Fishing Village in Warnemunde
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The fine old Hanseatic red-brick town of Rostock and its neighbouring seaside resort, Warnemunde, are best known as the jumping-off points for Berlin, which is three to five hours away by train (so make sure you have adequate time in port before embarking on a journey there). At least half of all cruise passengers head straight for the German capital. But if you've been there before, or if you live in Europe and Berlin is an easy weekend break for you, take time instead to explore these fascinating places, with their traditional architecture and long-standing maritime traditions.
Warnemunde -- the mouth of the river Warnow -- gets most of the attention, despite being a tiny suburb of Rostock with a population of just 15,000 against Rostock's 200,000. Still an operational fishing port, it's also an attractive, if windswept, seaside resort with vast dunes and sweeping stretches of sand on either side of the river's mouth. You'll see rows of ancient, timber-framed houses, sleepy squares, modern hotels with spas, and boats galore. Ice cream stalls and hundreds of screeching seagulls complete the seaside feel.
Summer is regatta season, and -- in addition to the constant buzz of ferries coming from and going to Denmark, Finland and Sweden -- hundreds of sailing boats may be on the water at any one time. The season peaks with Warnemunde Week each July (4-12 in 2009), when 2,000 boats gather for seven days of races and nighttime parties.
Medieval Rostock appears smaller than it really is, thanks to miles of undulating countryside and forest around the town. The city's merchants made a fast buck on beer and fish exports in the 12th century and -- to facilitate trade and protect their powerful fleet -- were instrumental in the formation of the Hanseatic League, a famous union of rich trading towns in northern Germany. The city later became famous for aircraft manufacture; the Heinkel factory was located at Warnemunde and produced airplanes for the Luftwaffe in the 1930s.
Although some of the city's magnificent, old buildings were destroyed in World War II, you can still see grand marketplaces, bridges, city ramparts and gates. Even the newer buildings were designed in the traditional style of red brick and stepped gables. The skyline is dominated by three massive churches, including St Peter's, which used to be one of the tallest buildings in the world.
Rostock has the distinction of being northern Germany's oldest university town and also has a top school for performing arts. Like many places in Germany, the city still brews excellent beer, but its income today is mainly from cruise ship tourism and, to an extent, the manufacturing of ship parts.
Rostock has a long-standing association with tall ships, and aficionados could time a cruise to coincide with the annual Hanse Sail Rostock (August 6-9, 2009), during which hundreds of square riggers and other classic sailing boats gather to enjoy four days of regattas, fireworks and markets, set up for the duration of the festivities.
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German is the official language. People involved in the tourist trade speak some English but less so than in more established German tourist destinations.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the euro. U.S. dollars are not accepted in stores, although most major credit cards are. (See www.xe.com for the latest exchange rates.) Travelers' checks are increasingly rare in Europe. There are ATM's in Warnemunde center and in Rostock, but not at the ports. In Warnemunde, take small denominations of Euro notes if you plan to buy from street vendors and fried fish stalls, of which there are many. Banks are open Monday through Friday, 9a.m. to 4p.m.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at both Rostock and Warnemunde. Warnemunde has two berths and is the better of the two options. You can walk from the terminal straight into town. (Wheelchair users: note that there is an underpass -- with steps and no lift -- under the railway.)
Rostock port is farther up the river, a distance from Rostock's and Warnemunde's town centres; the journey to Warnemunde is something of a hassle if your ship is not offering a shuttle. Take the 45 or 49 bus from the port to Luetten Klein, followed by a 10-minute train journey to Warnemunde, or simply opt to travel the whole way via taxi for around 20 euros. Most ships docked in Rostock run shuttles into Rostock town centre, a trip of no more than ten minutes.
In the unlikely event that you don't go on a tour to Berlin or into town when docked at Warnemunde, check out Karl's Erlebnis-Dorf, located near the port. A converted onion warehouse, this “strawberry pier” rustic souvenir store is decorated with a maritime theme, including seashells, fishing nets and wooden boats. While there, stock up on sea-related knick-knacks and tasteful gifts, ranging from German sausage, wines and liquors to items made from orange Sanddorn berries -- a local specialty. Karl himself owns northern Germany's largest strawberry farm, and, in season, you can feast on the berries for practically nothing -- or try the strawberry cakes. (See Been There, Done That for more on Karl.)
Both cruise terminals have dial-up rent-a-car facilities. Taxis wait outside when a large ship is in port -- which happens during most summer days. Walking is the best way to navigate Warnemunde and, likewise, Rostock -- once you've arrived in the centre by shuttle or taxi. Bicycles can be hired from Holiday und Meer at Warnemunde Railway Station, and there are plenty of marked cycle trails. Buy a Rostock Welcome Card for 6 euros (U.S. $9) for free local, public transport; free entrance to some museums and reduced admission to others; discounts in stores and fixed prices in participating restaurants.
