“Berlin is great and everything, but I need a break!” It was the winter of 2022 and a few months earlier, I celebrated my one year anniversary of life in Berlin. Hooray for me: I moved here from NYC in a pandemic, secured gainful employment at a cocktail bar and completed a master’s degree in filmmaking along with a short film which I was now submitting to European festivals.
I had been working behind the bar as much as possible (to make up for all of the not-working during lockdown) and was immersed in the booming stand up comedy scene. When I wasn’t slinging drinks, I was slinging jokes. It had been a busy summer and a busier fall. I was tired.
“I’d really like to go to the ocean,” I kept saying to my girlfriend. As a native of Southern California and a 16-year Brooklyn émigré, I was as coastal as they come, always taking quick beach access for granted.
As a native of Bavaria and a 5-year transplant to Berlin, the relatively land-locked nature of Deutschland was nothing new to her. While we had both experienced beaches in France, Italy and Spain, neither of us had been to a body of water just a few hours north by train: The Ostsee (Baltic Sea.)
“Wir sollten einen Ausflug machen,” she said. (“We should take a get-away.”)
Ausflug is a word frequently used by Germans to describe a quick and easy escape from the city, usually to somewhere relaxing like a lake, or forest although any destination can suffice as long as it is sufficiently “away.” (Going to Tiergarten for the day doesn’t count.)
Officially an Ausflug can only be for the day and NOT include an overnight stay. Some might protest this coarse stipulation for fun, but here in Germany, WE LIKE RULES.
After some careful internet research we zeroed in on Stralsund, a peaceful seaside town in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, just three hours away by train. We left early in the morning and boarded an InterCity Express that swiftly delivered us from big, bad Berlin into rolling expanses of great, green German farmland. Though we were excited to see Stralsund, the destination seemed irrelevant as we flew by rolling green fields and unimpressed cows.
After a very comfortable few hours of window gazing, we arrived and noticed some graffiti on one of the city map placards at the train station that read “Strali-fornia.” It felt like a sign and we referred to the city by this name from this point forward.
Upon our first steps off the train, we were intuitively pulled toward the Altstadt (Old Town.) On the relatively short walk there we passed by one of the city’s three ponds, the Knieperteich. The afternoon winter light danced on the still water and we noticed some mysterious shapes sticking out of the pond. We took a closer look and realized that these shapes were wooden chairs in various positions, assembled together to create the appearance of a recently adjourned meeting on top of the pond. We knew of course that this was an art installation, but for a few minutes we wondered if perhaps this was a town where people had meetings on top of ponds.
Soon, we were surrounded by old Gothic brick buildings in the historic Old Town which is included on the long and fascinating list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. We wandered down tiny, winding cobblestoned streets lined with beautiful brick churches and bourgeois houses all leading eventually toward the magnificent town hall.
Finally, the sea
As we continued to explore one beautiful old brick building after another, we learned that Stralsund is included in the “European Route of Brick Gothic,” a tourist journey that links cities containing fine examples of Brick Gothic architecture along the Baltic Sea through Denmark, Germany and Poland. “Wow, who knew bricks could be an inspiration for a multinational tour.” I thought out loud.
After a good and slow exploration of this empty (It was January) seaside little town with strong medieval merchant vibes, we passed by restaurants that offered things like Hot Aperol (“Please no”) and Salat auf Waffeln (“Salad served on top of a waffle . . . maybe?”) before we made it to our primary destination:
On Stralsund Beach we gazed out over the still, deep blue water towards Germany’s largest island, Rügen Insel, which teased us from the horizon, and gave us a reason to come back to Stralifornia for perhaps a longer visit when the weather was less January.
After a quick beer at the must-visit maritime bar Hafenkneipe Zum Goldenen Anker, we impulsively decided to stay the night. According to some, this would kick our visit out of Ausflug territory into a full blown trip, although many Germans say an Ausflug CAN include an overnight stay and still technically not be an official holiday.
We didn’t care; at midnight it would officially be my birthday and we were making our own rules.