Growing up in Western Germany, the Spreewald region in Brandenburg, East Germany was always an inaccessible destination. Though we heard many fantastic things about it, we only dreamed of going there. But after Germany’s wall came down, Berlin and Dresden were thriving and had become more thrilling places to explore. Last year I finally made it to the magical forested lands of the Spreewald. Less than an hour by train from Berlin or Dresden, the Spreewald is perfect for a day trip, a stopover, or some relaxing and unwinding days. Lush green meadows crossed by hundreds of miles of waterways: this is the Spreewald. Picture a fairy-tale forest where dragonflies look like little elves, trees reflect in mystic waterways as far you can see, and everything is extremely silent.
My tour begins with an oarsman from a local club in the town of Lübbenau. He tells the story of how he and his mother made their way from the Spreewald to Berlin in a punt right after the Second World War in order to sell a few pickles. A punt is an open flat-bottom boat with squared ends, used in shallow waters and usually propelled by a long pole. For centuries, punts were the primary mode of transportation in the area. Our guide takes us on a boat tour in Lübbenau, known as the “City of Punting.” Punting trips vary from 2 to 10 hours. There are many types of tours, including nostalgic boat trips in early 1900s clothing, nature walks, fishing expeditions, BBQ boat rides, picnics, a “photo safari,” and a scavenger hunt with all sorts of twists and turns.
We choose a five-hour wildlife and nature tour, which is over in no time. I recommend the Kahnfährmannsverein in Lübbenau at the Kleiner Hafen, or “Little Harbor.” Their groups are small and the routes tranquil and off the beaten track. The oarsmen are very connected to this region and will teach you a lot about the area if you are interested. I was told some of the them speak English. No matter which tour you decide on, you will crisscross parts of wetlands with almost 300 small canals that total over 1300 km in length–over 800 miles!
Lübbenau is also renowned for its Gurken, or pickles–the tastiest I’ve ever had. Some say this Spreewald city is the birthplace of pickles. Yes, it’s all about the cucumber here. You can bike the Gurken-Radweg trail, cheer on the folk festival’s cucumber queen, stroll a cucumber museum, or shop at the cucumber market.
In 1991 the Spreewald became a Unesco biosphere reserve. Nature lovers and active people can enjoy canoeing, hiking, and spotting wildlife along the canals. This network of waterways is a wonderful place to explore. Most boathouses and punting stations rent out kayaks and canoes for about 20 euros a day. Bike rentals are available in the old part of Lübbenau and at the train station starting at about 8 euros a day. In the summer, it’s best to start your trip early in the morning before it gets too hot. And don’t forget the mosquito spray!
Just a short walk, bike, or boat trip away from Lübbenau is the village of Lehde, a unique place in the middle of the Spreewald. This picturesque “Venice of the Spreewald” consists of many small islands surrounded by water arms of the Spree, connected only by small pedestrian bridges.
Following the northern bike paths from Lübbenau or going by boat you can reach the island of Wotschofska in less than three miles. Wotschofska is one of the oldest restaurant destinations in the Spreewald and was once a traditional sanctuary for people in times of need. In the ’50s, people came with the Tango Express from Berlin. They took a ride to Wotschofska and danced through the night. Recently, it was the setting of a popular German TV crime series. This may be due to the mystical flavor of the location and reminds me of David Lynch’s northwest town of Twin Peaks. A gherkin pie with your coffee? Today it’s kind of touristy, but it does have a very unique, yet popular beer garden. Surrounded by more than 100-foot tall trees, you can breathe in the beauty, magic, and nostalgia of the area.
Through the Spreewald forest and along the canals winds the 155-mile bike path, the “Gurken-Radweg.” Lübbenau, Lübben, and Cottbus are larger towns along the bike trails. All are served by trains directly from Berlin or Dresden.
For centuries life in this region was tied to its waterways. No wonder the people in the Spreewald remained isolated and developed their unique culture. “Not even socialism occurred here,” is a joke of the longtime residents of the town of Lehde.
The Spreewald is also home to the Slavic ethnic minority, the Sorbs, who have lived in this area for more than a thousand years. Visitors are always fascinated to encounter the region’s bilingualism, from signs and street names to conversations. Today, people over age 60 but also a few young people still speak the Lower Sorbian language. Sorbian folk music with traditional songs, dances, and costumes are performed by professional and amateur ensembles, and you can also experience Sorbian cuisine in selected restaurants and inns.
The culture, tradition, and nature of the region is already reason enough for a visit. But if you have some extra time for recreation, there are some outstanding spa and wellness resorts.
The Spreewelten spa in Lübbenau offers an extraordinary bathing experience in which you can swim with real Humboldt penguins. In their Roman baths and cozy sauna, you can find peace and relaxation. A great variety of saunas let you experience different scents, aromas, and temperatures. In the sauna called “Lutki cave,” Sorbian for “ dwarf’s cave,” you can listen to recordings of Spreewald tales. And where else could you possibly find a cucumber-scented sauna?
The city of Burg offers treatments in their thermal baths and has newly discovered mineral springs plunging more than 1,300 meters below the green idyll of the Spreewald. Opened in 2005, the Spreewald Therme lets visitors experience this precious liquid in many different ways. Hydrotherapy in the Spreewald is indeed a memorable experience.
Bleiche Resort & Spa, also in Burg, is an excellent and luxurious resort. Since the ’90s it is a landmark of the region. Some of its buildings date back to 1750, when Frederick the Great laid the foundation stone and had his soldiers’ uniform shirts made and whitened here. (Bleiche is German for bleach.) The spa offers classic wellness treatments with regional products, various pools, a sauna, a Turkish bath or hammam, a separate women’s spa, and a fitness center. And their award-winning restaurant offers a superb culinary experience with regional recipes.
With its convenient location between Berlin and Dresden the Spreewald is a wonderful destination for the perfect break.
Sandra Hundacker has been Rick Steves graphics production specialist and guidebook researcher for nearly two years. In her free time she likes to work on this blog and sauna directory and dreams about the perfect spa day.
Special thanks to Bradley Papineau and Carrie Shepherd for suggestions and help in finalizing this article.