Sailing down the Spree to Müggelsee

Berlin is a city of water, and the surrounding region of Brandenburg is teeming with lakes and waterways. If you fly into the city just at sunset, you can see dozens of bodies of water glowing orange in the sun. One of the most ‘Berlin’ things to do in summer is to head to a lake, any lake, to swim and relax on the freshwater beaches. Some of my colleagues at work hop on their bikes and cycle to a nearby lake for a lunchtime swim. It makes a lot of sense when the city is sweltering in sultry summer heat.

Langer See, Berlin, Germany

Seddinsee, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Berlin, Germany

Old factory on the River Spree, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Brandenburg is said to have 3,000 lakes, around 80 are considered to be Berlin lakes. This includes some formidable waterways. The impressive Tegeler See, close to the nearby airport, is joined to the Wannsee by the River Havel, eventually merging with the Tiefer See at Potsdam. These were popular spots for West Berliners during the Cold War, but residents in the East could claim the biggest of all Berlin’s lakes, the Müggelsee, as their own.

On a recent Sunday we decided to explore some of these waterways on a boat trip to the Müggelsee. We started from Treptow Park and, for the next five hours, we chugged along the River Spree through the eastern suburbs of the city to Köpenick. The journey along the river passed through a predominantly industrial part of former East Berlin, interesting but not beautiful. At Köpenick, we sailed down a tributary of the Spree into the Müggelsee – the middle of which feels more like the ocean than a lake.

From here we cut through a narrow channel in the Müggelspreewiesen, a picturesque nature reserve. This is home to an area known as New Venice, between the Müggelsee and the Dämeritzsee. New Venice came into being in 1926 with the construction of several canals, and it’s home to a mix of upmarket houses and small shacks. Bizarrely, it was first named New Cameroon. I’ve been to Cameroon, there are few similarities. In Communist times, this is where high ranking officials had their dachas.

It’s a beautiful area and, speaking as someone who lives in the middle of Berlin, it’s a little envy-inducing. To really explore the area you’d need a small boat or canoe, we were on a large boat and headed instead for the Gosener Canal which connects to the Seddinsee and then the Langer See, two long stretches of water surrounded by forests. It’s utterly beautiful, and completely wonderful to be in nature so close to Berlin’s 3.5 million residents.

Schloss Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

New Venice, Berlin, Germany

Müggelsee, Berlin, Germany

Seddinsee, Berlin, Germany

New Venice, Berlin, Germany

Müggelsee, Berlin, Germany

Eventually we arrived back in Köpenick, passing Schloss Köpenick on the way. Here everyone on board had to duck their heads as we passed under the Lange Brücke. After stopping to drop some people off, we set off back down the Spree towards the heart of Berlin. We’d been sailing for five hours but had barely scratched the surface of Berlin’s waterways. Despite that, by the time we arrived at Treptow it felt like we’d left the city days earlier.

There are hundreds of kilometres of waterways here, and exploring this watery urban landscape gives a completely different perspective on the city. Oddly, it makes it more human, especially compared to the often grimy concrete parts of Berlin.

This is not a tourist attraction … Berlin Street Art

There’s a certain irony to be found in someone painting the wall of a Berlin squat with the phrase, “This is not a tourist attraction” – instantly turning it into a selfie-taking hotspot. A case of unintended consequences, or mischievously self-aware parody of po-faced ‘lifestyle squatters’? Either way, it made me chuckle as we strolled past on a recent walk around the Kreuzberg district during the unusually hot weather Berlin has been enduring.

Natalia Rak, Street Art near Görlitzerpark, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

My head is a jungle by Millo, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Formerly one of Berlin’s poorest areas, Kreuzberg has become one of its hippest in recent years, with an ever expanding mass of galleries, restaurants, bars and – the true mark of gentrification – coffee shops, catering to a trend-conscious crowd. The anti-establishment, counterculture, radical reputation of the area may have been lost to Neukölln as the demographics have changed, but it is still one of the best places in the city to spot street art – large and small.

We live on the edge of Kreuzberg and regularly spend time exploring its mix of elegant streets (the area was saved from the worst of the damage inflicted during the Second World War), scruffy parks (Görlitzerpark is home to highly visible drug dealers, but rarely feels unsafe), and lovely squares. On one side of Görlitzerpark is the vibrant Tomorrow Never Come from Polish artist Natalia Rak, which takes up the side of a house overlooking a children’s playground.

