Exploring and Sleeping in the Castles of Northeastern Germany
By Kent E. St John
Over dinner a few nights ago I had a friend mention that European travel has left him cold lately.
He has been to many places already and they all seemed the same to him. I disagreed because I had just returned from what was once the northern part of East Germany.
My trip there certainly dispelled his feelings towards a European jaunt. I thought it charming, different, affordable, and pretty darn unique.
In these tough economic times, affordable certainly plays a part in picking a destination, especially in Europe. I found my trip to the one time East Germany to fit the bill quite well. Its part in modern history as a satellite of the Soviet Union gives it an additional intrigue.
Because it was a part of the Holy Roman Empire, there are plenty of castles and ruins. In keeping with that feeling, it was a Schloss or castle stay almost every night.
Not far from the Berlin airport lies a city filled with parks and palaces founded by a man who arguably forged the modern German nation. Frederick the Great was a Prussian.
The Great Frederick wasn’t going to be outdone by Versailles and the French so he undertook the building of Sanssouci his greatest palace. Frederick brought in workers from Russia and Amsterdam to get the city up and running, soon an imperial and garrison bastion was built.
Other standout palaces nearby are the Orangery, New Palace (Neues Palais) and Charlottenhof Castle.
The Schloss Charlottenhof is where the Potsdam Conference was held between Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin to decide how Europe was going to get sliced and diced after World War II.
It was said that Truman was lost because Roosevelt constantly kept him in the dark and that he thought Churchill was a bore. In return, Winnie thought Truman was a party pooper.
Uncle Joe was a bit paranoid and needed the prime spots and biggest accommodations. According to my guide, Kevin Kennedy, Uncle Joe Stalin ordered 21 shots of prime Russian vodka to get the party rolling–or perhaps he hoped to keep Truman baffled and Churchill snoring.
The palace also has a hotel incorporated within it for those that want that fly on the wall feeling.
After seeing the sites Potsdam offers I realized that the Universities keep it young and vibrant. The favorite area of mine was the two-street Dutch Quarter (Hollandisches Viertel) that is filled with buildings done Dutch style in red brick. Frederick had them built for the artisans and craftsmen he brought over to help with building the city.
People stroll to shop and eat with some good nightspots tucked away in its alleys. A restaurant stand-out was Zum Fliegenden Hollander which was charming yet upbeat and lively. That’s a great description of Potsdam itself. North of the city center is the Russian colony of Alexandrowka, a reminder of Russian influence on Potsdam.
The city truly has earned its UNESCO title. One tradition that remains strong even during the Soviet times is Potsdam’s place in the motion picture industry; the word on the street is that Tom Hanks was walking the city not long ago.
Brandenburg, the State
The name is far more than just a gate in Berlin; it is a German state with more than 500 castles. Fifteen large protected areas, complete with park rangers, are a nature lover’s highlight.
Four rivers including the Oder, and Spree and the Havel meander through Brandenburg, and there is a 106 km national park located there too.
Our first stop in the state was the pretty lakefront town of Rheinsberg anchored by the Rheinsberg Castle, the childhood home of Frederick I. The palace is also home to a renowned music academy with extensive gardens and grounds.
Its position near Muritz National Park makes it a great place to hike, paddle and explore some of the prettiest areas in Germany.
It is also the first place I really started to notice subtle differences between what was once East Germany and West Germany. The pace slows down and little English is heard. Seasonal cuisine is not just a catchphrase, it is literally what is grown or caught at a certain season of the year.
After a wonderful day, it was time for this serf to head to some royal surroundings, the Schloss Fleesensee, a Radisson Blu Resort. The main part of the castle holds lobby, dining rooms, lounge, and spa.
Some rooms are in this section but two wings have modern rooms. A tradition often seen in castles…dividing the rooms from the historically preserved areas. The main building fit the castle look perfectly and service was regal.
There is even a luxurious castle suite with picturesque views of Muritz National Park for those looking for something even more romantic!
The Schloss is surrounded by several well-maintained golf courses with views down to gorgeous lakes. The main dining room served a buffet-style dinner with once again seasonal dishes of this eastern German region.
A final cocktail by the huge fireplace in the main building was peaceful and relaxing, all for a price that a Holiday Inn in any large American city would cost.
A shining example of what a regional capital should look like is Schwerin, capital of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state. On an island on the edge of Lake Schwerin is the fairy tale looking Schwerin Schloss its golden roofs blinding in the sunshine. The castle lived up to its reputation as the Neuschwanstein (Disney Castle) of the north.
Schwerin Castle is reminiscent of a French chateau and was once home to the Mecklenburg royal family but today half is used as legislative space. The rest is meticulously restored royal rooms and a museum that will greatly help you follow the comings and goings of an area that was once filled with regal families.
At the rear of the castle are gardens and a grotto resplendent on a sunny day, on weekends a procession of newlyweds wait to have their pictures taken. Luckily Schwerin escaped bombing during WWII so the narrow streets and quaint buildings remain intact.
