Hitzacker is one of those idyllic red-brick, north German towns that seem to have been purpose built for the tourist trade. Its 18th-century timbered houses and narrow streets attract thousands of visitors each year.
Once a famous spa town, it has now reinvented itself as a “wellness centre”. But as you read this, Hitzacker will be battling against a grave threat that could wreck its tourist business indefinitely.
The town sits on the banks of the rivers Elbe and Jeetzel, both of which have been turned into wide, raging torrents by the devastating floods currently rampaging through Central Europe.
There are fears the town could be submerged by the swollen tide pressing in on its waterlogged river dykes.
Hitzacker is better prepared than most. It was severely damaged in Germany’s so-called “flood of the century” in 2002. Back then, the Elbe burst its banks and put the old town centre under water. “Never again!” exclaimed Hitzacker’s traumatised residents.
Over the past 11 years, a staggering €60m has been spent on an elaborate flood-defence system, which makes some sections of Hitzacker’s river banks look like a medieval fortress.
But even these bulwarks may not be enough. The town’s flooding experts point out that a single drifting tree trunk hurled against the defences by the fast-flowing Elbe would be enough to smash a hole in the flood wall big enough to swamp the town.
Hitzacker’s citizens have spent much of the past 10 days filling sandbags. As a precaution, its old town centre has been evacuated.