The Spreewald is Brandenburg at its most attractive and touristy. Also designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, this gentle landscape of meadows and meandering waters 80km southeast of Berlin is home to Germany’s Sorbic community, but every bit as well known for its market gardening: famously it produces 40,000 tonnes of pickled gherkins every year, in a staggering number of varieties. Gateway towns in the region include Lübben and Cottbus, but easily the most attractive hub is Lübbenau.
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LÜBBENAU’s unassuming Altstadt is crowded with hotels, restaurants and services, and with a million visitors a year strolling through its centre, it’s a fairly touristy place worth avoiding on weekends and in the peak summer season. Punting, canoeing and cycling are the main draws, though two small museums in town warrant a look if the weather is poor: the Spreewald-Museum, Am Topfmarkt (Tues–Sun: April to mid-Sept 10am–6pm; mid-Sept to March 10am–5pm; €3; 035 42 24 72), in the brick former courthouse, jail and town hall, offers local cultural history; the Haus für Mensch und Natur, Schulstr. 9 (April–Oct Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; free;035 428 92 10), behind the tourist office, explains, in German, why the area is a Biosphere Reserve.
Lehde and the Freilandmuseum
The most popular trip by punt, canoe or bike is to Lehde, a protected village oft touted as the Venice of the Spreewald for its many waterways, and which lies 3km east via signposted paths from Lübbenau’s Grosser Hafen. Lehde’s prime attraction is the excellent Freilandmuseum, an intriguing open-air museum with a Sorbian village, whose houses and farmhouses have been brought here from other parts of the region and furnished with traditional Sorbic household objects. Unusual are the buildings’ large foundation stones that rest on top of timber poles driven deep into the marshy ground, and inside, beds designed for a whole family.
Tropical Islands in the Spreewald
Tropical Islands in the Spreewald
Since 2004 an old hangar for zeppelins 60km south of Berlin has housed Tropical Islands (035 477 60 50 50, tropical-islands.de), an indoor landscaped water park the size of four football fields containing pools, lagoons, water slides, waterfalls, whirlpools and saunas as well as a clutch of bars, restaurants and shops. The quality of the landscaping is first class, and the tropical shrubbery and birds that flit around its undergrowth get to luxuriate in the constant 27°C temperature. A Disney-esque quality is added by interior buildings and monuments – like the Bali, Borneo, Thai and Samoan pavilions – and regular evening dance shows, but what really sets the place apart is its laidback convenience. A wristband received on entry handles all purchases electronically – to be paid on exit – but best of all, the place is open all day, every day, allowing you to stay overnight. Tents (€24.50 per person) can be rented, but most people just crash on the beach with a mat and blanket, which costs an additional €15 per night on top of the one-off complex entry charge of €29.50. Other one-off additional charges valid for your entire stay include use of water slides (€4.50) and the immense, nudist sauna area (€8). Tropical Islands lies off the A13 motorway from Berlin (exit Staakow), and near Brand (Niederlausitz) train station where free shuttle buses to the complex meet every train.
For an alternative, much-scaled-down experience, visit the Spreewaldtherme (daily 9am–10pm; 2hr €13, day-ticket €23; 035 60 31 88 50, spreewald-therme.de), a top-notch spa and sauna complex in Burg, 18km east of Lübbenau.
Numbering just 60,000 people, Sorbs are Germany’s only indigenous ethnic minority and can trace themselves back to the Slavic Wends who settled the swampy lands between the Oder and Elbe rivers in the fifth century. Conquered by Germanic tribes in the tenth century they found themselves forcibly, often brutally, Germanized throughout the Middle Ages, until their homeland – known as Lusatia (Łužica or Łužyca in Sorbian) – became divided between Prussia and Saxony in 1815. Their language takes two distinct dialects: lower Sorbian, with similarities to Polish, was spoken in Prussian areas and generally suppressed; while upper Sorbian, a little like Czech, was mostly spoken in Saxony and enjoyed a certain prestige. But emigration from both areas was widespread throughout the nineteenth century with many ending up in Australia and the USA, specifically a Texas town called Serbin.
Persecution heightened under the Nazis – who butchered around 20,000 Sorbs – then rapidly lessened in the GDR, even though Lusatia was overrun by resettling Germans expelled from Poland at the end of the war. The area subsequently became heavily industrialized, which hastened the erosion of old ways. But at least the Sorbs were allowed some cultural autonomy, with their language granted equal status with German and their folk traditions encouraged, albeit for tourist purposes. Since the Wende cultural interest has been stepped up and colourful Sorbian festivals like the Vogelhochzeit on January 25, the Karnival, and their variant of Walpurgisnacht on April 30, have become popular. Yet despite all this, and bilingual street signs throughout the region, Sorbian is rarely heard and the minority still feels under-represented and under-financed by the German state. They are petitioning the EU for greater recognition and the election of a Sorbian as Minister President in Saxony in 2008 is helping their cause.