Position: 54°10’53.6″N 12°05’48.9″E
NOTE: This entry starts filling in what we did for two weeks between leaving Laboe and reaching Denmark.
Leaving Laboe and taking advantage of the dominant westerlies it took two days to cover the 80 miles to Rostock. A thunderstorm blew in a little south of us and encouraged us to pull over and anchor for the night. The Baltic is shallow. Waves whip up fast, then settle back down again almost as quickly. Tucking in behind a sandbar and the shoreline gave us as much protection as we could have wished for should the storm have turned our way. Within 30 minutes of arriving, the local sailing club spawned foilers, windsurfers, and a small flotilla of cruising yachts. Many of whom sailed over to wave at us while admiring Aleta.
Rostock, in the Lände of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, fell under Soviet-led East Germany from 1945 to 1990. Prior to that the Prussians, Swedes, Slavs, and Holy Romans had all controlled the region. Vorpommern, is part of the old Pomeranian voivodeship, or duchy. I knew Pomerania only as the place where fluffy yappy lap dogs must have originated. It’s the same logic I used to figure out that Dalmatians must have come from Dalmatia. Whatever my high school history lessons lacked in content was made up for by training in critical reasoning.
For decades in the 18th and 19th century this part of the Baltic was the go-to holiday destination for aesthetes, intellectuals, and barons of industry. Long white sand beaches, baroque houses, and a relatively mild summer climate drew the crowds in. It still does today. Cheap Mediterranean vacations may have distracted northern European holidaymakers from the region for the past 30 years, but with reunification its historical attractiveness is being appreciated anew. Climate change brought a brutally hot summer to the Med this year and I think that will help redirect tourists back north in the future.
A viable shipbuilding industry made Rostock a prize for the Russians when they captured it. Not as valuable as Gdansk, of course, but a manufacturing centre, nevertheless. A place deemed important enough to be mismanaged by Soviet central planning. All that came to an end in 1990 when the slow, steady transformation to tourism started. At the time the wall came down, East Germany had about 16.4 million people living in it while West Germany was home to 66 million. A result of steady depopulation after the end of World War II. Today, even at the height of summer, the place still seems quiet and remote.
I contacted my Dutch friend Jan for advice on where to go and what to see locally, at least as far as the Polish border. His experience caravanning in the area was invaluable. Plus, his recommendations aligned neatly with Carol’s research. Despite the robust public transport system, we opted to hire a car to get a better sense of the place. With Aleta safely box-moored at the Hohe Düne Hotel Marina at the mouth of the Warnow river, we hopped on a local train and headed to Rostock proper to collect a car.
Alighting at the main station you walk down wide streets lined with trees and tram lines. It isn’t hard to imagine well-turned out men in top hats and women in bustles treading the same path 130 years ago. The old city’s south entrance is guarded by the Steintor (stone gate), finished around 1577. Built in the Dutch Renaissance style, its tall slender spire doesn’t quite fit with either traditional Dutch or German designs of the period. It is its own thing.
The RAF bombed the dickens out of the tower in 1942 and it was entirely rebuilt between 1950 and 1956. It is one of the few landmarks in the city to be fully restored by the penurious communists. Just inside the gate are two large bronze griffins that showed up in 2016. They are just controversial enough that they inspired the name of a local American football team, called the (wait for it) Rostock Griffins.
Another 200 metres up the road finds you in the Neuer Markt. Looking around, you would be forgiven for thinking that you had somehow been teleported back to Holland. The marketplace buildings are all in the classic Dutch style, with stepped façades, shutters and flower boxes. The open brick plain had a dozen or so market stalls selling staples like vegetables and honey. Then to further confuse us, we found a stall run by two Dutchmen selling big wheels of Gouda cheese. Never refusing a free sample, we tried a mild middle-aged cheese, an tangy-er older one, and a zippy chili infused one. Each was tastier than the previous. We bought three thick slices of each one that amounted to an entire kilogram’s worth.
