Germany has a small coastline in proportion to its land size. The few seaside resorts found along the North and Baltic Seas are therefore highly prized by the Germans. One of them is the Fischland-Darss-Zingst Peninsula, on the Baltic coast.
This 45km-long peninsula belongs to the Nationalpark Vorpommersche-Boddenlandschaft and is a prime wetland area which attracts many bird species and other wildlife. Situated a 2h train ride from Rostock, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, this popular destination is a must-see for nature enthusiasts who enjoy a picturesque blend of nature and culture.
A RICH BLEND OF SCENERY
Woodland, moorland, meadows, bogs, lagoons, dunes, white sandy beaches and salt marshes compose the diverse landscape.
Pines and European beeches dominate the woodland vegetation, infusing great contrast into the 5,800 ha local forest―the Darßwald. The reddish trunks of pines warm up the colors of the understory and the curious shapes of beech trees evoke an enchanted forest. In parts, this daunting scenery is magnified by the presence of dark, shallow waters that reflect trees, grasses and mosses like a mirror. Oaks and birch trees are also widely present in these woods, especially in swampy areas.
The dense forest abruptly ends to give way to a white, sandy beach that never seems to end in the horizon. Few waves disrupt the tranquility of the tideless Baltic sea. Along the Fischland-Darss-Zingst Peninsula, the water is so clear that one could assume pollution is foreign to this young sea―the world’s youngest―born at the end of the Ice Age (10,000-15,000 years ago).
In fact, the Baltic sea faces severe environmental challenges due to human pressure since the early 20th century. Three main stressors are to blame for the deterioration of local ecosystems: hazardous substances, overfishing and eutrophication, i.e. the excess accumulation of nutrients in the water, mainly phosphorus and nitrogen stemming from fertilizers, detergents and sewage disposal, which causes oxygen depletion and in turn loss of biodiversity. The situation is expected to worsen if no efficient measures are taken soon by the bordering countries (Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland).
Brushed by strong, relentless western winds, the trees bordering are bent away from this irresistible force. This is especially true of those that grow on the west coast, the Weststrand, between the old lighthouse (see below) and Ahrenshoop. The Germans call them windflüchter for this reason―flüchten means to flee or escape.
In parts the forest progressively disappears to be replaced by a combination of moorland, small dunes and salt marshes where the land meets the sea.
This flat, malleable landscape is periodically flooded and remodelled by winds and water, most remarkably in the Sundische Wiese and in Darßer Ort (click here to see coastal movement between 1835 and 2007). The salt marshes control this natural water inflow, prevent land erosion, retain nutrients important to wildlife and offer variable salinity levels to which various species are adapted. Additionally, they create natural pastures that have been further protected against flooding by man-made dykes since the 19th century. These valuable pastures were and still are extensively used for cattle grazing. The dykes remain today but part of the peninsula is being restored to its natural state.
An important element of the marshes for both wildlife and men is common reed, a type of tall grass that grows to form large beds (pictures #4, #5 and #8 below) in various parts of the peninsula.
ROOFS OF REED
On the Fischland-Darss-Zingst Peninsula, common reed, also known as water reed, has traditionally been used by local communities for thatching. The plant’s excellent natural insulating properties against temperature and noise, and its durability and abundance on the shore made it a quality, low-cost roofing material for many generations.
Although the cost of thatched roofs has now become significantly higher than that of tile or slate roofs, they remain popular in the villages of the peninsula which have therefore conserved a charming, picturesque appearance.
The old craft is not only trendy in Germany. The United Kingdom counts the largest number of thatched dwellings in Europe and their number is growing; the Netherlands knows a similar revival. In recent times, such natural roofs have indeed become a sign of wealth and are perceived as a green alternative to more conventional roofs.
Another feature that makes the houses of the Fischer-Darss-Zingst Peninsula unique is their decorated entry doors. All are beautifully carved with local symbols and painted in vibrant colors. Each has its own character and in its own way is a perfect match to the rustic reed roof.
A HOT SPOT FOR WILDLIFE VIEWING
The rich landscape of the peninsula offers a variety of habitats attractive to wildlife.
