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.
Top image: Illuminated glass dome on the roof of the Reichstag, Berlin © Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock
The former concentration camp of Sachsenhausen on the fringes of the small town of Oranienburg, 35km north of Berlin, has been preserved as the unremittingly miserable Gedenkstätte Sachsenhausen (Sachsenhausen Memorial) as a reminder of the crimes of two of the last century’s most powerful and terrible regimes. This early Nazi camp was a prototype upon which others were based. It was never designed for large-scale mass extermination, but all the same around half of the 220,000 prisoners who passed through its gates never left, and at the end of the war the camp was used to systematically kill thousands of Soviet POWs and Jewish prisoners on death marches. After the war the Soviets used the infrastructure for similar purposes.
At the entrance to the camp, its largest structure, the impossibly detailed New Museum, charts the camp’s origins from defunct brewery to a Nazi political prison; the local Nazis filled it with many of their classmates, colleagues and neighbours.
The camp proper begins under the main watchtower and beyond a gate adorned with the ominous sign Arbeit macht frei (“Work frees”) and within the perimeter walls and former high-voltage fence – site of frequent inmate suicides. Within the camp many parts have been chillingly well preserved or reconstructed: a number of prison blocks which now house a museum telling the stories of selected inmates; the camp prison, from which internees seldom returned; the former kitchen and laundry where harrowing films show the camp on liberation. Just outside the perimeter lie pits where summary executions took place and bodies were incinerated.
Finally, at the northern tip of the camp, an exhibition in a guard tower investigates what the local populace knew and thought of the place, via video interviews, while the jumbled hall next door examines the postwar Soviet Special Camp (1945–50), when the Russians imprisoned 60,000 people with suspected Nazi links – though most were innocent – of whom at least 12,000 died.
Some 50km northwest of Berlin, venerable tree-lined avenues home in on the rolling forests that cradle lakes on Brandenburg’s border with Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania – where this landscape is protected as Müritz National Park. But just south, on the languid shores of Grienericksee, lies the pretty little town of RHEINSBERG, where Frederick the Great claimed to have spent his happiest years as a young crown prince living in a modest Schloss, studying for the throne and giving occasional concerts.
Rheinsberg’s tiny centre is worth a quick exploration, and though there are few real landmarks, it features genteel, leafy, cobbled streets and several pottery workshops on the south side of town, which carry on centuries-old local traditions. Digs south of the Schloss have traced the origins of the local industry to the early thirteenth century, and Rheinsberg continues to be known for ceramics and faïence (tin-glazed pottery), though today’s most popular pieces are sturdy rustic ones with cream and dark blue glazes.
Large tracts of heathland increasingly assert themselves as you travel northeast from Berlin and into a region known as the Schorfheide. Its gentle charms may fail to draw the crowds, but as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve it’s certainly ecologically important and within it a couple of sights are worth a detour, particularly the romantic Gothic ruins of Kloster Chorin, a monastery 61km from Berlin, and an impressive industrial monument in the form of a giant 1930s barge hoist at Niederfinow. Then, on Schorfheide’s northeastern edge and hard on the Polish border, the Unteres Odertal Nationalpark offers great birdwatching and peaceful, traffic-free cycling.
Rolling hills, crisp, clean air, trickling streams and languid lakes: the Märkische Schweiz has long been a popular middle-class getaway from Berlin’s hubbub. Predictably, Theodor Fontane heaped praise on the region – though he conceded that the Switzerland epithet was a hyperbole too far – and Bertolt Brecht and Helena Weigel, too, voted with their feet, spending several of their last summers together in a pleasant lakeside cottage in the delightful little spa town of Buckow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.