Mecklenburger Strasse is pedestrian-only and the main square is perfect for people watching. If lucky enough to be there in the evening the Weinhaus Uhle has been serving since 1740 and has an impressive wine list as well as hearty food long associated with German cuisine. The soups are especially wonderful.
Green ist Gut
I’m not one to push a vegetarian lifestyle but as for living green, I’m a big fan. The award-winning Hotel Gutshaus Stellshagen is an amazing place and testament to just what can be done under the banner of true green living.
Like all of the castles we visited, the Guthaus (Manor) has its share of interesting stories. During WWII when the Russians closed in, the current matriarch of the family had to flee. The family bought the property back fifty years later.
She oversees her son-in-law and daughter from the house she fled so long ago.
The main manor house houses the dining room, conference space, and a cozy lounge as well as a bakery. Most of the rooms are in several outbuildings, all different and well done.
The surroundings are farm fields, stands of forest and pond and the pool is a natural one.
Linden trees line the driveway and orchards lie beyond, the fruit used by the hotel. Greenhouses are filled with vegetables also used in the kitchen.
In fact, I must admit I felt downright relaxed and well after my tour. To top it off the vegetarian buffet lunch was delicious! This is a place that might just be able to convert a serious carnivore.
A Baltic Royal Retreat
Once again our stay at the Castle Hotel Wedendorf is done with a Manor house as an anchor. Several rooms are within but two wings hold deluxe rooms built for style and comfort. There are four different categories of rooms pretty much something for everyone’s pocketbook. The grounds are vast and well kept and trails spread in every direction.
A bike path from several quaint villages ends here and the trail often follows the Baltic Sea. This is the kind of place that after a full day you’re so grateful that you are booked. Peace, quiet and elegant spaces to help charge up the batteries.
My room in the old stables was large and well laid out as an added plus they all have balconies or porches so the views are always in reach. With the huge cave-like shower I felt no need to rush to the Spa and indeed a most pleasant pre-dinner sit in the warm sun was just perfect.
The Schloss offers two types of dining; a brasserie-style in the old stable building of the elegant and French-influenced 1745 Room in the main building. As it was my last night as a Lord in residence I opted for 1745.
The food peerless and a wine list to match made my final night in eastern Germany ever so memorable. In fact, as I wondered the beautiful grounds I had a chance to reflect on just what made this trip through the one time East Germany different than other European destinations
What is different about this part of Europe?
One of the first things I liked about traveling to this area was the feeling that much still remains of days gone by, it hasn’t been sparkled up and the feeling isn’t such that you get the feeling that everything has been done for tourists and to part visitors from their money.
Yet still, the careful building is going on as I saw in all of the castles stays. They were done with almost every kind of traveler in
mind, such as the different categories of rooms.
Life follows the seasons, for example, if it is plum season then most deserts or coffee-accommodating tortes will be made from plums.
The menus reflect that very same attitude. Not because of some food trend but because that is the way it has always been done, surprisingly refreshing. Rare is the “tourist menu” and I say good riddance.
While the roads are well maintained and driving is easy that was a treat as instead of feeling like your trip was hopping on the autobahn exit to exit you had the feeling that you actually were seeing a place, not just spots.
I had many moments of reflecting on the days when my parents would take my sisters abroad during the 1960s.
During the Soviet era, many of the larger buildings including some of the castles were used as orphanages, schools, plants and storage facilities. In many of those structures university students learn and painstakingly restore and that was wonderful to see.
The look into that historic period Soviet isn’t done in too many places and is fascinating.
If You’re Going
As always I recommend starting your research on the Germany Tourism Website, it is particularly well done and covers all sorts of information on activities as well as some of the practical stuff you will find handy.
It has been quite a few years since I flew on Lufthansa Airlines and I was pleased with the trip. Though crowded the flight was smooth and well managed. The food was good and the dozens of movies on the seatback entertainment system were enjoyable. Even baggage cleared at a good rate. All in all, I considered a good journey.
It is said that in the German State of Brandenburg alone there more than 500 castles and castle ruins. This part of Germany is turning many of these properties into lodgings and doing it well from huge international corporations to families rebuilt properties, perhaps more than any other place I’ve traveled before. In all regards, they are fascinating, unique and fit all price ranges.
The largest one I stayed in was the Radisson Blu Resort Schloss Fleesensee, large with many amenities including golf. A great place to base for exploration of the lake country area of Mecklenburg and the Muritz National Park.
The Green and bio Gutshaus Stellshagen was one remarkable testimony for the benefits if clean use yet keeping standards amazingly high. The property is beautiful and perfect for losing one’s self. The Spa and treatments are hardcore and zoned into making you feel better in every way. Check the movie on their site it is well done.
The Schlossgut Gross Schansee is so elegant you may be tempted to slip a Von before your last name.
Kent St. John was GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.