Poel is only a few kilometers away from Wismar, but to drive over the causeway joining Germany’s seventh largest island to the mainland is to enter a different world. It’s an island of crumbling cliffs, sandy beaches, rolling farmland, woodland and villages. Not to mention the Baltic Sea. There are fewer than 3,000 permanent inhabitants and, even with the influx of tourists in the summer, it feels relaxed and peaceful.
Poel receives its share of tourism, but isn’t brash or crowded like other areas along the Baltic coast, and definitely remains off the international tourism radar. To prove the point, fishing still has an economic role in island life. We were staying in Wismar and made an early start to spend the day on the island. You can take a boat, but the schedule wasn’t great so we drove to a remote section of beach.
The island is criss-crossed with walking and cycling trails, and we spent a morning hiking the coast and between villages, before lounging on the fine white sand and cooling off in the warm shallow waters of the Baltic. The trail signposts have animal markers painted on them, one of which is a green snake. I assumed these were fun things for families until a large green snake slithered across our path.
You don’t see many snakes in Berlin and it was a bit of a surprise. Most likely it was a non-venomous grass snake and not, as my reaction night have led observers to believe, a green mamba. The car park was just a field about a five minute walk to the beach, the sea was obscured by a thick line of trees behind the beach but when we got there we found an empty strip of sand.
It was tempting to jump in the sea, but our walk awaited and we set off towards Schwarzen Busch before being forced off the sand into the woods and open farmland behind. Skirting the coast we reached a village with a memorial to the Cap Arcona tragedy. A little know disaster that occurred just before the end of the Second World War, the Cap Arcona was one of three German ships anchored in the Bay of Lübeck.
It was believed that high ranking Nazis and SS soldiers fleeing to Norway to continue the war were on board. In reality, they were filled with concentration camps survivors. Many were Jews, but also others the Nazis despised including Russian prisoners of war. The ships were sunk by the Royal Air Force three days after Hitler’s suicide and only one day before German forces in the region surrendered.
Some 7,000 people died, and some of the dead washed up on the shores of Poel. Even though the Nazis planned to sink the ships with all on board, it doesn’t lessen the tragedy. Even here, amidst Poel’s natural beauty, it’s hard to escape Germany’s terrible 20th century history. From here we cut across fields to the village of Kirchdorf with its imaginatively named church, the Dorfkirche.
You can’t miss the 13th century church with its 47-meter high tower overlooking the village harbour. There was a small market where we could fill up on fried pollack in a bun before heading cross-country back to the coast at Timmendorf. This is the main tourist destination and the beach here was busy. We indulged in a Baltic black beer before walking to our start point and a well deserved dunk in the sea – itself a revelation.
The Baltic is the youngest sea on earth, formed only 10,000-15,000 years ago and it has virtually no tides. It’s also got very low salinity. These two things make it very pleasant for swimming. It’s also one of the shallowest seas on earth – you can literally walk a hundred meters out to sea with the water only coming up to your knees – making it very tricky to swim. We bobbed about a bit in the shallows, ate a picnic and basked in the sun. The perfect Poel day.