Not too far away from here is the quiet weird looking Rounded Heads that sits snuggly in the gap between two buildings – the work of German artist, Nomad. Heading back towards central Berlin along Oranienstrasse we came across the wonderful My Head is a Jungle by Italian street artist, Millo. The last time I saw a piece by the same artist I was in Tblisi. Interestingly, My Head is a Jungle, takes up the opposite side of a building that is also home to another great street art piece by German duo, Herakut.

In between these monumental pieces can be found many smaller artworks adorning a variety of surfaces. I was particularly pleased to discover a work that copied a famous sketch by 19th century artist, Heinrich Zille. We headed towards Alexanderplatz,  where French group, Le Mouvement, had pasted a series of pieces depicting groups of people united under brightly coloured umbrellas – bringing some cheer to what is a fairly low rent area.

Heinrich Zille copy, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Le Mouvement, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Le Mouvement, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Rounded Heads by Nomad, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

The internationalisation of street art is a major development, just walking through this one district there were half a dozen nationalities that I could identify – and probably many more of which I’m not aware. It adds an interesting dimension to visiting cities, and it would be tempting to ‘collect’ artists when they create a new work. A street art version of the film, The Big Year, perhaps? Remember, you read it here first.

East meets West, a summer stroll along the Spree

Berlin transforms in the summer and the River Spree becomes a magnet for leisure and entertainment. We live close to the river where it glides past the Fischerinsel, Fisher Island, and Berlin’s Historischen Hafen, where a collection of old tugs and boats remind passersby of the days when this was a busy inland port. This area is a remnant of Berlin that managed to survive the Second World War intact. It didn’t survive communist city planners and the area was flattened in 1957.

This was also the former border between Communist East Berlin and the Capitalist West. The area was a customs and border zone. The Berlin Wall used to run through here, and you can still see traces of it today. A walk along the river towards Treptow Park begins in the former GDR, before crossing the line of the wall back into West Berlin before crossing back into the East. It’s a route that highlights the absurdity of the divided city.

Historischen Hafen, Berlin

Oberbaumbrücke, River Spree, Berlin

Molecule Men, River Spree, Berlin

Molecule Men, River Spree, Berlin

River Spree at Treptow Park, Berlin

I hadn’t realised it at first, but our route along the river was redolent with Cold War history. The Wall may have gone, but you’re still not able to walk the whole way along the river. Occasionally you’re forced into the surrounding streets, which isn’t always a delight, and an eclectic mix of pre- and post-war buildings along Kopenickerstrasse. It’s not always easy to know which ideological area of Berlin you’re in, but from where we live, you’re firmly in the East until you hit the Schillingbrucke across the Spree.

Beyond here it’s the West for a few blocks, but on the other side of the river is another Cold War remnant, one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall. The East Side Gallery is a hugely popular tourist attraction with painted segments of wall that attract selfie-takers by the thousands. Which is ironic, this is probably the least original street art in Berlin. Still in the West, we passed the Oberbaumbrucke, the entire length of the bridge was East Germany, the southern bank of the river was in the West.

The Oberbaumbrucke is one of Berlin’s most iconic, a double-decker carrying trains, cars and pedestrians built in red brick Gothic and dating from the late 19th century. It was a critical border crossing between the American and Soviet sectors. Finally, you cross the Landwehr Canal and it’s back to the East again. Today the area along the river here is home to a cluster of painfully hip nightclubs, bars and restaurants. It’s all very un-Soviet and grungy.

Glinting in the sun in the distance is a towering 30 metre high sculpture, the Molecule Men. This striking sculpture was installed in 1997. The work of American artist, Johnathon Borofsky, the three shiny aluminium men are meant to represent unity, yet look like they are locked in a three-way struggle. Ironically, in a city that trades on its originality, they’re not unique. First appearing in Los Angeles in the 1970s, there’s even a version in Yorkshire, England.

River Spree at Treptow Park, Berlin

River Spree at Treptow Park, Berlin

Historischen Hafen, Berlin

River Spree at Insel der Jugend, Berlin

Historischen Hafen, Berlin

They are, however, strategically located in the middle of the river at the intersection of three Berlin districts. Kreuzberg, Treptow and, over the river, Friedrichshain. Our goal was Treptow Park, where you can visit a Soviet war cemetery. We had other ambitions – a beer garden on the Insel der Jugend, or the Island of Youth, with its famous bridge, the Abteibrücke. This is supposed to be the oldest composite steel bridge in Germany, something only a dedicated steel bridge enthusiast could get excited about.

Our walk was about 7km, enough to justify a couple of hours watching the world go by on the river from a deckchair – in the company of a cold Berliner Kindl.

