Escaping the city: weekend trips to Rügen

baltic sea camera sunset over the ocean

In another attempt to practice the art of “slow travel”, and not get in an aeroplane in search of exotic adventures, I went for sun, sand and slightly sustainable instead. Yes, this summer, after more than five years in Berlin, I finally got around to visiting Germany’s famous Baltic Coast, the Ostsee, as some people (German ones) call it, otherwise known as Brighton for Berliners. In fact, I actually ended up going to the same island, twice, doing pretty much the same trip in about 10 days and travelling back to Berlin for about three days in between. Why? Well 1) because I am a ridiculous person and not good at organization and 2) because a trip to the Baltic Coast is the perfect weekend trip from Berlin. It is SO NEAR. (How did it take me five years to get there? Well, see point 1))

More importantly, I only saw a tiny bit of the island of Rügen and the weather was pissy 50% of the time, but it was still pretty much all-round aceness. So everyone should go.

Rügen Part 1

The first trip took place right in the middle of this summer’s two heatwaves, when it was rainy, windy, and cold, with a few little splashes of sun in between. The weather was so schizophrenic, even on the one whole sunny day we had there, at one point the sky went dark and there was a massive insane hailstorm. But there is of course one obvious advantage to clouds, at least broken ones: sunsets. This is the one that greeted us on our first evening (after it had stopped drizzling).

sunset at rügen in august after rain

apocalyptic clouds at ostsee rügen

last rays of august sun on rügen The next two days were mixed too, meaning we saw the beaches greyish and ominously dark…

grey ominous clouds over rügen

And also some Simpsons style sky…

strange clouds at rügen

But it wasn’t enough to stop people walking down to the water and jumping (most of them naked, we are in former East Germany after all) into those (really big and crashy) Baltic Sea waves.

swimming in the freezing baltic sea in august

The first night we just parked in a road near the beach and actually slept in the car that we came in (Please don’t do this, apparently this is not legal. But it only cost us 30 euro when we got caught, so, actually cheaper than a campsite...)

The second night we stayed in the aforementioned expensive campsite which was only about 10 minutes from a beach, in a place called Thiessow in the most south-easterly point of the island. This sign lists the different types of beach you can find on this part of the island: nudist, dog, and “textile”. A difficult choice. Take your pick.

textilstrand ostsee rügen sign

Here are some of Rügen’s vigorously fenced-off and really quite lovely dunes.

sand dunes on rügen

This trip also took us to the most northerly point of the island, the lighthouse at Cape Arkona. The weather was the grossest. I’m posting one picture and that’s it. Here.

kap arkona in the wind and rain

Right? We got back in the car and left quite soon after this assault of wind and rain and grossness. FYI, this is kind of what Germany (almost always) looks like from the motorway.

wind turbines in germany

Rügen Part 2

The second trip was to the neighbouring corner of the island (the most south-westerly point), to a place called Zicker. Only three days later, but the weather was slightly different.

rügen cornfield

rügen zicker strassenschild

One day I took a walk down to the very very southern-most point of the southern-most part of the island, to a place called Palmer Ort.palmer ort pfad schild

After about two kilometres of pretty much deserted road, heading towards the sea and about 100 metres from the beach, you run into something really cool (if you’re into this kind of thing) and completely unexpected.

verlassene sommerhäuser rügen

abandoned houses rügen

Abandoned houses! A whole group of them! Inspired by the beauty that is Abandoned Berlin, I tried to capture them in all their crumbling, faded glory (and failed). They were incredibly cool though, pretty much open still, and with lots of retro fittings (see 70s print curtains at the windows).

verlassenes haus rügen

abandoned houses rügen

The beach when I finally got to it was pretty nice too. Yes, amazingly, this is Germany.

Palmer Ort Rügen in the sun

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Walking down to the very tip of the island and seeing the waves lapping on each side was pretty special too. Access to the island is usually over a bridge, not via ferry – so it’s easy to forget you’re on a piece of land surrounded by water, Rügen just doesn’t feel like an island most of the time, and it’s massive too. Here you were reminded of the amazing geography of the place.

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Getting to Rügen from Berlin

I’d recommend getting the train from Berlin to Rügen – it doesn’t take much longer than driving, even with the regional trains, as getting out of central Berlin can take forever in a car.

There are direct (!) regional trains to Stralsund from Berlin Hauptbahnhof that take about three hours. From there you can change to another train depending on where you want to go on the island.

When I go again I’ll head for Sellin with its huge and crazy pier:

sellin pier rügen germany

Photo by xuxxy on Flickr

And to see the ancient ruins down by the beach in Heiligendamm:

heiligendamm abandoned houses rügen

Photo credit:
PercyGermany on Flickr

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Original Unverpackt, Berlin: Shopping with no-added plastic

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Photo credit: Jendrik Schröder for OU

According to the German Environment Agency, there are up to 140 million tons of waste at the bottom of oceans, floating in the water, or washed up on beaches.

This shocking statistic is one of the first things you’re confronted with when you visit the website of Original Unverpackt, Berlin’s first packaging-free supermarket, that this month celebrated its first year anniversary. Original Unverpackt means something like “Originally Unpackaged” in German, and the concept is simple: they offer the same products as a normal supermarket, but they buy them in bulk, and the customers bring along their own jars, bottles, boxes and bags to put their items in (or they pay a small deposit and borrow some containers from the store). Fruits and vegetables are all free of plastic packaging, and dry stuff like rice and cereals are in big vats where you can take as much as you want to fill your container.

