hidden europe 20

An island outpost: Helgoland

by Nicky Gardner


One tiny island, a mere fleck of land in the North Sea! And yet so laden with history. Helgoland (often called Heligoland by English speakers) has been both Danish and British. Nowadays it is surely one of the most extraordinary parts of Germany. We visit Germany's only "Hochseeinsel".

The island is a most peculiar place. It is a handsome triangular thrust of red rock that juts out of the sea, flanked on its southern edge by a strip of low-lying coastal plain that hosts a clutter of warehouses, docks and all the paraphernalia of a busy port. There are hotels, many of which fly the local tricolour of green, red and white. Italian colours with a twist. But this is no Capri. In the narrow streets behind the seafront hotels, there is a cluster of bars and cafés, and nestled under the cliff are a few neat rows of housing. All that, and a quite remarkable concentration of shops selling spirits and cigarettes. Everything from vodka to whisky with knock-down price tags. An innocent new arrival from another planet with no knowledge of the burden of taxation imposed by many European governments on tobacco and alcohol might be seduced into believing that the island's entire population is intent on drinking itself into an early grave. In fact, the people of Helgoland make a decent living by selling spirits and tobacco at improbably low prices. Duty-free sales have stemmed the flow of local residents leaving this remarkable rocky outpost.

Wander through the back streets and, those liquor stores aside, you might think you had stumbled into a modest small town in northern Holland or coastal Denmark. Little houses, painted in a bright palette of nautical colours, sea-shells set into garden walls, and a clutter of children's toys on the front steps. Helgoland is instantly appealing in an oddball kind of way, and it is most certainly quirky.

The wind can be fierce, but there are bracing walks and great views. High up on the sandstone plateau, you feel you are on the bridge of a great ship scanning the horizon for sight of land. Bar for Helgoland's kid sister, a little slip of an island called Düne just a kilometre away, there is no land to be seen.

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