Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2010/1 posted by hidden europe on

Sylt is a place apart. It is one of the most accessible of the North Frisian islands. Frost demons have cast a spell of hard rime over the island these past days. But neither the bitter cold nor the capers of New Year's Eve deter the walkers who march the beach at dawn.

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Dear fellow travellers

Frost demons have cast a spell of hard rime over the island these past days. But neither the bitter cold nor the capers of New Year's Eve deter the walkers who march the beach at dawn. Another year, a fresh diary, virgin smooth sands waiting to be trampled.

In other places it is joggers who brave the beaches early on New Year's Day. Not here in Sylt. Here it is couples in matching fur coats - his and hers - accompanied by their dogs. Not any dogs, but perfectly groomed animals of impeccable pedigree, tamed of their natural canine instincts. These dogs no longer hunt in packs, but their owners do. They descend on Sylt for Sylvester (as New Year's Eve is called in German, recalling the name of the early Pope whose feast is celebrated on that day).

The smart set bring their fur coats, their silver Mercedes cars and their well-behaved dogs. Children seem on the whole not to figure in their lives. Only occasionally is a child seen amid a family group, perhaps in a café or at church, and then the boy or girl is humoured as a tenderly tolerated representative of an exotic species.

Sylt is a place apart. It is one of the most accessible of the North Frisian islands. No other resort around the North Sea matches Sylt when it comes to schickimicki style. Island chic for those who made the right investments, didn't find their assets frozen in the financial crisis and now enjoy crisp winter days around a glowing hearth in one of Sylt's thatched roof holiday homes.

'Moin, moin' say walkers as they pass each other on the beach, a Frisian greeting the fur coats know must only be deployed in Sylt. Back home in Munich or Mannheim, uttering the Frisian mantra would invite only uncomprehending derision. Here it is a password, a sign to those in the know that the speaker is at home here in this discreet island refuge. 'Moin, moin.' The words are spoken, but eyes do not meet.

Discretion is a Sylt speciality. Ask no questions. No-one asked too many questions when in the late 1940s a one-time leading member of the Waffen-SS settled in Sylt. Heinz Reinefarth is said to have led an SS brigade that ruthlessly suppressed the Warsaw Uprising. The slur of a Nazi past did nothing to impede Reinefarth's rise to prominence in Sylt. He was elected mayor of Westerland, the largest community on the island. Later he became a member of the State Parliament for Schleswig-Holstein. He lived and died in Sylt, never convicted of his alleged role in various wartime atrocities.

Walk the beaches and heathland paths of Sylt this New Year's Day, and you will find landscapes of delicate beauty. Ice piled against breakwaters, lugworms on the tidal flats, frosty meadows where a lone pheasant pecks for food. On a good day like this, it is an incredibly beautiful island. There are inviting bars and cafés, many with thatched roofs and a welcoming fire crackling in the grate. Those who cannot afford Sylt's famously high prices dare not enter. There is a clamour and a chatter from within. The clink of glasses. The merriment of comfortable wealth. But over the weekend, these New Year visitors will be on their way. Returning to their mainland lives. And another Sylt will come into its own - a quieter, gentler island. Still pricey, still the odd demon perhaps, but a Frisian outpost that has a special appeal.

You can see a few pictures of Sylt in the online gallery on our website. The island was featured in Issues 10 and 19 of hidden europe magazine.

We wish all our readers a very happy New Year.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(hidden europe)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.