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."


Monday, 12 July 2010

Die Weltmeisterschaft 2010 ist nun vorbei!

The Football World Cup is over, and hopefully I'll never hear another vuvuzela again! Or maybe football fans the world over have fallen in love with the sound of ten thousand giant bees trapped in a jam jar, and we'll be hearing their monotone drone for years to come. Fair enough, so long as they are confined to the football stadium. It's when somebody thinks it's funny to blow one in your ear whilst you're cycling through Berlin that I wonder if anyone has ever tried introducing vuvuzelas to the field of proctology.

And what's with all the fireworks being let off during the tournament in Germany? I thought after the recreation of the Battle of Berlin that saw in the new year, there couldn't be any more fireworks left in the country. But no, fireworks when each German match starts, fireworks at half-time, fireworks for each goal - and with all the goals that Germany scored, that's a lot of gunpowder igniting. During daylight too, so you don't even get to enjoy the pretty colours. Our poor cats have come out of the tournament with Gulf War Syndrome.

I am admittedly not a big football fan. The last time I went to a match was with my Dad, most of the crowd were standing on the terraces, you could have a cup of Bovril at half-time, and the score board was manually changed by an old codger in a flat cap. But even I got caught up a bit in the excitement. I think part of it was this was the first time the World Cup was held on African soil; thinking back to my student days, Soweto was then a symbol of everything that was brutally and murderously unfair about South African apartheid. But here we are with the World Cup final being played at Soweto's Soccer City Stadium, and 91 year old Nelson Mandela is in attendance. Unbelievable. I just hope Maggie Thatcher was watching and gagging on her Horlicks in the Old People's Home for the Terminally Bigoted.

There's also a certain something about now living in a country which actually has a decent national football team. Not that I'm going to gloat (4-1!) because of course Germany was also knocked out, same as England. It was just that Germany went home with a week and a half longer sun-tan. I hope the English fans didn't do a repeat of what they did after the Germany-England victory of 1996, going on a rampage randomly smashing up German cars - Mercedes, BMW ... Rover. Causing their owners to buy new cars. As if the German car industry needs another boost. But still, 4-1!

I thought the best match though was for third place: Germany vs. Uruguay. What a nail-biter that was, and then Uruguay hitting the woodwork in the last seconds which if it would have gone in would have forced another thirty minutes of play. Much better, I think, than the Spain - Netherlands final, which was all a bit too bad-tempered and scrappy.

It was funny reading the German tabloids, which were showing headlines from the British tabloids such as The Sun's "We're Ready for Germ Warfare!", and doing the equivalent of rotating their finger by their temples. 'Die Spinnen, die Briten!" commented Bild, which translates as "They're bonkers, the British!" and BTW taking a quote from the Asterix comic-books. Because whilst the British press make a big thing about playing Germany ("Herr We Go Again!" was another Sun headline. Not as good as this from The Daily Mirror in '96 though), the Germans aren't all that bothered. If there's a team that gets the Germans heated, it's a match against the Dutch. Not that a German v. England game isn't a big match for Germany too; it's just that they usually have some more important ones to go on to play afterwards.

The German tabloid depiction of English footballers and fans is summed up by this pre-match article in Bild. The headline is 'Unsere guten Jungs gegen Englands Rabauken' or 'Our Good Boys against Englands' Hooligans'. I'll let you try out Google translate to get the gist of the rest.

Anyway, the star of the 2010 World Cup pundits has got to be Paul the Psychic Octopus, who successfully predicted the outcome of all of Germany's World Cup games. Here he is being very brave to predict a defeat to Spain in the quarter finals:

Let's have a big hand, or eight, for Paul! (and a tip for the 2:30 at Newmarket).

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Other End of Prenzlauer Allee

The main street through Basdorf is called Prenzlauer Straße. This is a continuation of the road that once began at the Prenzlau Gate in the old city walls of Berlin, and heads North by North East through Brandenburg to the mediaeval city named - have a wild guess! - Prenzlau.

We are familiar with the Berlin end of the road, where it is called Prenzlauer Allee and lent its name to the yuppie-intensive Prenzlauer Berg district, but we had never been to wherever it goes. Today we were to find out!

It would be nice to say we cycled along the full length of Prenzlauer Allee/Promenade/Straße/Chaussee (it keeps changing its name, but more prosaically it is called the B109), but we know our limits. So instead we got a Brandenburg ticket on a red RE train from Gesundbrunnen to Templin (changing at Löwenberg), and set out cycling from the Pearl of the Uckermark.

We made a diversion for a picnic stop at the fairytale castle Schloss Boitzenburg, a frothy white fantasy confection of Gothic towers and Baroque façades.



I particularly liked the attention to iron-work detail:

Of course, it's all mad and artificial in an imagination-bending way, but very German! (it also cost the tax-payers of Brandenburg tens of millions of Euro to restore with not a small amount of scandal and allegations of fraudulent claims e.g. see here headline translates as "Investigator [reports]: Economic Subsidy Fraud at Schloss Boitzenburg")

Suitably refreshed, we rejoined the B109 and pedalled on to Prenzlau.

After an hour or so cycling up and down hills and beside lakes created during the last ice-age, it was clear we had arrived at Prenzlau when the impressive Mitteltor, with the massive, looming Marienkirche beyond, hove into view.

The Marienkirche (St Mary's church) is an overwhelming brick-built Gothic construction that gives hints at the past prosperity of Prenzlau, which at one-time was capital of the Uckermark and traded with the Hanseatic League. Prenzlau was also another of those cities (like Berlin) that grew in population and innovation in the 17th C. by opening its gates to French Huguenots fleeing persecution in their homeland. From 1806-1812 Prenzlau had another invasion of French which was less welcome: it was occupied by Napoleon's army.

Here's another view of the Marienkirche:

It certainly impresses with its bulk but, I don't know, it seems so out of place. All the buildings around it are DDR-era Plattenbau and the church just looks like it has dropped out of the sky. There's a reason of course, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record (see elsewhere here about Magdeburg for example), it's because the area was raized during WWII, and the needs of the East German government to house millions of desperate homeless survivors of the war took precedence over piles of brick representing a religious ideology out-dated by Marxist concepts. Between 25th and 27th April 1945 around 85% of Prenzlau was destroyed by aerial bombardments. The Marienkirche was burned to a shell, and only rebuilt in the 1970's.

The nearby main shopping street has a similar feel of attempts to try and recapture some kind of history; low-rise Plattenbau shops exuding 'budget buy' faced with dull glazed brown tiles, and yet looked over by a Roland statue created in 2000 to replace the one granted to market towns such as Prenzlau in 1495.

Just as incongruous amongst the 'everything for a Euro' shops is a slightly pornographic fountain recalling the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan. What is it doing here, except maybe for the DDR authorities to keep a sculptor with classical illusions in work? Socialist Realism it is not!

Out by the city walls, the anachronisms start making a bit more sense.

A city wall 2,600 metres long and 8-9 m high was built around Prenzlau in 1287. Almost half of that length of wall has survived (or more likely, rebuilt), including a number of towers.

This is the Stettiner Turm , or the tower by the Stettin (now Szczecin - Poland is just 50km away) Gate. I love those blind wooden doorways half-way up:

A walk along the city walls is very pleasant. As is the promenade beside the Unteruckersee, which makes you feel almost as if you are at a seaside resort. Here's another picture of the walls, approaching the Pulverturm (where they used to store gunpowder):

We didn't cycle back home (!), but instead took the RE train. It was an interesting journey to sate our curiosity about just what was at the end of Prenzlauer Allee, with a fantasy wedding-cake castle thrown in!