Sunday, 26 May 2013


Neubrandenburg isn't actually in Brandenburg; it is in the next State up, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. It is easy enough to get to though, and is a lovely walled town on the shores of the large lake Tollensesee. If you are into Backsteingotik (and who isn't?!) then this is the place to visit. Or at least one of the places (it is on the European Backsteingotik Route).

Here are a few impressions of the sleepy town and lake. And get a load of that brickwork!

Watch out for the Werewolf!

It's behind you!

A strange sculpture at Neubrandenburg by lake Tollensesee

A Deer

Here is a photo of a shy deer that I spotted in the undergrowth near Burg Stargard in Meck-Pom.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Red Squirrels at the Bird Table!

I sit working at my computer in a bay window looking out onto the garden. Often I am distracted by birds coming to the feeder in the trees just outside, but today I was excited to have a visit from a red squirrel (Eichhörnchen).

Cassie was excited too!

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Spring Speedwell

Here are some gorgeous speedwell flowers for a gorgeous Spring Day!

The small flowers are delightful, but a posy of speedwell blossoms very quickly wilt. This has given speedwell ( Veronica chamaedrys ) its ironic name of Männertrau in German - men's faithfullness!

These beauties were snapped by me near Bad Belzig.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Bad Belzig - Gateway to Fläming

Bad Belzig
From Burg Eisenhardt
The Fläming is a glacially formed ridge located in Brandenburg, south-west of Berlin, and extends from the Elbe at the city of Magdeburg 100 km East to the river Dahme. The name Fläming (pronounced 'flemming') comes from the preponderance of Flemish settlers who came here after the establishment of Mark Brandenburg in 1157. Why folk from the Flanders area of Belgium came here in such high numbers to give their name to the area is unclear to me after my five-minute research on Wikipedia. Maybe they lusted after some hills like we did.

For centuries before the coming of the Flemish, these hills formed the border between the Slavs and the Germans, and then between Saxony and Brandenburg. In 1815 it was incorporated into Prussia after the defeat of the French and their Saxon ally armies. Whatever its turbulent and conflicted past, the area is a gorgeous place to visit on a Spring day, and provides a welcome bit of height in the otherwise fairly flat landscape. We used the town of Bad Belzig (which, as its name suggests, is a popular place to take 'die Kur' in its thermal baths) as a starting point for a Kunstwanderweg (art trail) to Wiesenburg to the West.

At the cross-roads in the centre of the village, there is an interesting Postmeilensäule, or milestone/column.

Kursachsiche Postmeilensäule of 1725 
View down the street to the Postmeilensäule.
These milestones are quite interesting. No, bear with me here, they are! They date back to the time of August der Starke (King Frederick Augustus II The Strong, Elector of Saxony; King of Poland (twice) and Duke of Lithuania) when on 1 November 1721 the Elector sent out a command to erect Post milestones throughout Saxony along the roads used by the Post Office. Around 1,200 were put up, of which about 200 survive. The reason for them was not just to stop people getting lost, but also to survey distances between Post-houses so that the Post Office knew how much to charge for the delivery of mail.

In order to establish  distances, the State had to create a standard measurement of length because local usage varied so much; a foot (or Fuß) in Dresden was 260mm in modern money, whilst in nearby Leipzig it was 282mm. So, on 17 March 1722 the Saxon Postal Mile was introduced, whereby 1 mile = 2 leagues = 2,000 Dresden rods = 9.062 kilometres.

As an aside, this explains why in Wandlitzsee there is an old milestone saying it is IV miles to Berlin; no way! Berlin is much further away than that, given that nowadays 1mile is about 1.6km. But these are Prussian miles, which just to confuse matters are 7.532km, so 30km would be about right (especially as point-zero for measuring the distance to Berlin was to the Milestone standing what was then just outside the City Walls in Spittalmarkt). By the way, if we got to Bad Belzig on a Brandenburg train ticket, how come it has a Saxony milestone in it? Look back up near the top, where I said that Bad Belzig was ceded to Prussia as part of the province of Brandenburg in 1815. That was at the Congress of Vienna which tidied up Europe after the defeat of Napoleon, who ironically had introduced the metric system across Germany in order that they didn't need all these Dresden Rods and Prussian miles any more.

