Can a Nazi seaside resort reinvent itself into a 21st century seaside retreat?

There’s a beast of a building with a long, dark history on Germany’s Baltic coast. A building on the holiday island of Rügen that for the past 80 years has been mostly shunned, bombed, classified top secret and then left to decay.

Designed and built by the Nazi Party as the longest building in the world – at 4.5 km – the Colossus of Prora was meant to usher in a new era of tourism for the masses. It was to be a resort on an unprecedented scale, until the outbreak of World War II stopped it in its tracks.

It was later garrisoned by Soviet troops, who blew up pieces of it. Later, it was occupied by the East German army and members of the Stasi, the secret police, which is why it did not appear on any map. Its location was revealed only by the presence of two seemingly unnecessarily placed train stations in the middle of a long strip of trees, as well as brutal barbed wire blocking the beach. All of this could explain why his rehabilitation took so long.

But recently, this sleeping giant has slipped out of its dark mantle. Over the past decade, the five blocks still standing of the original eight – or 2.5 km of building – have been reborn as a mix of hotels, hostels and luxury apartments. luxury. Finally, Prora does what it was originally designed to do, bringing holidaymakers to one of the finest sandy beaches in northern Europe.

The sandy beach of Prora stretches for 10 km along the eastern side of the island of Rügen © Alamy

Despite its long dark history, my first impressions upon arriving in Prora are of a building that looks new and freshly painted. Ahead – just 125 meters from the beach – rows of glass balconies glisten in the sunshine, each six-storey block looking slightly different from its neighbour. To the rear, where there are road accesses and car parks, newly planted saplings and an endless repetition of projecting stairwells every 50 metres. Walking here, I feel like one of those tiny plastic figurines in a giant architect’s model.

Map of Prora, Germany

In block II, I settle into a bright and spacious loft in a section that has become a spa hotel, the Solitaire, with hints of Scandinavian design and a bathroom almost as big as a squash court. The apartment is a duplex, several times larger than the rooms originally planned, with a kitchenette filled with designer gadgets. Outside, a balcony on each of its levels overlooks an outdoor swimming pool backed by a thin curtain of fir trees, through which a sandy path leads to a surprisingly uncrowded and virgin stretch of beach. The rest of Prora stretches on both sides as far as the eye can see.

The Solitaire was one of the first elements of the reconstructed building to open, in 2016, while its neighbor and the complex’s only other hotel, the Dormero, followed in 2018. Both have a similar floor plan, offering a selection of independent hotels. suites, some very elaborate, with their own hot tubs but with a shared spa, gym, and indoor and outdoor pools. Prices (starting at €698 per week for a two-person studio at Solitaire) strike me as good value, although overall with a layout that encourages guests to enter and exit through individual stairwells rather than the lobby, it feels more like a block of flats than a hotel.

A staircase in a white modern interior leads to a loft bedroom

A split-level loft bedroom at Prora Solitaire © Achim Hartwig

A view of a sandy beach seen through the trees

A sandy path through the trees leads to Prora Beach

Prora was to be the first of five mega-complexes, each with 20,000 beds, created by the Nazis. Kraft durch Freude (Strength through joy). “He [Hitler] wanted to make propaganda with concrete,” says historian and curator Marco Esseling, when I meet him at the Prora documentation center, where the exhibition MACHTUurlaub (“going on vacation”) fills in the historical detail. The station was built, Esseling says, both to impress and to make people grateful to their leaders.

The location was chosen for obvious reasons: the beach here stretches for around 10 km of silky white sand, with a sea so clear, calm and shallow that it can barely muster the energy of a vague. At the beginning of the 20th century, it already attracted holidaymakers – Rügen is only 200 km north of Berlin – but it was the Prussian elite, who built themselves beautiful villas in the fashionable spa de Binz, at the southeast end of the beach.

Prora, on the other hand, was to be for workers, says Esseling, with the price offered affordable at 20 Reichsmarks for a week, including all meals and activities. This was about a quarter of the average monthly salary at the time.

The project was announced in 1935, Nazi Party architect Clemens Klotz was appointed, and work began in 1936. In addition to eight linked blocks (long and thin so that almost every room could have a view of the sea) , there were to be two large swimming pools equipped with artificial waves, two theaters, giant restaurants every 500 meters, 5,000 employees and a huge power plant Festival hall for gatherings and parties.

