Rambling through Brandenburg

Theodor Fontane is best known as the author of a number of realist novels in the late 19th century, such as Effi Briest. We read this book in school, and while I quite enjoyed it at the time, the general consensus seemed to be that Fontane is a dull writer – an impression our German teacher was not eager to dispel. In 2019 interest in Fontane sparked again since it would have been his 200th birthday, but it seems safe to say that in general he is regarded as a rather pedestrian author, and even those interested in German literature will not necessarily have read any of his works.

In my opinion this reputation is unjustified, and would recommend the short and gossipy Frau Jenny Treibel to anyone who is curious. This is not a blog about literary criticism, however, and the reason for mentioning Fontane at all is a project he worked on before moving to fiction: namely his Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg, a massive five-volume travel book in which he describes countless walks undertaken in Brandenburg, the rural county that surrounds the city of Berlin.

In the past I have lived in Berlin for a number of years, but, unfortunately, never ventured out of the city limits much. As I unexpectedly found myself back for an extended period of time this summer, there was finally the chance to follow Fontane’s footsteps. One thing I had never appreciated until now is that Brandenburg is¬†huge: bigger than Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, and Cambridgeshire combined, to put it in East Anglian proportions.

In the preface to the Wanderungen, Fontane warns that those who “always demand a glacier or the roaring see in order to be satisfied should rather stay home”. Indeed, Brandenburg is not a place of extremes: like East Anglia it is relatively flat, with the highest peak just over 200 metres, and unlike its equally flat northern neighbour Mecklenburg-Vorpommern it is landlocked. The relative lack of sights is indeed part of what motivated Fontane to write his travelogues, for he though that there are hidden gems to be found for those with open eyes and minds.¬†Obviously this is the kind of project I can relate to.

One of my favourite journeys led me to a part of the county that Fontane doesn’t actually cover, namely the so-called Uckermark. This is one of the most rural and sparsely-populated areas in the whole of Germany, and also provides the kind of landscape I enjoy most: flat with some gentle rolling hills, and not too many trees to block the view. A more modern development is an abundance of wind turbines.

I think the reason Fontane did not write about the Uckermark in any detail is that it is quite far away from the city, and it was much more convenient to visit the areas immediately surrounding Berlin. For it was not the case that Fontane roamed the countryside for weeks with just a tent and a backpack in order to gather material: he mostly went on short day trips using coaches and trains. This makes it somewhat doubtful whether Fontane would actually have enjoyed the many long-distance footpaths that have been named after him in recent decades.

My second major expedition was to Lake Stechlin, the deepest lake in Brandenburg, and also one of the clearest. This brings us back to Fontane’s literary works, for the last novel he completed is inspired by this particular lake. (Fontane describes the plot of this book as follows: Two young people get married, and an old man dies.)

I started my walk in the small town of Rheinsberg, which is home to a castle with an interesting history. Before he became king of Prussia, Frederick the Great – famous for, among other things, popularising the potato – resided here and enjoyed the pleasures of music, theatre and literature.

From Rheinsberg I ventured east towards the lake. This part of Brandenburg is all woodland, and so I walked between trees until I reached some deserted railway tracks that lead to a decommissioned nuclear power plant. The plant was built by the East German government in 1966, and closed nearly immediately after the end of the GDR. It will still take some years until all remains of the plant are completely gone, however. On Wednesdays in calendar weeks it is possible to visit to see how the demolition is proceeding.

Right after the power plant I finally reached the legendary lake. In Fontane’s novel there is a mysterious connection between the lake and the wider world, so that when major historical events occur Lake Stechlin reacts by producing high waves. I also learned that there is a kind of fish that only lives in this particular lake, which is, no surprises here, named after Fontane. The fish of Lake Stechlin only have two eyes, in case you were wondering.

I had now arrived in the village Neuglobsow, on the southern side of the lake, which is a popular holiday destination. This being Germany there were of course Strandkörbe: 

Neuglobsow is roughly halfway between the two railway stations that framed my walk – Rheinsberg and F√ľrstenberg – and so there was still quite a long way to go. Since it was a hot day, and I had ticked off the main attraction, I planned to proceed quite quickly. When I encountered a sign pointing to a historical graveyard and “Metas Ruh” (Meta’s Peace) I had to stop and investigate, however. Metas Ruh¬†turned out to be a small crypt:

A sign on the wall told the following story: Anna Meta Catharina Noack, said to have “outer beauty, a sharp mind, musical talent and unusual knowledge”, was buried here by her husband Johann Heinrich August Nowak. This seems to have been a tragic affair, for she was only 25, and their 9 month old son is also buried there. Fontane actually has some more of the background story in the Wanderungen, but they are recorded in a regional dialect which is difficult to follow.¬†Johann Heinrich August seems to have remarried, in any case, and I feel that the name Meta¬†should make a comeback.

