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!

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