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Baltic Seaside Cities Flower Again : Travelers rediscover the resorts of former East Germany.

February 16, 1992|PAT HANNA KUEHL | Kuehl is a Denver-based free-lance writer.

ROSTOCK, Germany — We didn't know what to expect on a visit last summer to Rostock, the former East German territory bordering the Baltic Sea. A four-hour drive north of Berlin, too far from the spotlights on the Wall to catch media attention, the area had been shrouded in mystery.

True, we'd heard aging Northern Europeans reminisce about pre-World War II childhood vacations on the idyllic island of Rugen, the most northerly German territory, just west of the Polish border. But those visits had occurred more than 50 years ago, and that old paradise had since been taken over by the Stasi, the Ministry for State Security of the former German Democratic Republic. There also were rumors that the most remote part of the island had been used as a training ground for terrorists.

We'd read reports on how the neighboring coastal cities of Rostock and Stralsund, long famous for their shipbuilding skills, had fallen on hard times when communism started coming apart at the seams. The shipyards closed two years ago, leaving the area the most depressed part of the GDR.

And so the surprise, less than a year after German reunification, was in how far the industrious citizenry had traveled toward reconstruction. The local people have cleaned up, painted and beautified their towns in an effort to lure tourism.

Most of the takers so far have been affluent West Germans and Scandinavians who can pay exorbitant prices for the few available deluxe hotel rooms and fine restaurants, or Northern Europeans who set up tents in the no-frills campgrounds. A shortage of comfortable, affordable lodging, transportation problems and the language barrier (little English is spoken) have discouraged all but the most adventurous Americans.

But the area offers its own fascinations, especially Rugen, which suffered less decay than its neighbors because the GDR officials used the 32-mile-long island as a holiday destination. Former GDR chief Erich Honecker entertained friends on Vilm, a wildlife sanctuary just off Rugen's southeastern coast. Visitors can board a cruise boat at Pitbus for a sail-by glimpse of Honecker's haven, but the real value of such an excursion is the opportunity to meet and talk with the locals, who are eager to make contact with Westerners. English might be scarce, but warm smiles are in good supply.

None of that prepared us for the signs of the times we saw out of the rickety tour van window on the five-hour drive from Hamburg to Rugen. We lost count of the demolished, shiny new BMWs pushed out of the line of traffic. We were astonished at the number of huge billboards advertising American (Camel and Marlboro) cigarettes. And we joked about the traffic jam of elaborate baby carriages on the streets of the small towns.

Our van driver, a former East German whose mouthy ways, he said, had bought him trouble more than once, interpreted what we were seeing. Automobiles abandoned along the highway represented dreams-turned-nightmares. East Germans invested their life savings in the newly available luxuries, then tried to race down the autobahn , West German style, with no idea of how to control the powerful motors. Ka-rash! Back to square one, minus a bank account.

The cigarette advertising played to the local concept of the good life in the West with no mention of cancer. The baby buggies pushed by parents in drab clothing were visual signs of a baby boom that came with new hope for the future.

Rugen's special status shows up everywhere you look. The architecture is distinctive, from whitewashed lacy frame houses reflecting the area's Scandinavian roots to thatch-roof cottages straight from a fairy tale. Markets are well-stocked. One small grocery near the causeway leading to the island had a produce display that would be acceptable in Southern California.

We saw little to suggest the GDR legacy of indecisiveness. Rather, there were young and aggressive entrepreneurs determined to rebuild Rugen as a prime tourist destination. They've already brought cruise ships to Sassnitz and Mukarn, ports at the northern part of the island. They've improved campgrounds, started remodeling substandard hotels and turning out two-room vacation houses at a rapid rate. Even so, accommodations are booked months in advance.

The Cliff Hotel, the former Stasi playground, is still the most luxurious recreational complex on Rugen. Also left over from Stasi days are extreme security precautions--even in matters as small as the numbers on the keys disguising the whereabouts of our rooms and elevator control buttons vague about floor location.

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