The Baltic Sea island of Vilm lies in the bay south of the much larger island of Rügen, it is one of Germany's most remote and tranquil spots. Covering less than 1 km², Vilm is the remnant of a moraine left as the glaciers retreated about 6000 years ago. Since its formation the shape of the island has gradually changed, with sandbars and beaches forming and eroding continuously. Today the island is shaped like a 2.5 kilometre-long tadpole, consisting of two distinct parts. Great Vilm, the “head” to the north-east, rises to almost 40 m. The low-lying isthmus of Middle Vilm forms a long “tail” to the south-west, which culminates in Little Vilm, a rocky mound about 20 m above sea level. The chalky cliffs to the southern side of Great Vilm are rapidly eroding, while sandbanks are building to add a snail-like curl to the tail.
Vestiges on the island suggest that humans used it in the early Stone Age, not long after its formation. Slavic peoples built a temple there, and its use for spiritual purposes persisted into Christian times, when in the Middle Ages it became a place of pilgrimage. In the early 19th century a law was passed to prevent trees from being felled on the island, and it became a summer residence for aristocrats. In 1936 the fauna and flora of the island were placed under protection to preserve its ancient oak and beech woodlands. After the second world war, Vilm became a favourite destination for tourists from German cities. By 1957 the island's public restaurant was used by some 700 visitors a day. In 1959 the Council of Ministers of the German Democratic Republic closed the island to the public and constructed 11 guesthouses, administrative and farm buildings. From then until the dissolution of the GDR, they used it as a private retreat for high functionaries, including the GDR heads of state Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker.
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