Wednesday, 24 April 2013

From the beach to the wood

If Sunday had dawned in such good form that it felt as though spring were finally with us, Monday could have been mistaken for summer.

For the second day running, I was up early and down to breakfast pretty much as soon as it opened.

Well fed, I headed out into the sun and back to the charming railway station, passing me old friend Otto von Bismarck on the way.

At the station, I was tempted by a bottle of something declaring itself to be 'Fürst Bismarck Wellness Emotion". Given that the only product that I could think of that was called 'Fürst Bismarck' was vodka, this was intriguing.

It contained mineral water, with mango, trauben (grapes) and "Kräuter-geschmack" – 'a herbal taste'. And it was not unpleasant, although the presence of sugar and various additives means it wasn't really as healthy as it perhaps pretended.

And so to Travemünde. Just 30 minutes and 3€ stood between me and the beach.

That’s right – the beach.

After a month of scrutinising the forecasts in detail, I had packed a case that contained enough layers to keep me warm in the Arctic – and indeed there were patches of compacted snow that we passed on this journey to serve as a reminder of the only barely departed winter – but all I wanted was to cast off clothing and feel the sun on my skin.

A very old lighthouse.
The beach was blissfully quiet; strandkörbe standing quietly, waiting for visitors to arrive.

I rolled up my trousers, took off my Birkies – and stepped out onto cool, soft sand.

A slow wander later, I realised that a few of the strandkörbe were available for rent. I hired one, as the cloud cleared further and the sun climbed higher and the Baltic took on an ever more beautiful green-blue hue.

Forget the high culture – this was simply paradise.

Not that I did forget the culture. It took me a couple of hours to wind down enough to sit still for more than a few minutes, and eventually concentrate on a book. But I just about managed it.

The warmth on flesh was amazing. “On flesh”? It seemed to be worming its way straight to the bones, thawing me out all the way through.

A few other people were around, but the biggest noise came from the gulls that shrieked and squawked as they dove at each other.

A little patch of heaven.

A family nearby stayed in bulky outerwear as they sat in their strandkorb and the small children played.

An older woman stripped off to her underwear.

An elderly man walked along the water’s edge in briefs, his stick in hand.

Bathing might not be without some risks to health – the area has plenty of old, decaying munitions on the sea bed.

I pulled my trousers up further and sat there in my Venice t-shirt, watching the ferries putter in and out, and the vast blue canopy above, and feeling the sun brush aside the winter inertia.

Travamünde is at the mouth of the river Trave and began life as a fortress built by the Duke of Saxony in the 12th century.

In 1329, it was bought by Lübeck for the princely sum of 1,060 Lübsche marks as a way of securing the sea entry to the city itself.

A seaside resort since 1802 and still Germany’s largest ferry port on the Baltic, it also has the oldest lighthouse on the German Baltic coast, dating from 1539.

It became a very fashionable resort, a German St Tropez, with the smart, belle époque casino overlooking the sea (now a smart spa and hotel), where gamblers included Dostoevsky, and a regatta that Kaiser Wilhelm II competed in.

For Thomas Mann, he declared it was "a paradise where I have undoubtedly spent the happiest days of my life".

Almost inevitably then, the town features in Buddenbrooks: first when Tony spends the summer there to escape an overly-enthusiastic suitor. And later, there’s a description of a family outing when they order vast amounts of fish and shellfish for a lunch.

I knew what was on the menu for my own lunch – well, approximately.

At something past 1pm, it was hunger that drove me from my strandkorb. That sea air had given me a real appetite.

The day was such that, when a few metres along the promenade I found a rather smart hotel, the Strandschlößchen, advertising lunch in the garden in front, it wasn't a difficult decision to make.

Time for the first al fresco meal of the year.

A very large sole.
With the sun beating down on my neck, sparrows jauntily hopping around and making a joyful noise, and yellow butterflies struggling to get over the clear, Perspex screen dividing this space from beyond, I took up a menu.

A recurring theme. My German is better than many other Brits, but it is far from being superb.

Surprise at my making even a basic effort was as nothing to the surprise when I insisted that a German menu would be fine (I do the same in France).

But food and menus is one way to easily improve your linguistic skills.

With the aid of my delightful waitress, I selected the sole – a whole specimen from the Baltic itself, which she swore was as perfect an example of local food as I could have found anywhere.

It came with a garnish of either bacon or shrimps. I opted for the latter.

It arrived with bread and a quark spread, a bowl of salad and a bowl of boiled potatoes with parsley.

Never mind that – the fish itself was huge!

And oh my, it was tasty. It was good. Let’s be honest – the ingredients of the salad were fresh only in grown in a polytunnel sort of sense, and essentially as tasteless. Given the winter, it’s hardly likely to be anything else, really.

But that fish was perfection.

I wandered after that, working off the food in the most gentle of fashions.

And after a short while, I found myself in Travemünde proper, the old town, where the pilots used to live.

The main drag, along the water, is very much a resort, although it seems to be primarily a resort for elderly visitors. The beach earlier had seen a few younger couples with very small children, but that was as young it got.

There are little streets in the town, with smaller houses and a smaller church than in Lübeck, but you can still catch a reflection of the city.

And then, since the forecast was for storms and I was wearing only sandals and not carrying a hat or brolly, I headed for the station.

I got slightly lost and ended up asking for directions from an elderly gentleman who seemed completely spooked by my question and toddled off at speed, himself asking another gentleman something a few paces on.

And after I too had asked the second man for directions, I found myself walking through a small wood with vast, skeletal trees soaring above, crows making a racket all around, their circular nests visible everywhere, and just a few hints that we were in April and not February.

The echoing sound of the birds was like nothing I have ever heard.

It was just the tiniest hint of the German woodland/forest and the power that it exercises over the German psyche. Andrew Graham-Dixon's series on German art is fascinating on this.

Into the woods.
We have nothing like it in the UK, having long ago either let our woods and forests be razed or enclosed.

Seeing large numbers of trees now seems very striking to me for the reason of that scarcity.

The fairy tale quality of it was not been hindered by the sight of that first elderly gentleman haring off up a path into the wood, looking so small beneath the towering trees.

I found myself following him most of the way, as though I were stalking him.

And then, back at the station, another old man came to peer over my shoulder as I bought my ticket, informing me that he had tickets for two to Lübeck and did I want to go with him? I politely declined.

It was almost certainly entirely innocent, but that is where, being a solo traveller, you have to exercise some particular care, I think.

Travemünde may be a slightly mixed-up place now, with a vast, rather ugly tower block dwarfing the nearby former casino, but it nonetheless made me want to do was explore the German Baltic coast more.

And to find more days like this one.

Later, having done a little run around the Altstadt to pick up a last couple of souvenirs, I sat outside a café near the Rathaus, listening to a busking violinist play the adagietto from Mahler’s fifth.

According to Rough Guides, Lübeck can seem “terrifyingly cultured”. Terrifyingly?

Nothing terrifying about it all – and hardly as unrelentingly high-brow as that comment might suggest. As if to prove that point, a few seconds after the adagietto had finished, a lad rode past on a bike blasting out something far less classical from speakers mounted behind his saddle.

But perception is nine tenths of the law, so to speak, and I was about to head for somewhere that nobody would dream of describing as “terrifyingly cultured”, even though culture is something that it has in abundance.

So, next up – Amsterdam. But first, all I had to do was get there.

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