Hanseatic City of Rostock City of Wind and Primeval Forest

Harbour of Rostock
Harbour of Rostock | © Hansestadt Rostock/Fotoagentur Nordlicht

The image of the largest city in the German federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has been shaped by its university, so steeped in tradition, and by its location as the centre of Germany’s cruise-ship building industry. The role played by its protected primeval forest and above all by the blustery East wind coming in from the Baltic Sea is revealed here by the author, Volker Harry Altwasser.

Mr Altwasser, how did you end up in Rostock?

I ended up in Rostock after a long quest to find myself. I was happy to have found a place that had not already made a name for itself on the literary map, a place where I could get away from the literature business and finally get down to some work and a place that reminded me of the town I was born in – Greifswald. Rostock is like Greifswald – just bigger.

What makes the city so appealing to you?

I always call it the City of Wind. In the first few months I was always complaining about it, until a few of the long-established residents of the city asked me – what wind? It somehow provides the strength to write, always having to brace yourself against it, always having to thwart its power, always remaining steadfast in the midst of such briskness and abandon.

Cycling through primeval forest ...

Would you tell us what your favourite place in Rostock is?

Volker Harry Altwasser Volker Harry Altwasser | © Vietinghoff/Matthes & Seitz Berlin It is the 30-kilometre-long cycling path from Dierkow to Markgrafenheide, it passes by huge strawberry fields, through a protected primeval forest and finally ends at the Baltic shoreline. Whenever I take a ride along it, I always feel like I am having a day’s holiday.

What, in your opinion, is the city’s most impressive building?

Rostock was more or less totally destroyed in the war and the socialist period, its reconstruction was very much marked by pragmatism and this still continues today. In Rostock the urban planners do not think so much in terms like beautiful or old.  

The University of Rostock, founded in 1419, was the first university in the Baltic region. In addition, since 1947 the city has been able to pride itself in its Hochschule für Musik und Theater (Rostock Conservatoire). Which institution has had the greater influence on the city?

That question is unfair. Of course the University of Rostock is significant, especially in view of all the discoveries made there that were awarded a Nobel prize, but the Conservatoire is simply an institution that is dear to the hearts of the people of Rostock.

… and boarding a ship for a holiday

Rostock is the largest cruise-ship port in Germany. Is it a city of comings and goings?

Rostock has several centres – along side the city-centre, there is also Lütten Klein, Toitenwinkel and Warnemünde, so, although it is not so built up, it is in fact a huge urban expanse where there is of course a lot of coming and going. So yes, there are a lot people on the move and I have still not got used to standing next to groups of Italian, French or English tourists. You somehow start to feel that the city is a little more European than it was a few years ago.

In the middle of the 19th century Rostock was home to the largest merchant fleet in the Baltic area. Was your idea to write an epic work about the high seas closely linked with Rostock?

I got the idea for my epos Letzte Fischer (The Last Fisherman) in Leipzig 13 years before the book was published, the research I had to do for it also took me to Rostock. The story has various strands, but it also describes the sad decline of the most modern fishing and fish processing fleet of its day. After German reunification it was quite unnecessarily liquidated by the Treuhand (the trust agency responsible for the restructuring or sale of companies in the former GDR). Thousands of people became jobless overnight, there was neither rhyme nor reason to it, even today it is still a major issue for discussion along the Baltic coast. Rostock did not get off to a good start in the new era, but today the city once again ranks among the global players on the seven seas – this time it is cruise ships and wind turbines that have put it back on the high seas.

What season would you particularly recommend visiting Rostock?

Come in October – that is the month when you can still spend a few warm days on the Baltic coast. And there is so much primeval forest along the shoreline whose foliage is just starting to turn autumnal. The wind in October is mild. Then there are the sunsets that fit in so nicely just before the evening news on TV. Sit for a while on the roof terrace of your hotel, with a drink in your hand, and switch off your mobile for a while. You will find out that there is one thing the sea will teach you – that you have nothing to say anyway.

Worldwide success stories and the 800th jubilee celebrations coming up

Alongside the deceased author, Walter Kempowksi, Rostock’s famous sons also include the present Federal President of Germany, Joachim Gauck, and the racing cyclist, Jan Ullrich. Which one are the people of Rostock particularly proud of?

First and foremost, Jan Ullrich, of course. He came from a humble background and fought his way to the top of his field – and did it in the midst of all the turmoil of reunification. Not even a Federal President can top that. More recently, there is also the singer, Marteria, whose huge success all over the world has not left us cold. And of course, Germany’s best footballer, Tony Kroos – born in Greifswald, trained in Rostock, a global success.

It was in Rostock, in August 1939, that the world’s first jet plane took off. What flight of fancy would you wish the city for the present?

In 2018 Rostock will celebrate an amazing jubilee – 800 years of the city of Rostock. By then it is to be hoped that the city’s many quarrelsome cultural associations will have made better investments and finally put an end to the frugality that up to now has not done the city any good. There is still a lack of real culture, everything in Rostock is just entertainment.

In my field of work, in particular, there is a tremendous need to catch up. It does not, however, bother me that much, as I already said – I lead a self–sufficient life here that is far away from the literature business and I publish one book every year – after all it is the wind that has taught us to be modest.

Volker H. Altwasser, born on 31st December 1969 in Greifswald (in the German federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania), first became known in 2001 with his novel Wie ich vom Ausschneiden loskam (How I Managed to Stop Cutting Out Figures). The author has received many awards, among them, the Italo-Svevo Prize in 2011. In 2014 his last novel came out – Glückliches Sterben (Dying Happy).