Confessions of a Baltic Sea Virgin
Whenever I told my friends that I had never been to Germany’s Baltic Sea before, I earned confused looks and raised eyebrows. The Baltic Sea islands are a popular holiday destination for Germans, but due to my fondness for traveling far and having lived abroad for a major part of my life, they had never been on my immediate radar before - that is, until last weekend, when my sister and I decided to escape big city life in Berlin for three days and explore the island of Usedom.
Located in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Usedom is one of the sunniest islands in the Baltic Sea - hence its nickname “Sonneninsel” or sun island - and home to picturesque seaside resorts as well as three imperial spas: Ahlbeck, Heringsdorf and Bansin, which were often frequented by the German emperors and are therefore often referred to as “the bathtub of Berlin.”
Armed with small suitcases and enough snacks and drinks for a 4-hour train ride, we headed to Berlin’s central train station on Friday morning - only to find out that our train had been canceled due to repair work on the tracks to Heringsdorf, and we were then rebooked on another route, taking such a detour that we’d only arrive at our final destination three hours later than planned. Losing half a day on a 3-day-trip wasn’t the best way to start a relaxing getaway, but why fret about something we can’t change anyway?
When we finally reached Heringsdorf, we quickly checked into our hotel and rushed to the beach to catch the last rays of sunlight. On our way, we walked through the streets of the quaint little town, where the streets are lined with exquisite well-preserved villas, mansions and houses; a truly lovely sight for sore eyes. After a short walk on the Heringsdorf Pier, we sought refuge in a restaurant that, according to our research, was one of the best in the area in terms of regional cuisine, in particular seafood.
Now, I understand that with an Indonesian mother and a German father, some people might have a hard time figuring out where we come from, but when we entered the restaurant, it felt like we had walked right into a bad movie: I swear, some of the guests stopped eating and just stared at us. Even the waitress gave us a quizzical look before leading us to one of the empty tables, while another waiter who brought our wine talked to us in very slow German, to make sure we understood what he was saying - even when we replied in German, he continued. It was only then that we realized that, compared to the other diners, we stood out like a sore thumb, just based on our looks.
An elderly man in the corner of the restaurant, who was dining with his wife, made no secret of his repugnance sitting in such close proximity to us. I was reminded of what German politician Alexander Gauland once said about Jérôme Boateng, a German football player with a Ghanaian father - that people wouldn’t want somebody like him as their neighbor. The man shamelessly scrutinizing us seemed to have similar thoughts about sharing the same space with two “foreigners.”
My sister was close to asking him: “Excuse me, Sir, have we met before? Oh, we haven’t? Are you sure? Because you keep staring at us.” It was me who told her not to - in hindsight, I wish I hadn’t. But since the food was excellent and the wine delicious, we decided to laugh away this rather awkward incident, consider this first day as over and done with and instead look forward to the next one.
We woke up early in the morning, had a cup of coffee and walked down to the beach to witness a lovely sunrise. Besides us, there was only a young girl taking pictures and a couple walking their dog - the serenity and peacefulness of this moment alone, when the sky turned orange and purple, was already worth the trip to Usedom.
After indulging in a rich breakfast, we rented bicycles for the day and explored the island. We were lucky with the weather as well: just when we left Heringsdorf, the sun came out, bathed our surroundings in warmth and light and turned the sea into a sparkling blue blanket. The bicycle lanes were filled with happy travelers, who were either cycling as well or on foot, and we made our way to Ahlbeck, the easternmost of the imperial spas. The major attraction here is the Ahlbeck Pier; it is the oldest pier in Germany and stretches 280 meters into the Baltic Sea. A platform, which was added in the late 19th century, houses a restaurant frequented by hungry and thirsty tourists.
From Ahlbeck, it is only a short ride to the border and the town of Swinemünde, or Świnoujście in Polish, home to the country’s tallest lighthouse, broad streets and one-story houses in Dutch style. On a whim, we visited the “Upside Down House”, where all the furniture is glued to the ceiling - it left us quite dizzy but made for an entertaining stop. Since I had never been to Poland before either, this trip was full of firsts for me.
We continued our bicycle tour to Bansin, the third of the imperial spas, with a picturesque promenade and a pier of its own, also passing by “Villa Irmgard”, a two-story mansion built in 1906. Russian writer Maxim Gorki stayed here for a couple of months during the 1920s to recover from tuberculosis. Since 1948, Villa Irmgard has been a memorial to Maxim Gorki. Visitors can see the rooms where he lived and worked, with some of the original furniture still intact. A permanent exhibition highlights other prominent guests of the villa and Heringsdorf.
The salt-breeze, fresh air and sunshine were perfect companions on this pleasant day. But thanks to our interesting dinner the night before, I inevitably paid more attention to the people around us - maybe more than I would normally have done. Both my sister and I agreed: we really weren’t the typical Usedom tourists and they’d often let us know, if only through looks and whispering behind our backs; when I told one of my friends in Berlin about this observation afterwards - one who had been to Heringsdorf a couple of times already - she concurred, adding that a lot of the senior travelers who you’ll find in Usedom in late summer and autumn, are regular visitors to the area. “They go there every year at the same time and have done so for a long time. And they don’t like change, they don’t like ‘intruders’ who look different.”
Be that as it may, we also had many charming encounters: the staff in our hotel was exceptionally friendly, as were the owners of the local supermarket, and when we had pancakes and coffee in a seaside cafe and were “attacked” by a host of sparrows eyeing our afternoon delicacies, a group of senior travelers sitting at the table next to us happily helped us to shoo them away.
Of course, the German Railways helped to end our weekend getaway on a more sour note with yet another delay on Sunday - but by then, we weren’t really surprised anymore. It felt ridiculously gleeful to be back in Berlin and see people with blond, black, brown and red hair, people with light and dark skin, short people, tall people, young and old.
Usedom was perfectly lovely, an island with amazingly clean beaches to rejuvenate, destress and enjoy the creations of Mother Nature - and at least now I can say, that I’m not a Baltic Sea virgin anymore. My first time may not have been as wonderful as I hoped it would be, but I’m more than willing to give it another try in the near future.