Thursday, 22 July 2010

Werbellinsee - A Cycle Around a Fairytale Lake

"Es ist ein Märchenplatz, auf dem wir sitzen, denn wir sitzen am Ufer des Werbellin."

- Theodor Fontane
Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg (1868)

Translation: "It is a fairytale place where we sit, when we sit on the banks of Werbellin."

Theodor Fontane's nineteenth century four-volume 'Hikes Through Mark Brandenburg' are a picturesque collection of walking tours, natural history, architecture, local anecdotes, and personal observations. He was like the Bill Bryson of his day. Well, sort of. Not quite so laugh-out-loud but then maybe the German is a bit dense for me to get the jokes.

We've been doing our own tramps through Brandenburg, but by bike rather than on foot. Today we continued our explorations by going to the last stop on the Heidekrautbahn (the regional railway passing down the bottom of our garden), Groß Schönebeck, and cycling around the Werbellinsee that Fontane described as a fairytale place.

On the road from Groß Schönebeck to Eichhorst at the bottom of the lake, we found ourselves yet again on the so-called Märkische Eiszeitstrasse or 'Ice Age road'. This is a tourist route especially chosen to demonstrate the effects of glaciers on the landscape. In practical terms, this means lots of cycling up and down small hills or drumlins. For some reason we always seem to end up cycling across them rather than along the length of the ridges, but hey ho, soon we joined the nice cycling surface of the Berlin-Usedom Radfernweg at Eichhorst (this long distance cycling path connects Berlin with the island of Usedom on the Baltic coast. It is 337 km long. Maybe one day ... ).

Eichhorst is a small village based around a canal lock with a lot of pleasure-boat moorings, Biergartens and Eiscafes (one called Eiszeit - the Ice Age - that does a very tasty Limonette ice-cream):


... and for some reason it also has a monument to a Wisent:

Now I know what you're thinking - 'what on earth is a wisent?' But actually the English word 'bison' is derived from the Germanic 'wisent', and that is what they are - European bison that are close cousins of the American buffalo (to the extent that they can interbreed). And like the American buffalo, they were sadly hunted almost to extinction.

Huge herds of wisent used to roam across the whole of Northern Europe for hundreds of thousands of years. However, the last wild wisent was killed by poachers in the Western Caucasus in 1927. By that year fewer than 50 remained, all in zoos. During the 1930's an intensive breeding program was introduced to save them and try and reintroduce them back into the wild, which is where the monument at Eichhorst comes in. The writing on the monument is in unreadable old German Fraktur font, but a nearby information board helpfully explains that the writing says that on this site a sanctuary for wisent (and moose and beavers and wild horses and so on) was established to breed lost German wildlife. What it doesn't explain (and you need to look on the internet to find out) is that the monument was commissioned by a certain Reichsjägermeister Hermann Göring in 1934. No wonder that the monument was torn down in 1958 on idealogical grounds, and only dug out from the forest where it had been buried, and re-erected in 1990. You can still see living wisent at the excellent Wildlife Park Schorfheide just outside Groß Schönebeck where we started this trail, and man are they enormous beasts!

Leaving behind murderous, big-game hunting Nazis, the canal connecting Eichhorst with Werbellinsee is a peaceful, languidly moving stretch of clear water full of tigered fish and sparkling blue dragonflies:

After a short cycle by the canal-side, a stone tower appears mysteriously from the forest:

This is the Askanierturm, which stands on the spot where the Ascanian Margrave Albert II built his castle by the lake in 1211-1215, or so it is believed. The fact that the tower we see today was only built in 1879, as a project between a local poet Friedrich Joachimsthaler Brunhold and the equally romantic (or rather, Romantik) Prince Carl of Prussia, is neither here nor there - in the Märchenwald you have to exercise a certain suspension of disbelief to enjoy the magic more.

Someone else who was in the habit of suspending disbelief around here was East German leader Erich Honecker, who inhabited the Jagdhaus (hunting lodge) Hubertisstock in the forest nearby. He received numerous official guests at the lodge, including West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in December 1981. We weren't interested in visiting hunting lodges of former Communist despots though, and were too busy admiring the lake as we cycled along its shores, around the top, and down the other side:

Half-way down the Eastern shore is a picture-perfect village called Altenhof with a landing stage for boat-trips around the lake.


It is by the sun-dial on the well-kept lawn and flowerbed (and by the way, our lawn back home is pale yellow after all the dry hot days of Summer) that there is a plaque recording Theodor Fontane's description of this lake bank. And who could argue? Certainly not the locals!

All too soon we were at the bottom of the lake again, then back to Groß Schönebeck in time for the train home. In all we cycled around 45 km.

Even though Werbellinsee is easily reached from Berlin, it seems another world away. A fairytold world in fact, but not the kitsch commercial pap of Disney, but the altered state otherliness of the Brothers Grimm (die Gebrüder Grimm, who btw are buried in Berlin). And this got me to wondering; ever since we have moved to Germany I have found my memory improving considerably, especially my earliest memories. Frequently I keep getting a feeling of déjà vu, and some sight or smell will invoke deep-buried memories I didn't realise I still had. I think that this feeling of being here before is because in my childhood I have been - in the fairytale stories of turreted towers and walled cities, of deep dark forests and magnificent palaces. It's a strange feeling, compounded by the fact that like a child I am having to relearn how to read and speak (this time in German). It's not an unpleasant feeling at all, and I am enjoying coming alive to the world again, with the sense of freshness and wonder that a child has.

"Es ist ein Märchenplatz, auf dem wir sitzen, denn wir sitzen am Ufer des Werbellin."


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