Germany Holidays: Prora, a giant resort with a dark past

The Colossus of Prora may sound like a piece of ancient history, but don’t be fooled by the name. This giant of a building (originally the longest in the world at a massive 4.5km) was built on the holiday island of Rügen by the Nazi party between the two World Wars.

Prora was planned to be an all-inclusive resort on an unprecedented scale, a new kind of tourism for the masses with 20,000 beds. It was the prototype of a handful of mega resorts intended by Adolf Hitler to create a nation of ‘people with strong nerves’, so they wouldn’t fail in a fight.

You can see why this location on the causeway-connected island of Rügen was chosen. The 10km beach here is of magnificent silky white sand, and back in the early 20th century it was already attracting elite holidaymakers, who built themselves handsome villas in the fashionable spa settlement of Binz, at the beach’s south-eastern end.

Prora, however, was intended for the masses, but it never opened. It was just nearing completion when World War II broke out, and after Germany’s defeat it was garrisoned by Soviet troops, who blew bits of it up, for fun. The Stasi, the secret police, took over the remains for a while, and then for many years it was left to fall apart, shrouded in trees.

But now this sleeping giant has been reborn. In the course of the past decade, the five blocks still standing of the original eight have become a mix of hotel, youth hostel and luxury apartments.  Today, serried rows of glass balconies glint in the sun, each six-storey block slightly different to its neighbour, extending into the distance as far as the eye can see. Swimming pools sit out front, and at its road-served back, there’s newly-planted saplings and an endless repetition of protruding stairwells every 50 metres. There are a couple of spa hotels – the Dormero and the Solitaire – and a sprinkling of coffee shops, restaurants and a supermarket in the centre.

There is, however, very little reference to the building’s history, apart from in the dowdy looking Documentation Centre, where the exhibition MACHTUrlaub (‘make holidays’) fills in the detail. Here you learn how the centralised design was such that guests would have had to walk as far as 2.2km through the interconnected buildings, carrying their luggage, to reach their rooms. And how the daily programme would have included parades and communal games which may not have been described as compulsory, but there would have been informers amongst the holidaymakers, noting the non-participants. It was a matter of ‘have fun, or else’.

Along the shore

The beach itself is serenely unchanged since Prora was conceived, apart from lavish new (slightly military-looking) lifeguard posts, and regular signboards announcing ‘textilfrei’ stretches. During the post-war GDR times, FKK or Freikörperkultur was a big deal for people who wanted to experience some sense of freedom in the face of an unduly repressive state.

The original resort of Binz itself remains a period piece. The sand is demarcated with neat ranks of Strandkörbe, wicker beach chairs, which can be rotated to face the sun whilst turning their backs to the wind. There’s a pier, a bandstand outside the grand Kurhaus, and a shaded shoreside promenade that is lined with stalls selling trinkets and Milchreis, rice pudding with fruit puree.

Inland, villas of distinctive Bäder architecture, a mix of art nouveau and Long Island clapperboard, line its streets behind white picket fences with their ornate wooden balconies, rooftop gables, octagons, lanterns, and domes. Once private properties, with staff, they are now mostly sub-divided into apartments.

Binz is no longer a posh place for holidays, although the key activities are still the same:  a steamer still runs from the end of the pier to the chalk cliffs of the Königsstuhl, or King’s Chair, which were memorably painted by Caspar David Friedrich, the 19th century Romantic landscape painter who played a big part in making Rügen popular.  And the ‘Raging Roland’ steam train still weaves its way along the coast to subsidiary resorts of Sellin, Baabe and Göhren, chugging past allotments and through thin forests of oak and beech, dappled with sunlight and laced with footpaths.


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