A great number of bird species occur in the region including the white-tailed eagle, owls, waterfowl and other shorebirds, many of which are migratory and use the area as resting, wintering or breeding ground. Some of them are listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List which makes Fischland-Darss-Zingst a region of significant importance for bird conservation in Europe. The iconic bird of the peninsula, the common crane (Grus grus), is best observed in the fall months when some 60,000 individuals momentarily take over the land on their way to their wintering grounds in France, Spain and North Africa.
Due to park regulations and large portions of the site being immerged, bird watching on the Nationalpark Vorpommersche-Boddenlandschaft can be challenging. Birds can be observed from the network of trails that criss-cross the peninsula and the few observation stands erected above the salt marches (binoculars are highly recommended). And you will encounter seagulls, crows, coots, mallard ducks and pied wagtails near towns and may even meet Prerow’s swan star on your way to the beach.
Red deer, roe deer (link to photo gallery) and wild boar flourish on the peninsula. However, these ungulates brilliantly camouflage in the tall, thick reed beds where they like to forage, and you may not encounter a single specimen on your hike if not actively looking around for them. This is at least true for an early spring visit, otherwise the peninsula is said to be a good location to observe the deer rut in autumn. Wild boars may not be visible but their tracks are conspicuous: in the Darsswald and along the coast, they dig up around trees, exposing their roots, and turn entire meadows around when foraging. Considered a pest in Germany for this reason as they do the same to crop land, they are hunted everywhere to regulate their fast-growing population.
Hiking is the best way to meet snakes on the trail. Keep your eyes open for adders and grass snakes. While a bite from the former can be lethal, the latter is inoffensive, so it is good to be able to distinguish them. While hiking in the Darsswald, I came across numerous grass snakes that were resting and mating in the dry ferns bordering one of the main trails. Most let me approach them closely and I could take some close-up photos (link to photo gallery).
You may additionally encounter hares, rabbits, common toads (link to photo gallery), gigantic ant nests and some strange insects like the beautiful violet oil beetle (Meloe violaceus) that resembles an ant-beetle hybrid (see above image).
To get there from Rostock, take the train to Ribnitz-Damgarten West. From there, hop on Bus 210 and get off where you please. 4 days (3 nights) are just enough to explore the whole peninsula, from Zingst to Ahrenshoop, hiking and/or biking—no car is needed.
This said, longer is better to have the best chances at wildlife viewing and to visit local museums like Born’s Forst-und-Jagdmuseum (forestry and hunting museum), Prerow’s Darßer Bernsteinmuseum (amber museum)—the Baltic sea is a prime source of the multi-million-year-old fossilized pine tree resine—or the Darßer Ort Leuchtturm, Germany’s oldest lighthouse. Built in 1884, this landmark serves as an exhibition hall and visitors can go up for an unrestricted view on the coast. Adjacent to it is the Darßer Ort Natureum, a branch of the renowned German Maritime Museum in Stralsund.
Shop 8 offers great rental bikes and a quality service. In case of a flat tire, as it happened on my trip, phone them and they’ll drive to you within minutes to replace your bike. And since they have stores in Zingst, Prerow, Born and Ahrenshoop, you can conveniently return the bike to any store you like.
For a nice hotel in Zingst, try the Gode Tied, you’ll be surprised at what you get for the mid-season price of 35 EUR/night. Rooms are ridiculously spacious, have a balcony, a kitchenette equipped with a fridge, and a delicious buffet-breakfast is served every morning in a lovely room at no extra cost. The location is ideal too, quiet and just minutes from the bus station, harbor, bike rental place and grocery store.
For a Fish & Chips in Zingst, stop by Futter Kutter, directly on the harbor. A great variety of Fischbrötchen―a traditional fish sandwich from Northern Germany typically made with herring, onions, cucumber or sauerkraut (fine cabbage)―and other tasty fish dishes, fried or smoked, are offered with a delicious remoulade sauce. You’ll enjoy eating on the docks where cosy chairs and blankets await you.
Visit during the low season and you will have bargain prices.