Esseling walks me around the central unfinished area, to the pillared hall that was to be the reception, and explains that the original design was such that some of the guests would have had to check in here and then walk to 2 .2 km through the interconnected buildings, carrying their luggage, to reach their rooms, a chore that would be unthinkable today. But then it wasn’t going to be a vacation spot as we know them. The station’s daily schedule would have included parades and community games. “But the war broke out and no one ever vacationed here,” Esseling explains.

After lunch at Kantine Prora (where a picture of former GDR leader Erich Honecker hangs on the wall), I meet Rolf Hoffmeister of Binzprora, an investment firm that was one of the first to buy out Prora in 2005. He tells me that Binzprora bought the entire 500-meter Block III for a pittance of €350,000, but it took 12 years before the company actually started renovations, due to construction issues. planning and difficulties with Prora’s listed status. On the other hand, the structure itself, despite its abuse and abandonment, was very solid.

four rows of wicker beach chairs on the sand
Strandkörbe, wicker beach chairs, which can be turned to face the sun © Alamy

Binzprora had wanted to include a marina in his development, but this was opposed, and some of his plans for new buildings in the historic central area, including a large sports hotel, are still under discussion. But all of the company’s 250 apartments that fill Block III are due for completion this year and have long since been taken over by buyers. “I actually had people who already had one, asking if they could buy more,” says Hoffmeister.

Do his clients have a precise idea of ​​the story in which they are part? The developer looks dubious. “I don’t think they are interested, they come here because of the beach. This place is for the younger ones, for whom the past is in the past. And we don’t see a conflict with Binz, it’s a different market. Binz is for older vacationers, he suggests. For those with longer memories.

The meetings over, I walk 3 km on the beach, past sumptuous new lifeguard posts and regular signs announcing textilfree (nudist) stretches, which turn out to be undercrowded. In GDR times FKK, or Freikörperkultur (“free body culture”), was a big deal for people who wanted to experience some sense of freedom from an unduly repressive state. Those days are over.

Binz itself turns out to be a period piece, although its clientele has changed considerably since the elite arrived here. The sand is delimited by clear rows of Strandkörbe, wicker beach chairs, which can be turned like sunflowers to face the sun or turn their back to the wind. There’s a pier, a bandstand outside the large Kurhaus, and a shaded promenade lined with stalls selling trinkets and Milchreisrice pudding with fruit puree.

An ornate seaside pier with a bright blue sky behind it
Sellin Pier, about six miles southeast of Prora on the east side of Rügen © Alamy

Inland, villas of Bäder’s distinctive architecture, a mix of Art Nouveau and Long Island clap, line its streets behind white picket fences, with ornate wooden balconies, rooftop gables , octagons, lanterns and domes.

I have half a day of sightseeing left here, so I’m considering taking the steamer from the end of the Binz pier to the chalk cliffs of the Konigsstuhl, or King’s Chair, which were memorably painted by Caspar David Friedrich, the 19th-century Romantic landscape painter whose canvases played a big part in Rügen’s popularity. But we have chalk cliffs in England, and besides, I’m a bit of a train watcher, so I get on Rasender Roland (“Raging Roland”), a steam train that weaves its way along the coast to the subsidiary stations of Sellin, Baabe and Göhren.

It is a very pleasant ride, passing through patches and through thin forests of oak and beech, dappled with sunshine and criss-crossed by paths. I sit in an open car, I listen to the murmur of conversations and I admire the way the columns of steam rise in the canopy of leaves.

Despite its name, this Raging Roland doesn’t really rage at all. In fact, it doesn’t even seem a little crossed as it moves forward, graciously whistling at hikers and cyclists. In this, it’s a bit like Prora, which may have originally been designed to impress and intimidate, but whose current manifestation has evolved into something much more accessible. It’s just a place to vacation, after all.

Details

Andrew Eames was the guest of the German Tourist Board (germany.travel) and stayed at Prora Solitaire Apartments and Spa (prora-solitaire.de). Studios for two at Solitaire cost from €698 per week, rising to €1,070 per week for a duplex loft for four. The Dormero Strandhotel Rügen (dormero.de) has double rooms from around €140 per night

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