TThe elegant main station in the Hanseatic city of Lübeck is very suitable for large rooms, but these are few and far between these days. The only international destination served from Lübeck is Szczecin, in Poland. Half a dozen daily trains travel a winding route through sparsely populated terrain on a 300-kilometer journey that starts in Holstein and then crosses Mecklenburg to reach Pomerania. It is a region where historically Prussia and Sweden fought for power. Today is a chance to see off-the-beaten-path communities in a remote part of eastern Germany.
I start my journey at the famous Holstentor in Lübeck: it is an extraordinary city gate from the mid-15th century and forms the backdrop for the journey east towards Poland. The railway line from Lübeck to Szczecin is known as the Stadttore-Linie (the city gate route). At several places along the coast you will find fine examples of defensive gates, most of which are in an architectural style found throughout the Baltic region. It is called by its German name Backsteingotik (Brick Gothic).
The Holstentor in Lübeck is a good place to reflect on the remarkable wealth and influence that Lübeck enjoyed in the Hanseatic era. Travelers stopping along the Stadttore-Linie will find pretty little towns that flourished thanks to Hanseatic connections, many with striking brick Gothic gates, although none are as elaborate as Lübeck’s example. There are fine Stadttore at Teterow, Malchin and Neubrandenburg. Curiously, the two prominent city gates in Szczecin, on the eastern side of the route, buck the Brick Gothic trend in favor of the Neo-Baroque style.
When I hear that the train to Szczecin is a no-nonsense affair, I stock up on marzipan, a basic product from Lübeck. From the Holstentor it’s just a five-minute walk to Platform 1 at Lübeck station, where a modest two-car diesel train is ready to depart on its nearly five-hour journey to Szczecin. It is initially very full, but quickly empties. I suspect that no one on board will actually travel all the way to Poland. “I have never traveled this far before,” says the train conductor. “Actually, I’ve never been to Poland,” he adds as our train pirouettes along the west and south sides of Lübeck, gliding through the suburb of St. Jürgen with sweeping views of Lübeck’s famous skyline on the left. The mix of churches and characteristic red-brick warehouses has earned Lübeck a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List as a showpiece of the Hanseatic style.
Seven minutes into our journey we cross an inconspicuous ditch that until October 1990 marked the border between the two German states. Yes, that little ditch was really the line of the Iron Curtain. From here, until we enter Poland, about 10 minutes before arriving in Szczecin, our journey by slow train crosses the territory of the former German Democratic Republic.
Our route east avoids the coast and stays resolutely far inland. I stop here and there and revisit communities I knew from the first days after German reunification. We glide past lakes and forests and regularly catch glimpses of weathered farms, empty stork nests and nervous deer.
I spend the night in Güstrow, which looks clean and tidy compared to 30 years ago, but this small town has lost 20% of its population since then (Hotel am Schlosspark doubles from €99 with breakfast). It once had four city gates, but they are all long gone. The attraction here is slightly different: a mysteriously beautiful sculpture by Ernst Barlach that floats just above head height in Güstrow’s imposing Brick Gothic church. Barlach lived in Güstrow and the piece was created in 1927 as a memorial to those who died in the First World War. With an admonishing look on her face and features that clearly resemble artist Käthe Kollwitz, the hanging angel speaks about the need for peace in a troubled world. It looks spooky and I would now like to see the almost identical Barlach statue in Cologne.
The night in Güstrow is blissfully quiet and the next morning I’m back on the slow train to Poland early. I pause for breakfast in Teterow, whose brick Gothic city gate is even older than Lübeck’s. Teterow is the western gateway to a slightly hilly area that bills itself as Mecklenburg’s answer to Switzerland. Believe me, there is nothing Swiss about Mecklenburg Switzerland, even though it is undeniably beautiful.
Like many rural regions in eastern Germany, this is an area with few visitors from afar, although, being only an hour or two from the German capital, it is highly prized by Berliners for its rural charm and varied landscapes. Two women board the train in Malchin and tell me I missed a trick by not stopping there.