Sprawling over 900 kilometres, Rügen hangs off north eastern Germany’s Baltic coastline and, thanks to its endless beaches, is popular among natives for summer holidays.
Colder weather lends the island a post-apocalyptic hum. Caked in snow and with temperatures lingering far below zero, tourists were scant on the ground and almost everything was shut.
There must have been other gaggles of families and friends passing the weekend holed up in houses nearby, but being there out of season made the island feel an awfully long way away from mainland Germany.
Thanks to its popularity in the summer there are lots of beds up for grabs on Rügen, meaning finding a place for nine people to stay wasn’t too much of a problem. For this weekend, trusty accommodation website Air BnB proved fruitful, providing a refurbished post office in Neuenkirchen, 300-person hamlet towards the north of the island.
It takes just under four hours to drive from Berlin the north side of the island, a great base for taking in some of the region’s tourists attractions. For those who fancy a weekend away without a car, trains run to harbour town Stralsund, a UNESCO site perched on mainland Germany. From there, Rügen is a short bus or regional train-ride away.
The island is dotted with quirky hotspots and top of our list was the biggest of them all – Prora, an enormous abandoned Nazi summer camp.
The crescent of eight huge buildings erected on Hitler’s demand between 1936 and 1939 was intended as an affordable place to escape for up to 20,000 of Germany’s working class. It should have been, in essence, a Nazi Butlins.
Yet it was never used, overtaken by the start of World War II and afterwards abandoned. The massive structure dominates that part of the coast, yet it is infused with sadness and disappointment.
Most of the buildings were, as far as we could see, tightly boarded up. More dedicated explorers would probably be able to get in by climbing up a tree or pipe – judging from walls covered in graffiti inside, many had done so before us.
But we filed through one of the only open doors and out onto the beach just metres on the other side. Snow-covered sand and a completely deserted beach completed the atmosphere.
Most of the building is for sale, but walking around it was hard to think of a profitable use, given the remote location and unreliable weather. A youth hostel in one corner looked pretty bleak, and apart from that there was nothing.
Moving on from faded fascist glory, Rügen’s chalk cliffs in the Jasmund area are another popular site and easily located thanks to sign-posting. After marching along said cliffs, sturdier walkers can drop down onto rocky beaches and walk over the tail-ends of landslides.
The island’s crumbling edges have seen bits of cliff dropping off at almost alarming frequency and tangled trees lie dead on the shore after daring to grow too close to the edge.
Admittedly there wasn’t a great deal to do in Rügen’s coastal towns other than to scope out quaint, empty guest houses and stroll down the promenade. But in a largely landlocked country, smelling the sea, marching along the coast and feeling salty wind is a treat. Going there in the cold means the beaches are empty and the experience even more bracing.