Right behind the square stands the imposing Marienkirche, completed in 1265. This too had strong Dutch overtones. Constructed of red and brown bricks outside, inside the whitewashed walls and rows of wooden pews were consistent with the Calvinist style of churches we’d visited in Holland. Similarly, 16th century family portraits of local landed gentry looking dour in their sombre all-black outfits and frilly white collars lined the columns and vestibules on both sides of the nave.
In a Catholic church the stages of the cross would hang where these portraits are. An impressive organ dating from 1770 has 5,700 pipes and 83 registers. An extensive restoration is planned, so please send your euros. The main attraction (for secular humanists), however, was something much more laical. A gigantic astronomical clock, or uhr, predicts the phases of the moon, stars, length of day and other celestial phenomena. Built in 1472 it still functions. In 2018 the calendar was updated with a new one valid until 2050.
Stepping back for a moment after leaving the church, I scratched my head. Why was everything so Dutch? Making our way east from Kiel had already got me thinking about the Baltic and its history. I realized that I knew almost nothing about this part of Europe, other than what I learned watching Barry Lyndon. The chasms in my knowledge of European history lie firmly at the feet of my high school teachers. Even attending the University of Chicago Lab Schools didn’t spare me the American obsession of teaching the American Revolution each year for four years. I have been adding depth to the vague thumbnails of world history I acquired in my teens ever since.
Speaking of education, Rostock is home to the oldest university in continental northern Europe. Aside from book learning, the institution gives the city a steady supply of young baristas to work in the many cafes and bakeries. Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize winning author, also hailed from Rostock. In the photo gallery there is one of the Mann family tree.
Follow the Money
Turns out that while the Romans, and Slavs, and Swedish, and Prussians came and went, the real cultural imprint on the region was made through good old commerce. Up to this point I thought the Hanseatic League was a footballing fraternity. I was wrong. It was a medieval confederation of towns and merchant guilds in a broad swathe of northern Europe operating from the 12th to the 17th centuries.
At its height it stretched from Holland all the way to Novgorod in Russia. Ships of the League were quick and well-armed and dominated trade in the Baltic during that time. Trading houses, or kontors, were set up in every large commercial centre, including one in London. The reach and wealth generated by this early transnational organization goes a long way towards explaining why the architecture in Tallin looks so similar to that in Rostock and Rotterdam. The League began in Germany and spread out in both directions. Perhaps it was the Dutch who were influenced, not the other way around.
The lingua franca of the outfit was Saxon, today’s Middle Low German, and the roots of Dutch. With a common language, currency, architecture, educational institutions, fashion, religion, and joint defence forces, it isn’t surprising the broad culture of a trading organization dominated that of the fissiparous political classes with their fragile, mutable borders. Money, or the promise of it, changes behaviour much faster than dogma.
Barry Lyndon is one of my favourite films. Any story about a lusty adventurer wandering Europe during the Seven Years’ War in the 1750s would be attractive to a rover and reenactor like me. It isn’t perfect. What movie is? Ryan O’Neal does his best but only towards the end of the film does he finally embrace his character. The rest of the cast, cinematography, and story is magnificent.
 Reenactor? Moi? Mais oui! For several years I reenacted the English Civil War (in the UK) playing the role of pikeman and rake. One weekend I cast off my falling bands, threw myself forward 100 years and joined a regiment of red coat reenactors dressed in surplus uniforms from Barry Lyndon’s costumier. The day consisted of lots of marching around and enduring some heavy cannon fire before retiring to the beer tent.
Contrasted with the more physically engaging technique of wielding a 16-foot-long pike in your enemy’s direction and dressing like D’Artagnan, I’ll take the defence of the King any day. I fought for the Royalists because of their lively fashion sense and bawdy humour. For those of you suffering from presentism, I was willing to overlook Charles’ whole divine rights policy thing because he quite literally lost his head over it.