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Photo credit: Katharina Massmann for OU

It’s all really simple actually – the only thing you have to remember to do on your first visit is to weigh the empty containers before you start, so that the weight of the container can be removed from the total weight at the till, allowing the cashier to work out how much of each product you’ve actually bought. (I forgot to do this a couple of times on my first trip, but the workers there were really nice, and very patiently helped me empty, weigh and then refill my beloved mason jars).

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Photo credit: Jendrick Schröder for OU

And at the end of it you end up with a whole load of groceries, minus the added plastic, and for a similar price.

This is what a quick trip to a normal supermarket in Germany usually ends up looking like (particularly because I usually try and buy organic things, which until recently at least, were for some reason always packaged in more plastic than the non-organic ones, example: bananas in a “bio” plastic bag). And yes, I went to Netto rather than an organic supermarket, where lots of things are sold in reusable glass bottles, so it ended up looking pretty horrible and package-y…

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And this is what my shopping looked like after a trip to Original Unverpackt.

shopping from original unverpackt berlin

I was surprised that they even had things like tofu (pictured in the jar in the middle), that was locally produced, and lots of different sweets, nuts, cereals, spices and herbs.

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Photo credit: Jendrik Schröder

The only thing I couldn’t find that I usually buy every week was soya/rice/almond milk. I’m assuming this is hard to source directly in bulk from a supplier, and maybe it’s something that they’ll start stocking in the future. They had normal milk though, and they even sell beautifully-designed (and very expensive!) glass bottles for you to take your liquid stuff home in.

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And I was surprised that they had vodka on sale…

held vodka original unverpackt berlin

…and even red wine!

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I went there on a Saturday evening (just before they closed for the weekend – German supermarkets aren’t open on a Sunday), when supermarkets are usually really busy, and Original Unverpackt was no exception. This shop was busy. It was almost difficult to move around. And it wasn’t just the kind of people you might expect to be shopping in a place like that (women in long hippy skirts and men with manbuns maybe?), but a completely average mix of people.

inside original unverpackt berlin

I was annoyed for a second at first when I realised that they didn’t have some of the things I wanted, particularly when it came to fruits and vegetables, but then I realised that that is actually exactly how a supermarket with fresh produce should work. If their shelves had been full half an hour before closing time, they would have had to throw away a whole bunch of stuff, just so that I could have the luxury of buying that one pomegranate, or whatever it was (I can’t even remember, that’s how important it was).

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Photo credit: Katharina Massmann for OU

Okay, so I have to admit I haven’t been shopping there regularly since – it’s just too far for me to travel for a few things – and I tend to get most of my food from the sort-of-dumpster-diving organisation known as Foodsharing (an article about that will follow some unspecified time in the future). Doing your main supermarket shop here requires dedication, like any lifestyle change does. You need to plan ahead and have your containers ready, and be ready to transport your really heavy shopping home (there’s extra weight of course, because glass jars are way heavier than flimsy plastic trays and cardboard cartons). You basically need to be ready to not be as lazy as I am.

Despite all that, going there is definitely an eye-opening experience, and a really good reminder of how much waste we as consumers create in our day to day lives. And although I’m currently too lazy to go all the way to this shop to buy my groceries, there are other things I try to do when I do end up in a supermarket, as an attempt to minimize the amount of plastic I end up taking home. Like trying to avoid putting my vegetables in a plastic bag when I buy them – either choosing a paper one, or just putting them loose on the conveyer belt (even though this means the cashier and the other customers look at me really strangely while my tomatoes and all other round things roll all over the place), and choosing things in paper packaging rather than over plastic (like really simple bags of oats, rather than buying the fancy pre-mixed müsli in a plastic bag). Actually, even just writing this article has inspired me to go back. After all, is there a better sight in the world than a mason jar full of goodness?

Photo credit: Daniel Lee on Flickr

Photo credit: Daniel Lee on Flickr

For an interview with the owners and a look around the shop in more detail, check out the video below

Berlin: A day trip to Liepnitzsee

leipnitzsee berlin trees forest

I love to travel. Usually as often and as far away as possible. I must have covered thousands of miles in the past few years, on long-haul flights, shuttling from one side of the planet to the other. When booking flights I usually tick that little box that asks me if I’d like to offset the carbon emissions by paying a few extra euro, even though I know that it might just be a trick to make me feel better about all the fuel that’s being burned to get my body from one country to the next, a sort of economical absolution of my sins. And I do feel bad about it, I really do. So recently I’ve been trying to take trips to discover the country that I live in, taking ground transportation only, and travelling by train, bus, hitchhiking occasionally, or just hopping on the metro and seeing where it takes me.

I’m lucky that I don’t have to go far to find beautiful places: the Brandenburg countryside (the area surrounding Berlin) is a mass of forests, rivers and lakes. If you live in Berlin, or you’re just visiting, one suggestion for a really great summer day trip is to pack a picnic and take the train to Liepnitzsee, one of the most beautiful (and accessible) lakes.man swimming in liepnitzseeliepnitzsee swimmer jetty stegliepnitzsee water wasserThis lake isn’t exactly a secret anymore, but if you walk for long enough around the edge of the water, you should be able to find a quiet place to sit. It does take slightly longer to get to than lakes within Berlin itself, such as Schlachtensee or Müggelsee, but it’s worth the extra effort. The forest around it isn’t bad to look at either.

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Don’t forget to check out the shops in Ützdorf selling really old German romance novels like this (Yes, one of the price labels is still in deutschmarks).

begnadete hände buch

To get to Liepnitzsee, get the s-bahn to Bernau (with your bikes) and cycle the remaining 15 km on the nice flat bicycle road R1. If you don’t feel like cycling, go to Bernau and then catch the 903 bus to Ützdorf and walk the last bit from there.