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.