Odious, noisy, dirty, and grey: a year in Berlin

“And you, you can be mean, And I, I’ll drink all the time, ‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact, Yes, we’re lovers, and that is that…” – Heroes by David Bowie.

The two years David Bowie spent living in Berlin’s Schöneberg district inspired three groundbreaking albums, and gave birth to Heroes, a song that for many is the unofficial anthem of the city. He summed up his experience in the divided but bohemian former German capital in one of the most frequently used quotes about the city, “Berlin, the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” This was the late 1970s and, while filled with Cold War intrigue, West Berlin was undergoing an artistic renaissance.

Museum Island, Berlin

Reichstag and River Spree, Berlin

Berliner Fernsehturm, Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Church, Berlin

Davis Bowie plaque at his former Berlin home

River Spree, Moabit, Berlin

It is an image of the city still cultivated today – the freewheeling creative centre where experimentation is encouraged. In reality, it’s is a very different Berlin to the one Bowie knew, but also one going through a profound renaissance. Albeit this one is much more about gentrification and a booming economy in tech start-ups. As the mass of building sites and roadworks can attest, the face of Berlin is changing irrevocably.

It’s just over a year since we, somewhat reluctantly, moved our lives from The Hague to Berlin. It’s been a year of adjustment and frustration (this is the bureaucracy capital of the entire Solar System), a year of adaptation and slowly finding our place in a city that, in Bowie’s words, is “… so easy to ‘get lost’ in — and to ‘find’ oneself, too.” We’ve had periods of feeling lost, but a year on from those first confusing days and we are at last finding our feet, if not ourselves.

A German colleague, who moved from Munich to Berlin, told me it had taken her three years to feel comfortable in the city … and she speaks fluent German. Others have told me that when the city gets under my skin I’ll never want to leave. Anneliese Bödecker’s pithy statement captures this split personality with alarming accuracy, “Berliners are unfriendly and reckless, gruff and bossy. Berlin is odious, noisy, dirty, and grey; roadworks and congested streets wherever you go – but I’m sorry for everyone who does not live here.”

Berlin might actually be the urban embodiment of ‘can’t live with, can’t live without‘. I’ve not quite reached that point yet, but as we embark upon our second year I’m looking forward to seeing if the city gets under my skin, as opposed to on my skin – anyone who has worn a pair of flip flops in Berlin for any length of time will understand. Spend a day walking around and you’ll return home with feet that look as if they’ve been dipped in used engine oil. Air quality should be a major topic of conversation.

Funkturm, Berlin

Sculpture on Karl Marx Allee, Berlin

Sculpture, Berlin

Typical toilet, Berlin

Tiergarten, Berlin

Will our time in Berlin end like Icarus?

Such is the city’s reputation, moving here came with myriad expectations, more from others than ourselves. It’s a little too easy to only view the city through the lens of start-up schtick or the counter-culture cool marketing. Berlin is a more complicated place in reality – as anyone who has ever had to work out the recycling rules will tell you. There are many positives to living here, but the city can still leave you grasping at thin air when it comes to feeling like you belong.

Berlin is growing, and maybe the fact that we find ourselves here at a time of upheaval, as old and new clash, has made our first year more challenging. Yet we’ve loved many things, and have found ourselves exploring pockets of the city that only occasionally attract tourist attention. Piece by piece, the city and its people are coming into focus. The next 12 months start afresh, as T.S. Eliot, whose books once burned in Berlin, said:

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
– The Little Gidding

Brandenburg, a city shaped by water and war

Brandenburg an der Havel, to give this pretty and historic town its full name, came as something of a revelation after walking from the railway station through dreary and almost entirely deserted streets. It was only after crossing one of the many waterways that define the geography of the town, that we finally discovered evidence of human existence. This is a typical Sunday experience in Germany, where it is still normal for shops to remain closed.

Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Town Hall with stature of Roland, Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Loriot Pug, Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Town Hall with stature of Roland, Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

There are numerous islands dotting the landscape around this area amidst the region’s many lakes and rivers, but the three that form the historic parts of Brandenburg are all easily reached on foot – and it’s a town best explored at a leisurely pace. Despite heavy bombing during the closing stages of the Second World War, which destroyed large parts of the city, Brandenburg today retains the feel of the medieval regional capital that grew out of an earlier Slav settlement.

The oldest surviving buildings date back to the 12th century and provide a glimpse of Brandenburg’s former glory. As a regional capital it flourished in the medieval period, and its fortunes grew even greater when it joined the Hanseatic League. This sprawling confederation of towns and city-states once dominated trade across northern Europe, its tentacles spread far and wide in the search for commercial gain. Brandenburg grew rich as a member of the Hanseatic League, wealth reflected in its churches, homes and civic buildings.

