Germany: Traversing Canals of the Spreewald

Even mailmen and deliverymen come by boat in this part of Germany

By Wynne Crombie

A punt for tourists on the Spreewald, in Germany. Wynne Crombie photo.
A punt for tourists on the Spreewald, in Germany. Wynne Crombie photo.

This gondolier didn’t croon arias, he mumbled in Sorbish, the local language. His Germanic gondola…the punt…held twenty-four passengers. Plaid cushions covered wooden benches, and small bouquets decorated the narrow tables between the seats.

The sound effects were an unintelligible murmur of Sorbish, German and Polish. This is the Spreewald, home to a Slavic-Germanic minority with their own linguistic and cultural identity. The region is an eclectic mixture of canals, forests and wetlands, one hour south of Berlin near the town of Luebbenau.

Traveling by Boat

Although there are paths, footbridges and even a few roads that connect the larger islets, most people still travel by rowboats or punts. Water transportation is not only practiced for the fun of tourists, but is still the only way of reaching some of the remote settlements.

Even mailmen and deliverymen come by boat. Tourist punts leave frequently from the Groesser Harbor between nine a.m. and four p.m., May through October. The price is about $7/hour.

Sorbian Identity

The Slavonic-Germanic tribes, who settled this area around 600 A.D., brought in their own language, Sorbish, best described as a mixture of Czech and Polish. Although Polish and German are also spoken, the cultural identity is distinctly Sorbian.

A drizzle began and Eberhard, our boatman/gondolier passed out umbrellas. A couple of our fellow passengers, oblivious to the weather, were imbibing from the basket of miniature liqueur bottles. Right on schedule, he twisted his pole and set us off through a maze of Spreewald streams and small canals.

We leaned back and savored the delicious relaxation as we glided beneath canopies of birch, ash and willow. Then the trees broke, and vistas of meadows and fields dotted with dome shaped haystacks appeared. The smell of wet spring earth tugged at our noses. Several farmers stopped their work; waved and shouted, “Tag” (hello) A quartet of Mallard ducks swam by.

Red Covered Roofs

As we progressed deeper into the forest, reed-covered roofs appeared with crossed wooden snakes at the corners, the so-called crosses of Andreas. These crossed crowned heads of snakes are on the front gable of nearly every house. The snake king plays a significant protective role in Sorbian mythology.

Roosters and family cows stood side by side along the canal bank. Residents tuck their family boats away in garages. Here and there some of them had been partially sunk by heavy rains. Wooden pilings shored up lawns and gardens.

You can also explore the Spreewald on foot from the many walking paths. Especially interesting is the Lehde Open-Air Museum depicting Sorbian life in the 18th and 19th centuries. The width of the canals varied from 25 to 10 feet. At various intersections signposts appeared in both German and Sorbian. Hundreds of little bridges link the communities.

Most of them are wooden with a high arch, just tall enough for a standing boatman. An hour after our tour began, the punt coasted as we approached the 70-year old, thatched-roofed, Venetian Café. Patrons crowded the spacious biergarten sipping the local brew.

Waitresses in Costumes

The waitresses, dressed in local costumes (think stiffly starched lace), handed out plastic-covered menus. (They were in German with Polish translations). Braised cucumbers and cottage cheese dumplings are the specialties of the area. Or, for the more adventurous, there is always pike and eel in a creamy sauce. For the less daring: sausage and sauerkraut.

Whatever you order, it comes with the pride of the region, a gherkin pickle. In fact, the town public relations character is a sort of Mr. Pickle who is pictured cycling, hiking, or boating on various tourist posters. Filled with good German beer, two bratwurst and a dollop of sauerkraut, we climbed back into the punt.

Eberhard pointed out empty nests in the still barren trees, “Five hundred storks come back every spring. They also nest on chimneys; that’s a sign of good luck.” So unique is the wildlife here…otters, white storks, white-tailed sea eagles, kingfishers and many varieties of dragonflies…that the area has been under UNESCO protection since 1991. Most of the inhabitants are farmers. Now that the 21st century has discovered the legendary beauty and fascination of the Spreewald, how will the Sorbian culture fare?

Both Germans and Sorbs are dedicated to preserving the tremendous variety of Sorb culture…one that encompasses music, dance, literature and fine arts. There are two daily Sorbian radio stations and two daily newspapers. To obtain the full flavor of this Hansel and Gretal setting, take this waterway adventure right along with the natives. A gregarious gondolier and the stunning visual effects more than make up for the language barrier

How to reach the Spreewald:

By train: Trains to Luebbenau depart from Berlin’s Alexanderplatz station and the Hauptbahnhof (train lines RB 41 and RE 2). Fare: about $40. (rt. for two) If you bought a Berlin City ABC card, this pays for about $5.00 of the trip.

By boat: Boat tours depart from the Groesser Harbor in Luebbenau. Prices average about $7.00 per person/ per hour. There are frequent departures between 9 am and 4 pm. Tours are two, three, four hours and all-day. The boat rides are only fully operational between May and October. If you want to transverse the canals on your own, head for the

Nature walk: There are walks aplenty on this nice even land. We took the 1 1/2-mile path that runs between Luebbenau and the lagoon town of Lehde. It is nature at its best: frogs croak, birds chirp, and rare dragonflies flit by. Our destination was Lehde’s open-air museum, which depicts Sorbian life in the 18th and 19th centuries. Well worth the visit.

Dining: Zum Gruenen Strand der Spree – Dammstrasse 77 traditional specialties entrees from $7. to $18. We stuck with sausage and sauerkraut, but other enticements include, duck with red cabbage and potatoes, pork with curry sauce. Credit cards accepted.

Lodging

There is no large tourist hotel in Lubbenau. But numerous pensions and Zimmer (rooms) flourish in all price range.

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Wynne Crombie

Wynne Crombie

Wynne Crombie and her husband Kent met in Berlin 43 years ago and have been traveling ever since. She has been published in GoNomad.com, Real Travel.com (UK) Dallas Morning News, Travel and Leisure, Christian Science Monitor, Air Force Times, Stars and Stripes and Catholic Digest. She lives in Illinois.