So, if you look closely at the Bad Belzig Postmeilensäule it will show the distance to other town in the new Saxony Postal miles? No! It shows it in St. - Stunden - or hours.

Distance measurements on the Bad Belzig Postmeilensäule.
If you click to zoom in on that photo, you will read (if you can decipher the cryptic font - nice clear Helvetica hadn't been invented yet) that it is 16 hours from here to Magdeburg. Now here is the thing; one league is the distance you can walk in an hour (give or take), which in this scheme is half a Postal Mile, which is 4.531km. So that means Magdeburg is 16 x 4.531 = 72.496 km away. Funnily enough, Google Maps calculates that if you take Landesstraße 95 from Bad Belzig to Magdeburg (which is the road that existed then, running along the top of the Fläming glacial ridge) the distance is 72.1km and it would take you nearly 15 hours on foot.

But we didn't just spend our time in Bad Belzig staring at the Postmeilensäule - there is also a large and interesting Schloß at the top of the village - Burg Eisenhardt.

Entrance to Burg Eisenhardt
There has probably been a fortified settlement here on this commanding ridge as long ago as the Bronze Age, or certainly the Iron Age. It makes its first appearance in recorded history as being part of a former Slavic settlement called Belizi (from which comes the name Bad Belzig) awarded in 997 by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III to the Archbishopric of Magdeburg. The estates were actually not for Otto to give, as they had been lost to their originally owners via the Slavic uprising of 983. So not much of a present for the Magdeburgian arch-bish.

Burg Eisenhardt
The estates weren't regained until Albrecht der Bär (brother of Rupert the Bear) conquered them for House Ascania and the Margraviate of Brandenburg in 1153. The castle then entered a long and frankly confusing history of belonging to, or being taken by, the Margraviate of Meissen, the Saxon Electorate, the Hussites, the Archbishop of Magdeburg, and even the Swedish during the Thirty Year War in 1636. At times the castle was completely devastated (e.g. 1406 - that was the Archbish of Magdeburg) and at others rebuilt and expanded (e.g. 1685 by Elector of Saxony Johann Georg III). It then went into a bit of a decline, despite being occupied by the State administrative offices for the area in 1815 after becoming part of Brandenburg, and wasn't properly restored until 1849 by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. Anyhow, today it has a registry office, so you could get married there, as well as having a museum, a library focusing on the castle's history, and a hotel. It also has a tower you can pay to go up and get a big view of the Fläming countryside.

Tower at Burg Eisenhardt
The more recent history of Bad Belzig isn't all that fortifying - for example between 1940 and 1945 it was a sub-camp of the Women's concentration camp Ravensbrücke with 750 inmates, and also an ammunitions works was established here in 1934 with 1,500 forced labourers.

But, the village is pretty enough now, and was awarded the official title of a health resort (Kurort) in 1995 leading the name change from plain Belzig to Bad Belzig in 2010.

I said that Bad Belzig was the starting point for our walk along the Kunstwanderweg. And so it was, but as I got diverted into waffling on about Postmeilensäulen I shall leave that for another Fläming blog post!

Burg Eisenhardt
Those are impressive fortifications for a hotel!

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Alexandrowka - The Original Russian Colony in Potsdam

Alexandrowka Haus1 : Russisches Restaurant und Teestube
Potsdam, the Hauptstadt of Brandenburg, is no stranger to Russian residents. Stalin himself stayed in a villa nearby (at Babelsberg) when he attended the Potsdam Conference at Cecilienhof between 17th July and 2nd August 1945. In the division of Germany hacked out at that conference, Soviet Russia took a large chunk that included Potsdam itself. The Russian army had quickly moved into the former Nazi barracks at Krampnitz on the north of Potsdam, whilst the army's officers and their families turned the Neuer Garten area into a Soviet Forbidden City where the KGB had their German HQ and a terrifying prison on Leistikowstrasse. The Russian military left after German unification, but it is still not at all unusual to hear locals chatting in Russian.

