will be allowed from June 21). The Walfischhaus hotel in Born auf dem Darss has doubles from €140 including breakfast. For more on visiting the area see born-darss.m-vp.de and mvp.de
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