As Germany’s largest, most happening city, Berlin’s lure is obvious. Its pace is frantic: new buildings sprout up; nightlife is frenetic, trends whimsical; the air crackles with creativity and graffiti is ubiquitous; even brilliant exhibitions and installations are quickly replaced. The results are mesmerizing and couldn’t contrast more with the sleepy, marshy lowlands of the surrounding state of Brandenburg, whose small regional towns, empty rambling churches, crumbling Gothic monasteries and faded palaces hint at a mighty Prussian past.
Today, as the frantic forces of renewal and regeneration calm and Berlin enters the final phase of patching itself up after its tempestuous twentieth century, an exciting mix of modern buildings, thoughtful monuments and world-class museums has emerged from the jungle of cranes. Thankfully many fascinating reminders of the city’s past have been left intact too. Yet it’s not all heavyweight history and high culture; Berlin is also endlessly vibrant: there’s always something new, challenging and quirky going on and every year it seems to be a little more cosmopolitan, international and mesmerizing.
Though rubbing shoulders with Berlin, Brandenburg’s capital, Potsdam, is a staid and provincial world apart, if nevertheless attractive and rewarding thanks to generations of Hohenzollerns who favoured the city and effectively doubled its size with their fabulous palaces and gardens, royal piles and follies. This provides a lovely breather from Berlin’s intoxicating pace, as does the rest of its sleepy Brandenburg hinterland. Here the main workaday cities – including Brandenburg an der Havel, Frankfurt an der Oder and Cottbus – are best avoided in favour of cruising Brandenburg’s flat, tree-lined minor roads through a gentle patchwork of beech forests, fields of dazzling rapeseed and sunflowers and heathland, all sewn together by a maze of rivers, lakes and waterways.
This landscape forms the backdrop for a disparate collection of attractions which include the former concentration camp Sachsenhausen; the bucolic town of Rheinsberg, with its palace, lakes, forests and earthy pottery; a dignified ruined monastery at Chorin; an impressive ship hoist at Niederfinow; and the Unteres Odertal Nationalpark, an ecologically important wetland environment on the Polish border. It’s the countryside that’s likewise the main attraction east of Berlin, where a series of low hills interrupt Brandenburg’s plains, ambitiously known as the Märkische Schweiz, or the Switzerland of Brandenburg. Finally, Brandenburg’s most heavily touristed area is the Spreewald, centred on Lübbenau. Its web of gentle waterways is particularly popular for punting and canoeing, and the region is made all the more interesting by the presence of Sorbs, Germany’s largest indigenous non-German community, while the astonishing array of local gherkins, sold as snacks on the streets, adds an off-beat attraction.Read More
Theodor Fontane and his Brandenburg wanderings
Theodor Fontane and his Brandenburg wanderings
Widely regarded as Germany’s most important nineteenth-century Realist writer, Huguenot novelist and poet Theodor Fontane (1819–98) pioneered the German social novel, most famously writing Effi Briest (1894), which became a film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1974. Fontane’s work offered insights into the lives of people across different social classes in an original style later dubbed Poetic Realism and often compared to Thomas Hardy. But he’s far less well known for his contribution to travel writing, which was well ahead of its time for its fusion of literary style, historical insight and narrative adventure. It also challenged the notion that exploring the exotic reaps the greatest rewards, suggesting instead that with the right approach your immediate surroundings can prove as bountiful. This notion came to him during a stint in Britain, which, as an Anglophile in the service of the Prussian intelligence agency, he knew well. While rowing on a Scottish loch it occurred to him that corners of his native Prussia were every bit as beautiful – he came from near Rheinsberg – yet uncelebrated and generally considered among Germany’s least appealing regions.
So between 1862 and 1889 he set out to champion his homeland, compiling the five-tome Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg (Wanderings through the Mark of Brandenburg), based on his whimsical walks around the state: “I travelled through the Mark and found it richer than I dared to hope. The earth beneath every footfall was alive and produced ghosts … wherever the eye rested, everything bore a broad historic stamp.” His project would marry Prussian national identity with Romanticism in ways that often mirrored the writings of Sir Walter Scott, whose style was in vogue at the time.
Fontane’s wanderings are certainly worth dipping into, despite their off-putting length – at least they didn’t end up as the twenty tomes he once planned – and as you travel around the region you’ll certainly find enough quotes from his work on tourist office literature. Last respects can be paid at Fontane’s grave in Berlin’s Französischer Friedhof.