Lübben and a walk through the Spreewald

Arriving at Lübben train station isn’t a thrilling experience. It certainly doesn’t give you the impression that you’ve arrived in a charming small town at the edge of a beautiful nature reserve. I double-checked the map and set off towards Lübben’s historic centre, a couple of kilometres away. Things improved almost immediately. I passed a memorial to Red Army soldiers who died fighting in the area and entered a lovely woodland, Der Hain, before arriving in the town proper.

It was still early morning and Lübben seemed half asleep, although I suspect that may apply regardless of the time of day. I’d planned to walk the 10km to confusingly named Lübbenau, but wandered around the streets before heading for Schloss Lübben. The castle dates back to the 12th century, but this version of it was built by Duke Christian I of Saxony-Merseburg in 1682. It is a striking building that sits on the edge of large parklands with picturesque waterways, and it was of course closed.

Paul Gerhardt Church, Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Schloss Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Paul Gerhardt statue, Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Russian war grave, Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Lübben was in the East after the Second World War, and there are plenty of buildings that carry the stamp of Soviet brutalist architecture. One that doesn’t is the Gothic Paul Gerhardt Church. I’d never heard of Gerhardt, but he is considered to be the most important German hymn writer of the 17th century, some claim the greatest European hymn writer, of all time. A staunch Lutheran theologian, he worked as an archdeacon in Lübben from 1669 until his death in 1676.

In 1931, the city renamed the Church of St. Nicholas after him. It too was closed. I took this as a sign that it was time to leave town. I made my way through the Schloss park to a branch of the River Spree, the Hauptspree, which I’d follow all the way to Lübbenau passing through green meadows, verdant forests, and slow-moving waterways on the way. Even though it was a weekend, and this is a popular walking and cycle route, it was very peaceful.

The Spreewald has a rich and fascinating ecology, with wetlands, forests and meadows in seemingly equal measure. The whole area is criss-crossed by the hundreds of small waterways that have been created as the River Spree passes through this area. Tall reeds densely fill areas of the water, attracting a multitude of small birds. Occasionally I saw the flash of a brightly coloured kingfisher, while birds of prey glided effortlessly along the meadow floors. Frogs lept into the water. I even saw an otter.

Today, these natural charms are protected by law and the whole area is an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Wind back to April 1945 though, and things were anything but peaceful. The Spreewald was the epicentre of the Battle of Halbe, part of the larger Battle of Berlin. It was here that 150,000 soldiers of the German 9th Army, surrounded by a vastly superior force of three Russian Armies, attempted a daring escape: to break out and head west to surrender to the Americans.

Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Things did not go as intended, with only around 25,000 German troops escaping death or capture at the hands of the Russians. The Russians had already surrounded Berlin and the operations in the Spreewald were merely ‘mopping up’ exercises. The German efforts to escape were chaotic and casualties were very high on both sides, but several thousand civilians also managed to escape with the German forces. It must have been a terrifying ordeal at the end of the cataclysm of the Second World War.

It’s a struggle to reconcile these facts with the charm and tranquility of the area today, but every year the remains of those who died in the fighting are found. That though, should not prevent anyone from exploring this wonderful region.

Lehde, a Sorbian ‘city’ of punts and pickles

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.

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

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.

Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

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.

The Spreewald, spiritual home of the gherkin

There is a scene in the wonderful film, Good Bye, Lenin!, that revolves around the need to find a specific brand of East German gherkin. The sudden collapse of the GDR leads the main character on a desperate search for an authentic jar of Spreewaldgurken, the pickled cucumbers that come from the region south of Berlin. So beloved were they, that they were one of the few products from the former Communist East Germany to survive reunification.

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lutki in Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Gherkin, Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

They didn’t just survive though, they thrived. Visit any supermarket in Berlin and there will be several metres of shelves dedicated to gherkins. Their appeal? A perfect balance of salty, sweet and sour. There are many gherkin brands, but the Spreewaldgurken has a special place in the hearts and minds of Germans. Despite eating no small number of gherkins since we moved here, I gave no thought to where all those pickled cucumbers came from. The good news is, the Spreewald is only an hour away by train.

Today, an astonishing 1 million jars of pickled gherkins are bottled each and every day, all of them in local facilities. They account for about half of all the gherkins consumed in Germany. That’s a lot of gherkins, most of which are still picked by hand. Tradition is big in the Spreewald, and pickling methods and recipes have changed little since they were introduced by Dutch settlers in the 17th century. In summer the gherkins grow so quickly that the plants can be harvested every two to four days.

It’s the Spreewald’s mineral soils that makes it such a good region for the growing of cucumbers, but it would be doing the region a disservice to reduce it to a stereotype of only a pickled vegetable. This is a region of ancient forest and picturesque waterways that is deservedly popular for hiking and cycling. It’s also dotted with pretty towns and villages that, while connected by road and rail today, for centuries relied on small boats as the main form of transport.

Surrounded by forests of birch and pine, Lübbenau is the Spreewald’s largest town, and is easily reached by train from Berlin. I arrived on a sunny morning excited to discover the land of the gherkin. I was a bit disappointed not to be greeted at the train station by gherkin food trucks, but paintings of traditional scenes that covered the walls of the station were enough to whet the appetite. These included what looked like goblins or elves.

Like many parts of Germany, the heavily forested Spreewald is home to many legends and superstitions. One of the central characters of Spreewald myth are Lutki, dwarves who help the good and make fools of the bad, which originate in the sagas of the Slavic Sorb people who have inhabited this region for centuries. It’s easy to imagine the tall tales that took root in such an isolated part of the world, including one about a dragon called Plon that I was hoping to avoid on my walk to the village of Lehde.

First though, I wandered around Lübbenau. It’s a pretty place with a decent museum and a friendly tourist office. I walked over to the 19th century Schloss Lübbenau and through the landscaped grounds, before heading to where the real action in Lübbenau can be found – the harbour. Boat trips on traditional flat-bottomed boats, punted through the wetlands by a ‘captain’, are big business in the Spreewald.

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

The small harbour was busy with day-trippers selecting a boat ride. I was planning to walk to the historic village of Lehde, so grabbed a fish sandwich with obligatory gherkin before setting off. The walk would take me through woods filled with bird song and the occasional sound of a woodpecker. I glimpsed a kingfisher diving into the waters and saw birds of prey in the high branches of the trees. It’s no wonder this area is popular with Berliners seeking tranquility.