On Germany’s Baltic coast is a beast with a long, dark history. A building on the holiday island of Rügen that has been largely avoided for the past 80 years, bombed, classified as top secret and then left to fall into disrepair.
Conceived and built by the Nazi Party as the longest building in the world – at 4.5 km – the Colossus of Prora was intended to usher in a new era of mass tourism. It was supposed to be an all-inclusive resort on an extraordinary scale until the outbreak of World War II brought it to a halt.
It was later intercepted by Soviet troops, who blew up the pieces. It was later occupied by the East German army and members of the Stasi secret police, so it was not on any map. Its location was revealed only by the presence of two railway stations, apparently needlessly placed in the middle of a long strip of trees, and the brutal barbed wire that enclosed the beach. All of this may explain why his rehabilitation took so long.
But recently, this sleeping giant has slipped from its dark mantle. Over the past decade, the five blocks that still stand of the original eight – that’s 2.5 km of the building – have been reborn as a mix of hotel, youth hostel and luxury apartments. Finally, Prora does what it was originally designed to do, bringing travelers to one of the most beautiful sandy beaches in Northern Europe.
Despite its long dark history, my first impressions upon arriving in Proro are a building that seems new and freshly painted. From the front – just 125 meters from the beach – successive rows of glass balconies glisten in the sun, each six-storey block slightly different from its neighbour. At the rear, where there is road access and parking, there are newly planted saplings and an endless repetition of projecting staircases every 50 metres. When I walk here I feel like one of those little plastic figures in a giant architect’s model.
In Block II, I check into a bright and airy penthouse apartment in what has become a spa hotel, the Solitaire, with a touch of Scandi design and a bathroom almost the size of a squash court. The apartment is on two floors, several times larger than the rooms that were originally planned, with a kitchen full of designer appliances. Outside, on each level, there is a balcony overlooking the outdoor pool, surrounded by a thin curtain of fir trees, through which a sandy path leads to a surprisingly under-visited and unspoilt part of the beach. The rest of the Prora stretches out on both sides as far as the eye can see.
The Solitaire was one of the first parts of the renovated building to open in 2016, and its neighbor and the only other hotel in the complex, the Dormero, followed in 2018. Both have a similar layout and offer a selection of self-catering options. suites, some of them very elaborate, with their own hot tubs but with a shared spa, gym and indoor and outdoor pools. The prices (from €698 per week for a two-person studio in Solitaire) seem reasonable to me, although overall the layout, which encourages guests to come and go through individual staircases rather than a lobby, makes it feel more like a block of flats than a hotel.
Prora is said to be the first of five mega resorts, each with 20,000 beds, created by the Nazis. Strength through joy (Strength through Joy) organization. “He [Hitler] wanted to make propaganda out of concrete,” says historian and curator Marco Esseling when I meet him at Prora’s documentation center, where the exhibition is POWERHoliday (“make a holiday”) fill in the historical details. The resort was built, Esseling says, to make an impression and to make the people feel grateful to their leaders.
The location was chosen for obvious reasons: the beach here stretches to about 10 km of silky white sand, and the sea is so clean, calm and shallow that it barely gathers energy for a wave. In the early 20th century it already attracted holidaymakers – Rügen is only 200km north of Berlin – but it was the Prussian elite who built themselves stately villas in the fashionable spa town of Binz, at the south-east end of the beach.
Prora, on the other hand, is aimed at working people, says Esseling, with a suggested price that would be affordable at 20 Reichsmark for a week, including all meals and activities. This was about a quarter of the then average monthly salary.
The project was announced in 1935, the Nazi party architect Clemens Klotz was appointed, and work began in 1936. In addition to the eight connected blocks (long and thin so that almost every bedroom would have a view of the sea), there were to be two large swimming halls with artificial waves, two theaters, giant restaurants every 500 meters, 5000 employees and a huge central festival hall for gatherings and celebrations.
Esseling leads me through the unfinished central section to the pillared hall that was to be the reception, explaining that the original design was that some guests would have to check in here, then walk as far as 1.4 miles (2.2 km) through the interconnected buildings, carrying their luggage to get to their rooms, a task that would be unthinkable today. But then it won’t be a vacation spot as we know it. The resort’s daily program would include parades and communal games. “But then the war broke out and nobody ever vacationed here,” says Esseling.
After lunch at Cantine Prora (where a picture of Erich Honecker, the former leader of the GDR, hangs on the wall), I meet Rolf Hoffmeister from Binzprora, the investment company that in 2005 was one of the first to buy Prora. He told me that Binzprora had bought the entire 500m Block III for a pittance of €350,000, but it had to be 12 years before the company actually started renovations, thanks to planning issues and problems with Prora’s listed status. In contrast, the structure itself, despite its mistreatment and abandonment, was very solid.
Binzprora wanted to include a marina in its development, but this was vetoed, and some of its plans for further new buildings in the historic central area, including a large sports hotel, are still ongoing. But all 250 of the company’s apartments that fill Block III are expected to be completed this year and have long since been snapped up by buyers. “I’ve actually had people who already have one ask me if they can buy more,” Hoffmeister says.
Do his customers have a clear idea of the history they are buying? The developer looks doubtful. “I don’t think they care, they come here for the beach. This space is for younger people for whom the past is 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 who may have a longer memory.
Meetings done, I walk 3km down the beach, past the fancy new lifeguard stations and the usual signs announcing without textiles (nudist) sections, which, however, turn out to be insufficiently visited. During the times of the GDR FKK, or naturism (“free body culture”), was a big deal for people who wanted to experience some sense of freedom in the face of an unjustifiably repressive state. Those days are over.
Binz, it turns out, is all about the era, although its clientele has changed quite a bit since the elite first came here. The sand is bordered by neat rows beach chairs, wicker sunbeds for the beach that can be rotated like sunflowers to face the sun or with their backs to the wind. Outside the grand Kurhaus is a pier, a bandstand and a shady waterfront promenade lined with stalls selling trinkets and rice puddingrice pudding with fruit puree.
Inside, behind white picket fences, villas with characteristic Bäder architecture, a mix of Art Nouveau and Long Island clapboard, with ornate wooden balconies, gabled roofs, octagons, lanterns and domes line up.
I have half a day left to be a tourist here, so I’m thinking of taking the steamer from the end of the Binz pier to the chalk cliffs royal chair, or the King’s Chair, memorably painted by Caspar David Friedrich, the 19th-century Romantic landscape painter whose canvases played a large role in Rügen’s popularity. But in England we have rocky cliffs, and I’m a bit of a low-key train watcher, so instead I board the Rasender Roland (“Raging Roland”), a steam train that winds its way along the coast to the ancillary resorts of Sellin, Baabe and Göhren.
It’s a very pleasant ride, passing plots and through rare oak and beech forests, drenched in sunlight and interspersed with footpaths. I sit in the open carriage, listening to the murmur of conversation and admiring the columns of steam rising into the foliage.
Despite his name, this Raging Roland doesn’t really rage at all. In fact, it doesn’t seem cross in the slightest as he drives along it and kindly barks at hikers and cyclists. It’s somewhat similar to Prora in this, which may have originally been designed to impress and intimidate, but its current manifestation has become something much more accessible. After all, it’s just a vacation spot.
Andrew Eames was a guest of the German Tourist Office (germany.travel) and stayed at Prora Solitaire Apartments and Spa (prora-solitaire.de). Studios for two in Solitaire cost from €698 per week, up to €1,070 per week for a two-storey penthouse for four. Dormero Strandhotel Rügen (dormero.de) offers double rooms from around €140 per night
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