The town suffered badly during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, after which it slipped into a period of decline and relative obscurity. Potsdam to the east would take its place as regional capital, and become home to Prussian monarchs. I suspect that meant Brandenburg was saved the degradations of military conquest later on, and allowed it to preserve much of its historic integrity. That is, until the outbreak of World War Two, when an airplane factory in the town attracted waves of bombing raids.

Today, the town is probably better known for a more notorious role during the era of National Socialism. Here, in 1933, the Nazis opened one of their first concentration camps in a newly built prison. An Aktion T4 site – a centre for involuntary euthanasia and ‘medical experiments’ – was established to murder people with mental or physical disabilities who were deemed to be ‘racially inferior’. Brandenburg was also where the Nazis experimented with gas as a method of mass murder, later used in the Holocaust.

Even amidst the glories of this ancient town it is impossible to escape Germany’s 20th century history. At the Steintorturm, where we crossed into the old town, there is a Soviet memorial and cemetery dedicated to the Russian soldiers who died ‘liberating’ the city during the Battle of Berlin. Later on we’d walk past the town’s old synagogue, destroyed during the Kristallnacht in 1938. The plaque outside stating that the Rabbi had been murdered in Auschwitz.

The Steintorturm once formed part of the city’s defensive walls, and as you wander around there are several other towers dating back several hundred years. We walked along cobbled streets lined with pretty houses before arriving in a market square near a large church. At another of the town’s former defensive towers, the Mühlentorturm, we left one island and entered another, passing a row of fishing huts turned eateries on Mühlendamm next to the water – being Sunday they were all closed.

Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Loriot Pug, Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

We soon found ourselves at the cathedral before crossing over several waterways to reach the oldest part of town where the red-brick city hall can be found. Here are two competing statues, one of Roland (of Song of Roland fame), the other of a small Pug dog with what appeared to be antlers. This is one of many similar tributes to the German comedian, Loriot. Real name, Bernhard-Viktor Christoph-Carl von Bülow, and born in Brandenburg in 1923.

He loved Pugs and spun a tale about how, before being domesticated, they had once been wild with huge antlers. They only discarding them so they could leap into the laps of old ladies. It’s the sort of whimsy that seems to fit the relaxed feel of Brandenburg.

La Maladie d’Amour … Berlin Street Art

When it comes to street art, Berlin is truly the gift that keeps on giving. The Berlin that has emerged following reunification in 1990 has become synonymous with street art. The city’s revival as one of Europe’s most dynamic capitals has, in part, been forged by its association with cutting-edge street art. Formerly grim neighbourhoods have been revitalised and many are now in different stages of gentrification. For better or worse, street art has been a significant driver behind this trend.

Street Art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany

I’m a little fascinated by the role of street art in communities, and the way it changes perceptions of a neighbourhood – good or bad. The evolution of street art from fringe, barely legal, activity to mainstream culture in which the most famous street artists can command serious money for their work, is a phenomenon. One that begs a number of question. What is street art? How does it differ from graffiti? Who gets to adjudicate on what is art and what is graffiti?

Ugly and alienating, graffiti is viewed by many as vandalism and is strongly associated with crime and anti-social behaviour. Ever since the Broken Windows Theory became popular in the 1980s – which influenced the zero tolerance approach to policing in New York City in the 1990s under the leadership of the increasingly deranged Rudy Giuliani – a debate has raged over whether illicit or illegal street art is socially acceptable. Does it feed the sense of social disorder that leads to increased crime?

Dynamic, attractive and increasingly seen as a ‘must have’ accessory for the modern urban environment, contemporary street art seems a millions miles from the former image of graffiti. It can position a city on the global stage and lure lucrative tourist euros into local businesses. So much so that street art festivals have become popular ways of expressing the modernity and dynamism of an aspiring city. This runs the risk of the corporatisation of street art and the loss of its anti-establishment appeal.

This is especially true in a city like Berlin, where street art is often overtly political, a chain of thought that began when I came across a story of a street art ‘installation’ in a communitiy in the Tegel district. Nicknamed ‘bloody refugee’, it depicts a young girl refugee bloodied and bruised, and standing in a pool of blood. At 42-metres in height, it’s a massive piece that covers the side of an apartment block, and is so life-like that it upset local residents when it was unveiled in 2016. They started a petition to have it removed.

Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art by Nomad Clan, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Captain Berlin, street art, Berlin, Germany

Perhaps the powerful message was more shocking because of the political context of Germay’s acceptance of over a million refugees, but isn’t that the role of art? Especially, perhaps, of street art? It may not be on a par with Picasso’s Guernica, but it cemented for me the idea that street art can and should be challenging, even if it’s hard to view sometimes. I get the feeling that in the rush to be ‘liked’ and ‘accepted’, street art has lost some of its soul. I’ve yet to visit this bit of town, but one day soon hopefully.

Meanwhile, our meanderings around Berlin have brought us face-to-face with plenty of interesting peices of wall art. Some new favourites include the Wolf of Prenzlauer Berg by Argentinian artist, Alaniz, a mural of rabbits burrowing under the Berlin Wall by British artist collective, Nomad Clan, not to mention Captain Berlin, found on the walls of a comic book store.

A early summer stroll along the River Spree

Berlin has transformed with warmer spring weather, after several cold grey months it’s time to dare to believe that summer is only days away. The city’s many parks and open spaces have once again filled with life, but it’s the slow-moving River Spree that draws most people. Berlin has designed the areas alongside the river to accommodate people at leisure rather than buildings or cars – looking at you London – and you can walk for several uninterrupted kilometres on or close to the waters edge.

The River Spree runs a 400 km course from the Lusatian Mountains on the border of the Czech Republic. On its journey to Berlin and beyond it creates the wetlands of the Spreewald and Berlin’s largest lake, the Müggelsee. Not long after leaving the city – in Spandau – the Spree disapears for ever, merging with the River Havel at the site where the enormous Spandau Citadel watches over the water. It is in Berlin though that the most famous stretches of the river can be found.

Berliner Dom, River Spree, Berlin

Reichstag, River Spree, Berlin

Three Girls One Boy Statue, River Spree, Berlin

Statue, Alt Moabit, River Spree, Berlin

Spittelmarkt, River Spree, Berlin

Alt Moabit, River Spree, Berlin

We live close to Spittelmarkt (one of Berlin’s old markets) and the Spreekanal. A short walk brings you to Museum Island and the River Spree at the point where it passes the historic heart of Berlin, Nikolaiviertel. Head west from here and the river will take you past many of the city’s most famous landmarks. The banks of the river are crowded as you pass the massive Berliner Dom, and the Bode and Pergamon Museums across from Monbijou Park, but the views are worth it.

A bend in the river brings you to Friedrichstrasse train station, or the Palace of Tears as it was known during the Cold War. Although the Berlin Wall was further to the south of the station, where Checkpoint Charlie once was, West Berliners could use the station to transfer to other rail lines, making it a high security zone. West Germans with the right papers could enter East Berlin here to visit family. This was also their final point of departure back to the West, and a place where many tears were shed.

On a recent sunny day, we walked along the river and decided to continue going all the way to Alt Moabit. Not far from Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof, you find yourself marvelling at the Lazarus-like Reichstag with its Norman Foster-designed glass dome. It may be the second most visited attraction in Germany after Cologne Cathedral, but stay on the northern bank of the river and you can avoid the crowds. The views are also better from across the river.

The next stretch of the Spree is one of the most attractive, passing stylish government buildings designed to be counterpoints to the neo-classical Reichstag. The outstanding building here is the German Chancellery, a vast post-modern structure affectionately (I think) known as the ‘washing machine’. With views over the Spree and the Tiergarten, this is where Chancellor Angela Merkel spends her days. It proudly claims the title of ‘largest government headquarters in the world’.

Bear, Berliner Brücken, Alt Moabit, River Spree, Berlin

Government buildings, River Spree, Berlin

Bridge, River Spree, Berlin

Bridge, River Spree, Berlin

Alt Moabit, River Spree, Berlin

Nikolaiviertel, River Spree, Berlin

Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to cross the river on the historic Moltkebrücke, where German forces made a desperate defence of the Reichstag from the attacking Russians in 1945. The reason will soon become clear when you see the umbrellas of Zollpackhof beer garden. This is the perfect place to stop and sip a refreshing beer or indulge in gut-busting Bavarian cuisine. Fortified, carry on until you hit the impressive Schloss Bellevue, home of the German President.

You could make a detour to the Victory column at one end of the Tiergarten here or, as we did, head straight on into a small park before emerging into Alt Moabit. The lovely Berliner Brücken, guarded by two pairs of jaunty-looking bears, awaits. You could carry on from here to Schloss Charlottenburg, but a little bit further on there’s a small bridge that you cross to reach Tiergarten S Bahn and a train back to town.

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

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.