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Cast your eye over the map of the Baltic Sea and you’ll find a galaxy of islands that tempt the visitor. Of the nine countries that fringe the Baltic, only Lithuania and Latvia do not have populated offshore islands.
In total over half a million Europeans live on islands in the Baltic region, with four islands each having a population of over 50,000. The latter include Rügen, which is Germany’s largest offshore island. At the other extreme are small communities like the Estonian island of Ruhnu, where no more than a few families overwinter on a remote fragment of land far from civilisation.
The island of Rügen
Rügen is splendid in summer, with its magnificent chalk cliffs, long avenues of horse chestnut trees and beech woods. But let’s face it: the Baltic is no Riviera so don’t go to Rügen if your style is more Saint-Tropez. Brigitte Bardot and Binz would not be natural partners. Yet Rügen has its own appeal, and while the island does not have fiery southern warmth, it does boast enviably long sunshine hours in the summer months.
But in our book, Rügen comes into its own in winter, when the tourist crowds have gone and island life slumbers.
We took time out last week to explore Rügen, our visit happily coinciding with the first substantial snowfall of the winter. Autumnal beech woods morphed overnight from red to white, and the steam trains that chug every hour through eastern Rügen seemed to puff even harder than usual in the cold weather.
Rügen’s eastern end
Our favourite corner of Rügen is the island’s easternmost extremity, an area of shallow bays and long peninsulas called Mönchgut. To really get away from it all, head for Klein Zicker, a little village with that end-of-the-world feel, where almost every house lets out rooms to visitors.
The sole hotel in the village, called Zum Trauten Fischerheim, has discount winter rates that, for stays of two nights and more, effectively bundle in dinner for free as part of an all-inclusive dinner, bed and breakfast package.
If Klein Zicker is too remote for your tastes, try chic Sellin, well placed on the steam railway east of Binz. The town boasts what we think is probably the finest pier anywhere in the Baltic region. In Sellin, our favorite spot to linger is the Pension Tatjana, which brings a dash of Russian (or more correctly Belarusian) flair to Sellin. Tatjana hails from Vitebsk and her Sellin guesthouse is a Rügen instititution. On cold winter days, the little Russian-style café on the ground floor of the guesthouse seems like the cosiest place on earth.
Rügen is easy to reach, for the island is linked to the German mainland by both a new road bridge and a causeway that carries a rail line. Direct trains from Berlin and Hamburg to Binz, a popular summer resort on the Rügen coast, take just four hours.
The island is also served by seasonal ferry services from the German mainland, the neighboring island of Usedom (which is part German and part Polish territory) and from the Danish island of Bornholm. Rügen also enjoys year-round ferry links with Sweden, Lithuania, Russia and the German island of Hiddensee.