The best thing about visits to Kiel – quite apart from SG’s lovely family and his mother’s extraordinary smelling towels – is being by the sea. The sound of gulls, the smell of salt and that pervasive sense of calm the ocean brings with it.
The first time I went to Kiel it was too cold to breathe and after a three second stroll down the promenade, I begged to be taken inside for a coffee. The second time I visited Kiel, Germany was coming out of a revolting winter (2010/2011) and on a day that cracked 14 degrees, SG took me to the beach. I have never forgotten it. It was the first time I had stood on sand since moving to Germany and I collected shells and breathed in the bracing, salty freshness of it all. Since then, each time we have come up North, we have made a point of going to the water, namely so we can stand on the sand and breathe in the salty freshness of it all. For SG, it is home. For me, it is a little bit of home in this part of the world.
Yesterday, the day before we were due to fly back to landlocked Weiden, the sun finally came out. Sort of. It waged a tense battle against belligerent, smothering clouds and triumphed enough to warm one’s back and make the Spring flowers seem that little bit brighter. Already determined to hit the seaside, regardless of weather, the sun’s weak-tea rays were an added bonus.
SG drove us somewhere new this time, to a little holiday village called Laboe. It is on the other side of the water, directly opposite the beach we have been known to patronise, the bitter East Sea wind in our hair. Laboe is about a 25 minute drive out of Kiel and sits quietly on the always refreshing Baltic Sea coast. Here boats are moored, souvenir stands sell kitsch mugs and picture frames with shells stuck on and fish and chip shops abound.
We headed straight for the sand, in all its seaweed and broken-shell covered glory. The lighter skies and absence of drizzle had driven others to the beach, in their puffy jackets and scarves. The water was flat and clear, the colours of north German seaside so different to those I am used to, but no less soothing, no less refreshing. The wicker seats you can hire were all closed up like clams, the weather not quite warm enough for hours spent by the sea.
From the sand we made our way past shrieking children, their enthusiasm for playing in the sand undampened by the clouds (I should really take a leaf out of their book) to a restaurant by the boats. The seats outside all faced the water and came with, as is customary here, blankets for cold knees. It was just warm enough to eat outside and just cool enough to huddle by the heater, blanket wrapped around legs. We ordered Backfisch, something we both devoured as children, during summers by the sea, and it came with a huge pool of tartar sauce.
It tasted unbelievable.
As it turns out, Laboe is not only home to enormous servings of fried fish, but also German submarine U-995, the last surviving submarine of its type. Type VII submarines, as I learned, were standard submarines used by the German forces in the Battle of Atlantic 1939-1945. During World War II, about 60% were lost in battle, with the remaining submarines either given to the Allies or scuttled by their own crew. The U-995, stationed in Norway at the time of Germany’s defeat, was handed over to the British and then to Norway in 1948. She was decommissioned in 1962 and, in a gesture of ‘regained friendship’ between Germany and Norway, following the German occupation of 1940-1945, given back to Germany. In 1965 she was transferred to Kiel where she now sits as a beautifully maintained museum. That’s something I love about Germany – history is everywhere, even in day trips to the beach. On a whim, we bought a gold token and pushed through the turnstile.
Nearby the U-995, stands The German Naval Memorial. Originally built as a memorial for German sailors killed in WWI, following WWII, it became a monument to peace. We bought a gold token for it too. What once was a symbol of German marine power and pride now exists simply to remember and honour those who fell foul of a ghastly battle for supremacy. Inside are flags, flowers and wreaths, tributes to those who now rest at sea. You can climb 341 steps (or catch an elevator) to the very top and, from the dizzying height of 72m, look out across the sea, at the passing ships, back towards Kiel itself. These ships, the information brochure informed me, to this day, dip their flags on passing the memorial, to honour those who died at sea.
It was one of my favourite days.