Flatness Abroad: Usedom

This is the first in a series of posts that differ from the usual format in not being about journeys in East Anglia. This time the landscape is still flat, but in the future hills will probably make an appearance as well. There’s no reason to worry though, as I still have a long list of trips I want to make in the East of England.

I recently stayed in Berlin for a week, and wanted to go for a walk in the countryside surrounding the city. Berlin is quite a good base for someone with my tastes: The writer Thedodor Fontane, for instance, was apparently motivated to write his “Rambles in Brandenburg” about the neighbouring federal state because it was perceived to be one of the least interesting parts of the whole country. I preferred to venture somewhat further afield though to Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which I think can justly be regarded as the East Anglia of Germany:¬†It is flat, rural, remote, and has lots of water.

Initially I had planned a walk between the two seaside towns of Warnm√ľnde and Graal-M√ľritz on the Baltic coast, however this could not be implemented since bus replacement services would have made the already very long journey unfeasible. Instead it was decided to go to the island of Usedom, a popular holiday destination. I had already been there once a couple of years ago with C. It had been an extremely hot summer and staying in the city was not enjoyable, so we decided to go to the seaside and stay there overnight on the beach – with only our sleeping bags and no tent, as there had not been any rain in weeks. Unfortunately this changed at around 5am, when we were rudely awoken by a massive downpour, and had to walk through the flooded streets of Zinnowitz¬†to the railway station. There we caught the first (heavily air-conditioned) train for the three-hour journey back to Berlin, and, in our wet clothes, were probably the only people in the city who thoroughly enjoyed the high temperatures.

Despite this memorable precedent C. accompanied me again this time, and soon we were on the branch line to Usedom.¬†We disembarked at the village K√∂lpinsee, where tiny roads and cul-de-sacs have grandiose names, such as German union street (Stra√üe der Deutsche Einheit) and Diplomat’s way (Diplomatenweg) (only one house).

Thatched roofs are very common on the island, and we came across a good number of them. Not only that, we also walked past the home of a thatcher, which was quite the coincidence since the night before we had watched a documentary about life on Usedom in which that very thatcher was being portrayed, and had talked about how much he enjoys working with the material reed.

We soon reached the end of the village, which was marked by a very German fish restaurant with a humorous weather station:

(Wet stone: rain, white stone: snow, dry stone: sun, shaking stone: wind, invisible stone: fog, stone on the ground: end of the world).

We continued through fields until we reached a place called Loddiner Höft on the southern coast of the island. The views were pleasant, and unlike on the northern site the water here is very still as it is part of a lagoon.

I had bought a map for this walk, however I was not very happy with it as it was not detailed enough, and there were real-life paths that were not shown on it, while other paths that were shown could not be recognised in the real world. According to this map we would have to double-back to where we came from in order to continue our walk, but we saw a well-trodden way through the forest which, so we hoped, would surely also lead us to our destination. Why would it be frequently used if it were a dead end, after all?

We therefore followed the path, which was quite steep at times:

Soon an alternative explanation for the popularity of the path was found though: It ends at a remote beach. On the one hand this was disappointing as we now had to walk back for an even longer time, but on the other hand we had found the perfect spot for lunch.

After that we walked and, for the steep parts, scrambled back to the fish restaurant, from were we headed towards the slightly larger town of Koserow. On this stage of the walk the resemblance to the landscape of East Anglia, in particular some areas in Norfolk, was particularly striking, so I felt very much at home.

On the way we also saw a quaint traditional oven, which I think is used for baking bread: 

In the town we stopped for a coffee break to prepare for for the final part of the walk: The ascent of the Streckelsberg, which with 58 meters is the third-highest hill on Usedom. Overall the hill is dominated by a forest, and one disadvantage of trees is of course that they tend to block the view. Nevertheless there were some spots from which we could enjoy the northern coast of the island, as can be seen in the header image. After descending we walked west along the beach to the village of Zempin, from where we intended to take the train back home.

Our timing was not ideal, for as we arrived at the railway station the next train was in 40 minutes. To pass the time we walked through the quiet village, wondering how many of the houses are holiday homes, and how many have permanent residents. As in so many other German villages the centre of the social life seemed to be the house of the volunteer fire department Рwhich may seem odd, but is pretty standard.

Usedom is so narrow at this point that after about 15 minutes we had again reached the southern end, so we turned around and walked back to the station. Overall this journey can be counted as a success: Flat walks are possible in Germany, and unlike the last time we stayed dry until the end. I therefore plan to explore to Mecklenburg-Vorpommern more in the future.