At the harbour, holidaymakers queued for their fish rolls and drank beer in the mid-afternoon sunshine, the air full of woodsmoke and the smell of mackerel and eel, and the sound of heavy canvas sails flapping in the breeze. There are many harbours in the former fishing villages of Fischland-Darß-Zingst, places that have long been reimagined as holiday resorts. But what makes them interesting is that on this northern German peninsula, the harbours do not open out into the Baltic Sea, but into the lagoon that separates the sliver of land from the mainland.
At the German Baltic, these shallow, brackish lagoons are called Bodden, and before the arrival of the first tourists they were the focus of activity for the sparse populations who lived here and eked out a living from the water and the land around it. For visitors today, the Bodden can be an elusive place. The land around it is flat and barely above sea level, rarely offering anything like a view. For the most part, the lagoon is lined with tall reeds that hide not only the water but also shy birds. Every so often an inlet or cove offers access to the water, where it is possible to catch a glimpse of the waves born of the Baltic winds, as sailing boats make their careful way along channels between sandbanks that stand just below the surface.
We walked out and away from the harbour, following a concrete-slab road until we reached the last of the thatched houses and their neat, manicured gardens, some of them maintained with robotic mowers, others by sheep. Now the sky opened out, blue with a few wispy clouds, the yellow fields of rape almost glowing beneath. Swallows and housemartins dived and danced, chasing the insects that rose above the fields and the lagoon beyond the reeds. Across the Bodden, on the mainland, the wind turbines turned – the only things in sight that gave us a clue as to what century we were standing in.
At the harbour there had been hundreds of people who had walked out or rode their bikes in the early summer sunshine from their holiday homes, campgrounds and hotels. But now, at a sandy inlet that allowed access to the lagoon, we pretty much had a place to ourselves. While the holidaymakers visit the Bodden mainly for the harbour and its fish rolls, or perhaps a trip out on one of the red-sailed traditional fishing boats that today wait at the harbour for a very different kind of catch, for the most part visitors to Fischland-Darß-Zingst concern themselves with the long stretches of sandy beach, facing the Baltic with its wicker beach chairs and volleyball courts marked out in the sand, and the dyke-top path straight and smooth and perfect for bike rides and inline skating.
On the other side of the peninsula, the Bodden still feels like something of a secret, a place of melancholy beauty even in the brightest of sunshine, a place that always feels distinctly of here in a way that the beaches rarely do.
Soon we would walk on, following a trail worn into the grass by those like us who find the real appeal of this landscape is when you turn your back to the sea and look inwards. It will lead us to the next village, and another harbour. More fish rolls and beer, souvenir stalls and guesthouses, the sand from the beach traipsed throughout the town and collected in the bottom of shoes and the turn-ups of trousers.
These places have their charms, as does the beach and the path along the dyke, the pier leading out above the gentle Baltic waves and the collection of huts serving up fried fish, waffles and ice creams. But when we come to the peninsula, as we do at least once a year, it is the first sight of the Bodden that allows us to feel that we have really arrived at the Baltic. That we have once again reached our Baltic, a place filled with memories of family and friends, the yellow glow of the fields and moody colours of the inland sea that separates us from the rest of the world and allows us, if only for a long, lazy weekend, to feel that we’ve escaped.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton