THE SPREEWALD: An unexpectedly idyllic and lush corner of Germany
Before I returned back to the U.S. to visit my family (where I am now!), I wanted to make one more trip with my boyfriend. We batted around ideas for a bit, trying to decide on something that wouldn't be too expensive or far away but that would still give us a chance to experience something new and special. My boyfriend suggested we consider the Spreewald, and after some quick research, we decided this would be a perfect "last trip" for us.
The Spreewald is a forested region of Germany located about an hour southeast of Berlin. It's a popular destination for German tourists, though it seems to be much less well-known among foreign tourists (we only encountered English-speaking tourists once during our stay). The area is known for its lush, green forests that are criss-crossed by a series of channels and canals, which make for excellent canoeing and kayaking opportunities. The Spreewald is also well known for its signature food products like pickles and mustard.
Another unique aspect of the Spreewald is that it is home to Germany's lone indigenous ethnic minority, the Sorbs. These are a Slavic people whose native language is most similar to Polish or Czech and whose history in Germany can be traced back more than a thousand years. In my experience there weren't a lot of indicators of Sorbian presence during our trip outside of museums, but regardless their culture is an important part of the area's history.
There are a few different towns in the Spreewald that are popular with tourists, but we decided to make Lübbenau our base. Lübbenau is a very cute town with a population of about 16,000 people. It's lovely in its own right, but its location makes exploring the waterways of the Spreewald very easy, and it also is situated just outside the utterly charming village of Lehde, called by some the "Venice of Germany." However, that's not really the most accurate moniker since you can't really compare a city of 300,000 to a village of 150.
We stayed at a pension just outside of the Altstadt and spent our first day in Lübbenau just exploring and taking in the sights. I was pleasantly surprised at how cute and pretty the town was, since I felt like none of the pictures I had seen online really did it justice. Although not exactly hopping, it was definitely lively with the buzz of tourists (again, pretty much all of them German). The town features an 18th-century church and a 19th-century palace and accompanying park. Check out a few pictures above.
There are a lot of local myths and stories that can be seen depicted throughout the town in the form of statues and pictures. The most common one we saw represented was the story of the "Schlangenkönig" or snake king -- we kept seeing snakes with crowns around town and we were confused what that was about. We looked it up, and apparently it's part of local lore. Basically, there is a story about a kingdom of snakes whose king had a beautiful crown of priceless value -- whoever owned the crown would possess incredible riches. A local knight decided to steal the crown from the snakes, and although he was nearly caught by the snakes, he was able to jump a high wall with the help of his trusty steed to escape the snakes, and he lived the rest of his days surrounded by riches. There doesn't really seem to be much of a moral with this story ("If you see a priceless crown, you should totally steal it"), but regardless the image of the snake king is ubiquitous in Lübbenau.
The main recreational activity in Lübbenau (and the Spreewald in general) is to explore by water. There are two ways of doing this: either you rent a kayak or canoe, or you take a Kahnfahrt. The latter is known as punting in English -- basically, you hop on a boat with 10-20 other people and a guide in the back who uses a long stick to push the boat through the canals while telling you a bit about the area and its history. The advantage of taking a Kahnfahrt is that you can learn about the area from a local, but the disadvantage is that you have to go the route they take you on -- no chance to explore. Sven and I decided we would rather do a kayaking tour of our own since then we could see things at our own pace.
So on our second day there, we rented a double kayak for about 20euros for the day. We set off, and within about 20 minutes or so we had excited Lübbenau and found ourselves enjoying the quiet peacefulness of the Spreewald. I had seen pictures of the area, but nothing really compared to seeing it in person. The Spreewald is simply gorgeous -- most of the canals are flanked by dense forests, and the channels were usually smooth as glass. Occasionally we would pass homes along the water, usually with their own little dock into the water with a small canoe floating calmly. Living in this area looks like such an idyllic, relaxing lifestyle.
The waterways weren't too crowded, though we did periodically encounter other kayakers. A couple times, we had to pass through Schleusen (locks), for when the water depth changed. Those occasionally got quite crowded if there were several kayaks and canoes as well as a Kahn waiting to pass. According to their signs, the locals who run the locks do so for free, and so they have baskets on the sides of the locks where they asks for tips. Sadly, we didn't realize this ahead of time and we didn't have any change on us to offer. Although apparently they also accept beer as a tip, since I also saw that exchange between a Kahn guide and one of the lock workers.
Much of the area has grown around the criss-crossing channels that dominate the region, so there are certain areas that are only accessible by boat, foot or bike -- not by car. For example, we passed Gasthaus Wotschofska, a restaurant that was first opened on a small island in 1894 and remains today a popular place to take a break for boaters and hikers. I find it amazing that a restaurant has survived for more than 100 years despite being completely inaccessible by cars.
One of the main attractions in the area is the village of Lehde, a Sorbian village with many well-preserved buildings and homes. The village is almost completely inaccessible by cars -- the main way of getting around is kayaking place to place or using the numerous wooden bridges that span the waterways. We kayaked through it a bit, but it was a bit difficult because of the huge numbers of Kähne taking tourists through the village, in addition to people in kayaks and canoes. At one point Sven and I even got sandwiched between two tourist boats going in opposite directions, much to our embarrassment, the tourists' amusement and the punters' annoyance.
We took a brief break at a restaurant in Lehde, but didn't have enough time to explore it in-depth because we had to return the kayaks by 5 p.m. We decided to head back the next day on foot. It took about 20 minutes to walk from Lübbenau into Lehde. Once we got there, we could really appreciate just what a tourist destination it was, more than we could from the water the previous day. For such a small village (about 150 inhabitants), on a Friday afternoon the place was positively buzzing. The channels were full of Kähne floating by, all of them packed with tourists. Though the village was small, there were plenty of places to buy food or souvenirs.
One of the village's main attractions is the Freilandmuseum, which is an open-air museum that provides a window into how Sorbs in the area used to live in the 18th and 19th centuries. The museum features several original homes and farm-related buildings, and also has some interactive areas. For example, you could practice doing laundry the old fashioned way, try to milk a (fake) cow, or play with the same kinds of toys kids in those eras would have played with. I don't think the museum would be as good for people who don't speak German (I think they had materials available in English, and a few sections did have English-language placards, but I feel like overall a lot would be lost), but I was impressed by how much they had to offer and how well everything was presented. It wasn't very expensive either; I think only about 3 euros with a student discount.
The Spreewald is a thoroughly underrated part of Germany in my opinion, and for people who are already visiting Berlin or Dresden, I think it's an excellent side trip. 1 1/2 to 2 days is perfect for seeing/doing everything you should do, but staying longer isn't bad -- it just means you have more time to relax and really enjoy your time there. For people who enjoy being outdoors and who want a break from city life, as well as those heading east who want to try something a little different, the Spreewald is a perfect diversion -- very few non-German tourists and vast amounts of nature to explore.