The attractive village of Lehde is known (presumably ironically) as the ‘city of punts and pickles’. Calling a place that’s home to around 150 people a city seems a bit far-fetched, but the rest of that description is pretty accurate. Lehde sits in the Spreewald, a district of Brandenburg that is crisscrossed with waterways that were traditionally navigated on flat-bottomed punts, and is also at the epicentre of Germany’s gherkin industry.
The village is built on small islands surrounded by multiple branches of the River Spree, which turns into an extensive wetland in this area, that are only connected by wooden pedestrian bridges. Remarkably, access to Lehde was only possible by boat until as late as 1929, when a road finally connected it to nearby Lübbenau. Today, it forms a not quite continuous whole with the larger town but, amongst tall pine and birch trees, it still feels every inch an isolated village – some farms still only reachable by boat.
I arrived in Lehde after a 2 km walk through the surrounding woodlands. The village is an interesting place to wander around but the main reason for coming here is to visit the truly excellent Freilandmuseum Lehde, an open-air museum that explores the lives of villagers in this fascinating region in the 1800s. There’s little better than an open-air museum, particularly one featuring people in period costumes. The Freilandmuseum didn’t disappoint.
The museum is best known for telling the history of the Sorbs, a distinct ethnic group of Slavic origin that have lived in this region for at least 1,400 years. Historic Sorb farm buildings, with traditional and video displays of what rural life in the Spreewald was like in the 1800s, are fantastic. There is a brilliant film using original footage from the 1950s of how the whole community harvested the cucumber crop. It then follows the cucumbers on their journey from field to pickle jar.
It was the Sorbs who introduced the cucumber to the region when they migrated here from the Carpathians. Sorbs haven’t always had an easy time in Germany, with periodic attempts to eradicate their unique culture. Counterintuitively, they fared pretty well under National Socialism – which viewed other Slavic peoples as subhuman. They were protected during the years of communist rule, and today their culture and language are protected by law.
There are perhaps only 80,000 Sorbs left in Germany, the vast majority in this region of Brandenburg and across the border in Saxony. Sorbian is taught in schools, a Sorbian-language newspaper exists, and the Serbski Institut continues to research their history, culture and language. That said, economic drivers and voluntary assimulation into German society present a greater challenge these days than ealier efforts at forcible integration.
What remains is a fascinating culture that draws on thousands of years of history, and even if Lehde is a little touristy it is an insight into Sorb life that isn’t readily available elsewhere. Houses, then and now, are built out of wood, many with reed roofs. They also have what looks a lot like a Viking design on their gables. These are Sorbian snake symbols. The traditional dress of sorb men and women is also unique, although they did remind me a bit of some traditional regional Dutch clothes.
I spent a couple of hours in the Freilandmuseum and afterwards strolled through the village. It was mid-afternoon and the waterways had become much busier with people taking tours in punts, but also many people in canoes – another hugely popular way to explore the waterways. It took me a while to find the route out of the village, but I was soon on my way back to Lübbenau and the promise of a beer in Brandenburg’s smallest brewery.