But these weren't the first Russians to live here. On 29th October 1685 Friedrich Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg, proclaimed the Edict of Potsdam in which he offered to give asylum to protestant Huguenots fleeing for their lives from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by King Louis XIV. Not just asylum, but a plot of land, a business start-up grant, a tax-break, and the assurance that they could set up their own schooling system.

Friedrich Wilhelm was a canny bloke, and invited the immigrants in the hope that they would kick-start the Brandenburg economy after the disaster of the Thirty Years War had flat-lined the population and agriculture of Brandenburg. Potsdam became the place to be in Europe if you wanted a degree of religious freedom, and as well as the persecuted protestants of France, Holland and Bohemia, Russians also flocked here.

But the most lasting impression of Mother Russia in Potsdam (if you discount the Soviet occupation after the war) is the totally charming Russische Kolonie Alexandrowka. Its origins go back to 1812; Prussia had been conquered by Napoleon, and a forced alliance was uneasily forged between France and Prussia against Russia. More than a thousand Russian prisoners of War were brought back to Potsdam, but if you know the background to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture you will know that Napolen's Russian campaign ended in disaster, and the badly damaged Grand Armée was forced to withdraw.

Sixty Two of the Russian prisoners of War remained in Potsdam, and from these a choir was formed for the amusement of the King (Friedrich Wilhelm III) and the Prussian First Foot Regiment. Prussia and Russia then allied against France in Spring 1813, and Tsar Alexander I allowed the remaining Russian prisoners to be incorporated into the Prussian Foot Regiment. The choir was allowed to keep on going as entertainment, and to make up for the loss to the regiment, the Tsar supplied Russian Grenadiers to make up the shortfall.

On the death of Tsar Alexander I in 1825, only twelve of the Russian choir remained in Potsdam. In memory of the deep bonds of friendship that Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia had made with the dead Tsar, FWIII resolved to create a colony in Potsdam for the Russian choir and their families to live in. Twelve farms were built to the north of Potsdam, in an area shaped like a horse racetrack, intersected with two roads forming a saltire of St Andrew (apart from Scotland, St Andrew is also national saint of Russia (and Greece)). At the intersection of the cross, a Sergeant's House was built.

Each farm was furnished with a purpose-built wooden block-house after the Russian style, and a large orchard garden, and a cow. The farms were legally bound not to be sold, leased or sublet, and to be passed down the male line of each family.
Orchards at Alexandrowka

More orchards at Alexandrowka.
It's just like something by Chekov!

A Russian Orthodox church dedicated to St Alexander Nevsky (Tsar Alexander's patron saint) was built on a hill nearby.

The church is a small, exotic, rather pink building designed St. Petersburg court architect Vasily Petrovich Stasov with neo-classical additions by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. It is well worth the haul up Kepellenberg to visit (and afterwards you might as well continue further up the hill to the Bellevue with its magnificent views over Potsdam and the Havell). Apparently this little church still administers to the spiritual needs of a thousand Russian Orthodox believers in the area; I just hope they don't all turn up for a service at once.



In 1861 the last singer in the choir died. In 1927, a hundred years after the founding of the colony, only four of the original families were still living there, and by then the colony was the private property of the House of Hohenzollern (i.e. the Kaiser). At the time of the Soviet land reform (die Bodenreform of September 1945, when all private property over 100 hectares were taken by the state and redistributed as publicly owned estates or  Volkseigene Güter - VEG), there were only two families who were direct descendents of the original singers.

Nowadays, only the family Grigorieff lives in Alexandrowka, the rest of the houses being in private ownership.

The colony has been much restored and should be on the itinerary of  any trip to Potsdam. Especially recommended is the Russian restaurant and Teestube at Haus 1 where you can eat Russian snacks or meals, washed down with Russian beer, vodka, or a samovar of tea.

In the tea / beer garden at Alexandrowka Haus1

Russian tea, beer, and assorted biscuits!