Getting to Berlin under your own steam in one day isn't practical, since the train ride can take up to five hours, and trains run on specific schedules that may conflict with your ship's. Shore excursions use charter trains or coaches, so that is the best way to reach the capital.
The astronomical clock in Rostock's St. Marienkirche Church dates back to 1472, is amazingly elaborate and still works. It is able to predict the phases of the moon with absolute accuracy and is the oldest remaining piece of its kind.
The Monastery of the Holy Cross in Rostock, today serves as the city's Cultural History Museum and houses some wonderful medieval art. After visiting the museum, explore the solid city ramparts, or admire the architecture in University Square.
Harbor tours operate from all along the Warnow in Warnemunde at about 10 euros for 30 minutes. They're more of a photo opportunity than an in-depth exploration but are a pleasant enough way to admire old houses and fishing smacks lining the river.
Wander along the Warnow river, have a beer in a pub garden, eat a fried fish sandwich, admire the old-fashioned lighthouse and dramatic lines of the Teepott exhibition centre Then, stroll along the seafront to watch kite surfers, and you've made a good start on Warnemunde.
Been There, Done That
Pack a kite for the cruise, and fly it on Warnemunde beach -- a seemingly endless stretch of sand, backed by dunes with large rollers and perpetual gales blowing in from the North Sea.
Book a Strandkorb for the day. These cute wicker basket chairs -- a 19th century invention -- have comfortable cushions, pull-down shades, pop-up footrests and storage to stop your gear from blowing away. The beach is absolutely riddled with them.
If you've got small children, take a taxi to Karl's Erlebnis-Dorf, a spectacular farmers' market and strawberry theme park, 20 minutes from Rostock. It's free to enter, and there are playgrounds, farm animals, miniature train rides, pony rides (for a small fee), amazing sand sculptures, trampolines, a maze, places to eat and drink, and shopping galore -- from German deli items, candy, wines and liquors to rustic Christmas decorations and homeware.
Take a trip back into the days of the Cold War with a visit to Bunker 302, an atomic radio bunker at Eichenthal -- a 20-minute drive from Rostock. The bunker, which still contains all of its original monitoring equipment, was completed in 1986 but became redundant with the changing political situation and is now open to the public. It's dark, chilling and spooky -- but fascinating if you're into military history. Tours take about an hour.
Alternatively, visit the former Stasi pre-trial detention centre at 34b Hermannstrasse, Rostock -- a grim reminder of the dark days of the German Democratic Republic. You can see the tiny cells where political activists were detained and learn about the hated security service from a permanent exhibition.
Old fishing boats line the left bank of the Warnow, selling fischbroetchen -- sandwiches of fried fish -- the local speciality. There are several decent restaurants for German specialties; Kettenkasten (Am Strom 71, open at 11 a.m.), located on the riverbank, has a beer garden and live music and serves fried fish, herrings and pork ribs. Atlantic (Am Strom 107, open at 11 a.m.) is more sophisticated, serving fish and steak dishes. CuBar (Am Strom 124, open all day), near the lighthouse, is an old pilot house, today serving Cuban specialties. It's a popular choice among crewmembers. Schusters Strandbar (Seepromenade 1, open all day), meanwhile, is a hip, chill-out bar. Located on the beach, it features squishy sofas and lounge music.
In Rostock, Zur Kogge is a wonderful, old pub by the waterfront (on Strandstrasse, open at 11.30 a.m.). It is absolutely festooned with maritime memorabilia and serves more local specialties – try the lightly fried plaice with herb sauce.
The vast majority of tours are long, day trips (longer than 12 hours) to Berlin in various permutations. Otherwise, there are a couple worth doing:
Most cruise lines offer the Molli train, a traditional steam train that chugs through the Mecklenburg countryside, along a narrow gauge railway. The tour includes Bad Doberan -- a 700-year-old town with an important, 14th-century monastery -- and the seaside resort of Kuhlungsborn. It's an effort-free way to enjoy the countryside.
Schwerin Castle is perched on an island outside the eponymous state capital, an hour and a half from Rostock. With gleaming, golden roofs and delicate turrets, it's like something from a fairytale. In the neighbouring State Museum, there's an incredible collection of works from the Dutch and Flemish masters. They're all here – Rubens, Rembrandt, Fabritius and Hals, as well as more contemporary works by Duerer and Picasso. Most cruise lines offer Schwerin as a half-day tour, leaving the rest of the day free to potter around Warnemunde.
Staying in Touch
There's Internet access at the Warnemunde Cruise Centre (1.50 euros for 15 minutes, 3 euros for one hour) and in the centre of town in Rostock. You'll find pay phones in both towns, although the vast majority of locals have cell phones nowadays.
For More Information
On the Web: www.rostock.travel (mainly in German); www.auf-nach-mv.de (regional tourist board -- in English)
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Independent Traveler: European Traveler Board
by Sue Bryant, a London-based journalist who also covers cruising for the Times, the Telegraph and the Daily Express