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Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is perhaps Germany's least changed province. The few towns and villages that break up the countryside seem like snapshots from the 1930s.

Schweriner Schloss
Schweriner Schloss

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern attracts more tourists than any German province except Bavaria. Barely one percent of these visitors is American, however. Indeed, few Americans have even heard of this province on the Baltic in the new Germany's northeast corner.

Despite its high tourism ranking, the region is by no means overrun by tourists. In fact, much of the province is pristine, protected wilderness. Most visitors congregate in a few coastal "resorts" and sleepy fishing villages. And, since towns are spread sparsely along the coastline, most of the beaches beyond the outskirts offer total refuge and privacy.

Inland, the moors, heaths and woodlands of the coastal plain build gradually toward a distinctly rural landscape of rolling hills, meadows, farmland and dense forest. Farther south, the fields and forests are broken up by the 1,750 lakes of the Mecklenburg Lake Plateau, Germany's most sparsely populated region.

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is perhaps Germany's least changed province, a backwater mostly untouched by war, the DDR times or commercialism. Cities are small, and the few towns and villages that break up the countryside seem like snapshots from the 1930s. Many are destinations unto themselves with architectural, cultural and culinary delights and with centuries of history and decades under Soviet control behind them.

Schwerin

Especially for those just arriving from overseas flights, Schwerin, an hour's train ride from Hamburg, is an ideal Mecklenburg-Vorpommern starting point. (Be sure to take a direct InterCity or InterRegio train—from $16-$19) it will cut your rail time in half.) The province's capital and second-largest city, Schwerin is surrounded by seven lakes and an endless forest and its old city retains the culture, architecture and vibrancy of its 19th-century glory days.

For an initial perspective of what the city offers, climb the 220 steps and 130 meters of the Gothic red-brick Schweriner Dom (about $1). The view reveals as much lakescape as landscape. The town is surrounded by lakes including Lake Schwerin, one of Germany's largest.

The city's centerpiece is its Schloss (about $3), an island castle (connected to land by two bridges) that is a fairyland mishmash of baroque and Gothic architecture overwhelmed by a neo-Renaissance make-over from the 19th century. Inside, however, it's all business, a lavish ducal showpiece with intricate wood floors and paneling, a gilded throne room, lush tapestries and ornate stucco.

An artificial pond - the rectangular Pfaffenteich—comprises much of the city center. Once used to store water that powered the town's mills, today it's purely recreational and a walk around it is just plain fun. Fanciful sculptures bring smiles, as does the massive and wonderfully out-of-scale Tudor Gothic Arsenal. In summer, the Petermännchen, a tiny ferry named for a mythical gnome, delivers passengers to various points along the pond's perimeter. On warm evenings, crowds share gossip and sip espresso in the nearby Altstadt, while others make their way to a widening variety of restaurants and cultural events.

Excursions

Two days barely do justice to Schwerin, especially if you plan a visit to the outskirts. An excellent daytrip is a scenic excursion by ferry (about $3 round-trip) across Lake Schwerin to the white-sand beach at Zippendorf. From there, it's a 15-minute walk to the Mecklenburgisches Volkskundemuseum (about $1) an open-air museum that shows life in 18th-century rural Mecklenburg. If you have the energy, just take the ferry for the return trip and walk or bike to Zippendorf. The route winds through the 18th-century baroque Schlossgarten and leads past the Schleifmühle ($1.05), a water-driven grinding mill still in working order but once used to cut and polish precious stones that decorate the Schloss. The trail then cuts through the forest to the beach.

Schwerin is about an hour by car or 90 minutes by direct train (every two hours for $15) to Teterow, a medieval town in the heart of a region known as Mecklenburgische Schweiz (Mecklenburg Switzerland). This Switzerland has no Alps, indeed no mountains at all. Its highest point is barely 500 feet.

Still, the undulating landscape makes for one scenic view after another. Hikers can follow signed trails past springs and streams and through valleys and old growth forests (some oaks are more than 1,000 years old). Other visitors ride horses or bicycles along the hilly ridges of the "Balcony Route." The area is so thick with lakes, rivers and canals, that guests can spend days exploring it by canoe.

Auto travelers will find a network of peaceful back roads linking sleepy villages. Many of these byways are tree-lined, with century-old lime trees forming a leafy canopy overhead.

The area is also famed for its manor houses and castles. Unlike the medieval fortresses of the Rhine and Danube, these were built as palatial residences, primarily during the prosperous 18th and 19th centuries. In 1945, due to housing shortages, many were divided into apartments. Others remained empty and neglected.

Schloss Basedow is perhaps the most haunting example, once an elegant palace, and now an empty warren of apartments. Overhead, wooden ceilings and intricate carvings remain intact, but vaulted halls and chambers are broken up by rotting drywall—complete with faded 90s rock posters. Work is underway, however, to transform Basedow into a hotel and conference center.

Over the past decade, millions of euros have been invested to renovate similar structures. Some remain private residences or businesses while others, like Burg Schlitz or the Sporthotel Teschow, have become fine hotels.

With so much land and water under permanent protection, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is likely to remain a paradise for generations. It also has the infrastructure to support consistent double-digit tourism growth. Over time, more buildings will be restored—or torn down. Rural villages will try to enter the 21st century (or at least the 20th). Prices will move upward. For those who want to see the region in its pure, current and affordable form, now's the time to be a pioneer.