Baltic Blues

This summer I got to see two of the most important large bodies of water in the history of European trade: the North Sea and the Baltic. The North Sea lived up to her reputation for grey ferocity, as seem earlier. The Baltic? Was a bit different.

Recall what I said earlier about none of the major port cities being on the sea, but hiding in estuaries and up rivers for protection from the elements and from hostile neighbors (Vikings, Swedes, Danes, Swedes, Swedes, pirates, Swedish pirates)? The major Baltic Hanse cities were Lübeck, the Queen of the Baltic, Rostock, Stralsund, Wismar, Danzig, Greifswald, and Stettin. They were called the Wendisch Hanse as opposed to the German Hanse, because of the greater percentage of the population that were Slavs.  That didn’t matter to the people doing business. What mattered was business.

Looking “up the skirt” so to speak of the organ in the Cathedral in Rostock. The prince’s box is directly below the organ, making me wonder if he heard anything at all or just felt the vibrations.

Because there is so much history in the hanse cities, they suffer from the same problem as other old places in Europe, if you are trying to do construction. As they say in Cologne, “The first man to find a wall, cries.” Below is what you really do not want to see if you are trying to construct a new building.

If you look closely, you can see Odd Things of Archaeological Interest sticking out of the ground. These will halt construction for at least six weeks, longer if they prove to be Really Interesting.

While trade was good, it was very good, and a lot of the funds from that trade went into church construction and church decoration. We’ve seen that in Bruges, and here, in an altarpiece from the 1300s. The top figure is St. Anthony (note the “Tantony Pig”) and then St. Margaret of Antioch. In standard iconography, St. Margaret is either standing on or beside the pagan king’s dragon. Not choking the daylights out of the beast and preparing to throw it past the priest celebrating the mass and into the congregation

St. Anthony and Friend

Don’t mess with a Holy Virgin!

But Rostock is not on the Baltic exactly. To see the water, we first went to Stralsund, farther east, and then north to Rügen.

“Ostsee” or Eastern Sea is what the Germans call the Baltic. We stayed in Stralsund, there in the lower left corner. The photos were taken in the northern bulgy bit, around 2:00 if you imagine a clock face on the map.

Which is a lovely island covered in tourists, with a national park that is full of tourists. Did I mention that lots of Germans like to get away to the Baltic Coast during summer? And tourist season had not really started yet.

Storm? What storm?

The weather proved to be almost ideal, cool in the morning with light breezes and mild skies. We found the parking area for the visitors’ center, and took a shuttle bus through some very dark woods to the gates of place. And discovered that after storms a few years ago had caused part of a cliff to fall into the sea, the main viewpoint was closed off and a new visitors’ experience center had been constructed a safe distance away from the sea, with funding and supervision from the World Wildlife Federation. And a hefty entrance fee. However… However, there is still a trail through the woods that takes you to some other sea-views, where you are on your own without the crowds or the lectures and if you fall off the edge it’s still your own fault for not acting like a responsible adult. You can guess where my group ended up.

That first step is a little bit steep.

Why lens-cap tethers were invented. No, I was not right on the edge of the cliff.

The Baltic is one of those seas that Americans don’t worry too much about, at least until the Russians start making noise and losing subs or having subs pop up in other people’s waters. But it was a critical trade access right into modern times. By land it was two months trip from Riga, Latvia to Lübeck if all went well. It only took a week or so by sea, and a kog carried as much cargo as forty-four wagons, and only need a twelve man crew.

So peaceful and quiet. It was about 75 degrees F, with a light breeze to keep the bugs away.

A chunk of that white cliff (yes, chalk and limestone) fell off in a storm in 2008, leading to changes in access to that part of the park.

The island also has beaches, but we were not interested in doing the beach scene per se, and since there were not that many tourists, many of the beaches were not really “ready” for visitors. Our goal was to see the North Sea and the Baltic, and so we did.

I do agree with how Germans “do” beach visits. You own or rent a Strandkorb, literally a beach-basket, really a large wicker chair with a built in sunshade that you can move to keep the sun and wind off, a padded seat, storage cubbies for drinks and books and food and towels and hats and so on, and high sides to block both the wind and your view of the tens of thousands of other people on the beach. Sort of the perfect introvert’s beach experience. By large, I mean it is slightly narrower than a love-seat.

How people of pallor do beaches. This one is for rent. Book early. Very early.



5 thoughts on “Baltic Blues

  1. That beach basket contraption is interesting. I’ve seen various beach contraptions over the years in the US, Mexico, and the Netherlands, and I think that German one you’ve shown tops them all. Don’t get me a wrong, a beach chair and an umbrella can do the job well enough in some circumstances, while a large sun shade well anchored does very well in most cases but can be a hassle to put up or take down, if they’re allowed at all. But the German approach looks both more comprehensive and less hassle.

    • They are heavy, as you can imagine, but it must work well, because the design is pretty much unchanged since the late 1800s, as best I can tell.

  2. Yep, mind that first step!!! I’ve seen those chairs stacked cheek by jowl and the little bit of privacy WOULD be a good thing! Re the Prince, I hope he didn’t lose any fillings when the organist got a ‘bit’ overenthusiastic!

  3. I visited Rostock in 1990. I believe it was in June. The wall had come down, and the wife of a German friend and co-worker had cousins in the former East Germany, near Laage, that she had never seen. They loaded up their car with gifts and went to visit. When he came back he told me “You have to see this!”

    So I probably became the first NATO officer to visit the DDR airbase at Laage, which hosted a navy regiment and an air force regiment and a lot of barely employed Luftwaffe personnel. That’s a whole ‘nother story.

    As part of our trip we made a brief trip through Rostock. The thing I remember about it was that by that point a few of the “Ossies” had started spiffying things up – but just barely. In the very center of Rostock there were a renovated store buildings with western-style displays. But only in the very center. The moment you walked down a side street everything was still East German commie gray and worn-out looking. The thing that struck me about Rostock and all the other towns we went through was the lack of renovation that had persisted for years. No incentive to make things better. If a building fell down, being Germans they would sweep it into a neat pile, but it would then sit there for years. All the towns were like this. The West German government immediately paved the main roads with asphalt, but the moment you turned off onto a secondary, pothole city. People were just starting to take initiative to move forward, and the first thing they all did was paint the fronts of their houses. Not the sides or back, just the fronts, at that point.

    We went to a nearby beach, didn’t stay long because it was cold and windy, not an untypical June. There were few people, and one lonely cart vendor selling ice cream and such. We bought some and asked her how things were under the “previous management.” She just shrugged and said something like, “Meh.”

    Sounds like Rostock has progressed since then, happily.

    • It has. There’s still a great deal to be done, but things are getting better. There’s now a nice pedestrian shopping street just off the Hauptplatz that has several blocks of restored buildings and shops, and roads off there with new businesses. Also, several nice-looking hotels have opened up. A large strawberry farm/theme park for younger kids and families has opened five kilometers or so east of the city and looked quite busy when we drove by, and there is now a ship museum where you can look at reproductions of historic boats near the start of the industrial docks. And there’s a shop near the cathedral that sells nothing but gummy bears in all kinds of flavors. They are really, really good. Really good. And (alas) they don’t export.

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