NORTH FRISIA, Germany — “That light’s always there this time of year,” our hosts said when we admired the cerulean glow on the horizon at midnight the evening we arrived. We had rented an apartment for a week in a centuries-old brick house with a thatched roof owned by the lively, hospitable Eulers, who greeted us, despite the late hour, with homemade cake, stories, and advice about vacationing in the region: “The North Frisian air is restorative. Leave time to relax.” “Help yourselves to bikes from the barn.” “A typical restaurant? Gaststätte Bongsiel.”
We first saw Gaststätte Bongsiel on a drive through the midsummer gloaming. At 10:30 at night the sun had just ducked down and the sky was luminous. Wild geese honked by marshy streams and ponds. Clusters of sheep slept at the top of dikes. We rounded a bend in a country road, and there it was: an inn like a cheery wayfarers’ stop in a Grimms’ folk tale, full of light and laughter and conversations that wafted toward our car. As soon as we drove past, we were again surrounded by rural quiet.
The landscape of North Frisia (Nordfriesland), in the northwestern corner of Germany’s northernmost province of Schleswig-Holstein, is defined by its proximity to the North Sea. The ocean wind blows over it, whirling hundreds of wind turbines. The ocean water has necessitated centuries of dike-building to hold back the sea from inundating the shore.
It’s a very flat land, as if designed for beginning cyclists. On well-marked bike routes dawdling day-bikers meet serious long-distance cyclists, some of whom are riding the 6,000-kilometer North Sea Cycle Route.
We were on bicycles we had chosen from the Eulers’ barn the next time we passed Gaststätte Bongsiel. It was a sleepy morning. No one sat on the terrace under the sun umbrellas. The water in the nearby river meandered through eel traps.
We pedaled on: through the village of Ockholm; past fields of chamomile, the scent of it rising as the sun warmed the white blossoms; near brick, thatched-roof houses crowning low rises in the land; past yellow posters with the black image of a gas mask and the words “Stoppt das CO² Endlager” (“Stop the CO² Repository”); then on roads decorated with drying sheep dung along dikes at the edge of the North Sea, where the only sounds were the incessant wind blowing, the crying of gulls, and the bleating of sheep.
Our destination was the Hamburger Hallig, a small island connected to the mainland by a long causeway and located within the Wadden Sea National Park. On the island itself there is a naturalists’ station, a restaurant called Hallig-Krog serving local specialties (including lambs from the dikes), and a bathing beach. If “bathing beach” conjures up images of dunes and surf, this one would disappoint. At low tide, it is a beach of mud.
When the ocean recedes from the mainland in North Frisia, it leaves behind a broad sweep of grey-brown mud called the Watt. The stretch of Watt along the North Sea from Germany’s border with Denmark to the Netherlands comprises the Wadden Sea National Park. In 2009 UNESCO declared the Wadden Sea of the Netherlands and Germany a natural World Heritage Site, citing it as “the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world.” It must be one of the world’s only national parks in which mud is the main attraction.
Certified guides bring you through the mud on walks called Wattwanderungen. We took one that left from the village of Dagebüll, where ferries leave for the upscale, sand-beach-lovers’ islands Sylt, Amrum, and Föhr. On the mainland at low tide, a group collected to meet the biologist Birgit Andresen. She led us down the Dagebüll waterfront promenade, past a long row of colorfully painted one-room wooden shacks.
We left our shoes at a hut and climbed barefoot down a ladder onto the Watt. It was cold and surprisingly firm; only occasionally did we sink into it up to our ankles, pulling our feet back out with an oozy thwwwwwwp. Andresen dug in the mud to show us Wattwürmer (lugworms). She identified birds stopping to feed. She showed us the shells of razor clams, which she said were an invasive species brought in on the hulls of ships. “Let’s watch snails dance,” she said, and we trampled our feet on the mud until the vibrations caused striped snails to emerge. We walked three kilometers out on the Watt before we reached the ocean, where we dragged a net through the water to see what we could catch: a crab, a few shrimp, a clump of peat.
Back on shore as the tide swept in, we washed off the Watt at foot showers along the promenade. Andresen closed her presentation by telling us about community protests against plans to store liquified CO² from coal power plants under the ground in North Frisia and under the North Sea. Inhabitants and environmentalists worry that it will leak through the soil and affect the land and the Watt.
“Do you want to hear an absurd story about North Sea shrimp?” Maren Euler said one evening over local beer as we sat outside next to meadows. “The shrimp are caught here, then frozen, and loaded into trucks, driven down to Morocco where they are peeled and put into preservatives and trucked all the way back up here to be sold. Look at the menus here. The shrimp dishes all say ‘Mit Konservierungsmitteln’ (with preservatives). If you want shrimp without preservatives, you have to buy it straight off the boat and peel it yourself. Absurd, isn’t it?”
The tiny, deep pink North Sea shrimp, or Krabben, are a staple on menus all over North Frisia: Krabbensalat, a cold shrimp salad with mayonnaise; Krabbensuppe, a creamy shrimp soup laced with cognac; Krabben mit rührei, shrimp with scrambled egg. On a stone terrace under trees at the Restaurant Seebüll, we ate black bread with an enormous mound of rosy shrimp — “Mit Konservierungsmitteln” — a cucumber sorbet, and an iced vichyssoise topped with crisped purple blossoms. Although the shrimp we ate had traveled globally, bits of local flowers, local flavors, twists on local specialties are highlighted in many of Seebüll’s dishes.
The restaurant is in the visitors center of a museum dedicated to the Expressionist painter Emil Nolde, who retreated to Seebüll during the Nazi years. Initially, he supported the Nazis; to his chagrin, many of his paintings were included in the Nazi’s 1937 exhibition of Degenerate Art. In 1941, he received a letter from the president of the Reich’s Bureau of Visual Arts informing him that his art works had been removed from German museums and that he was prohibited from painting. Some of the more than 1,300 watercolors he painted in secret in Seebüll — he called them his “Unpainted Pictures” — are exhibited at the Nolde Museum. Many of his paintings depict clouds in the ever-changing North Frisian sky: glowering red clouds; purple, yellow, tempestuous clouds with gaps through which light can be seen; black clouds with streaks of that blue we saw on the horizon our first midnight.
In the early afternoon of our last day, the air was unusually hot. Despite the heat, we could not leave without going to the Gaststätte Bongsiel. We entered the cool restaurant, where all the walls are covered with drawings and paintings of early-20th-century local landscapes and people — among them two by Nolde. We ordered a perfect North Frisian lunch: smoked eel soup, a pickled herring platter, lobscouse. It was not, however, a perfect lunch for a hot day, unless our plan had been to sleep under the shade of a tree. We stepped outside into the restorative North Frisian air, enveloped again by the enormity of the sky with its billowing Nolde clouds.