As the East German buildings became more interspersed and the lush greenery started to take over, my shoulders dropped and I began to relax. When I spotted cows outside the train window I became more and more excited about our weekend in the Spreewald, nicknamed the Venice of Germany, which seemed to be the perfect antidote to Mindy’s very busy work week in Berlin. Our getaway turned out to be even better than I had imagined, leaving me to wonder how it was possible that I had lived in Berlin for three years and never made it to the Spreewald.
Pickles, Pickles, Pickles!
We were only five minutes from the train station when the references to pickles began and they only increased as we neared the center of town. Before we had even checked into our hotel we had sampled quite a variety of pickles, including the senfgurken (mustard pickles) in which the skin of the cucumber is peeled before it is pickled, making the final product white instead of the standard green. We bought an entire tub of them and schlepped them with us to the hotel.
Freiland Museum in Lehde
There are several museums in the area including an exhibition at the castle, the Lausitz art collection, the Spreewald Museum, the Freiland Museum and yes, of course even a Gurkenmuseum (Pickle Museum). We decided to walk the short distance to Lehde (there is a bus if you don’t want to walk) to learn about the daily life of people living in the Spreewald in the 1800s.
The museum featured many houses from that time period that you could explore as well as some vehicles from everyday boats to fire rescue vehicles. The museum included a short video that explained the history of the area as well as the process of growing cucumbers and making pickles on a large scale. We learned about the traditional dress of locals during that time period, especially from the Slavic tribes of Sorbs and Wends, whose culture and language are protected, and indeed treasured, today.
My favorite aspect to the museum was a live blacksmith demonstration. After watching the blacksmith make a nail (and he made it seem so easy), he turned to me and out of everyone in the crowd asked me if I’d like to try. I was shocked, excited and nervous, exactly in that order. He had me put on a protective apron and motioned for me to join him next to the fire after pointing to a hammer on the ground. So with the rather heavy hammer in hand I stood next to the anvil and waited for him to pull the metal out of the fire and give it to me. With one hand I held the metal rod and with the other I pounded the glowing metal stick at the end of it into shape. It took quite a lot of effort and I noticed that rather quickly the glistening red disappeared and it was time to put it back in the fire. Eventually, I was so proud to have produced a nail!
We strongly recommend not visiting the Gurkenmuseum unless you are really interested in viewing old farm equipment without explanation (seriously, much of it looks like they simply opened up their shed), a sample living room from back when, some pickle recipes in German, and pictures of the Pickle Queen winners in recent years (yes, apparently there is such a thing). We felt it was not worth the 2 Euros it cost to get in, however, a great spot to sample and buy pickles and pickle-related items, including pickle bread, is at the gift shop right next door so it is well worthwhile to stop by.
Kayaking in the Spreewald
One of my absolute favorite things to do in the Spreewald is kayaking through the canals. And don’t worry if you don’t have your own boat as there are many kayak and canoe rentals in the Spreewald and they are all pretty much the same in price so we recommend renting from the outfit that is closest to your accommodations.
We made sure to get to the rental shop at 8am when they first opened so we could get out on the water before there were many people. It turned out that this was the right decision as we had the water all to ourselves for the first two hours. We were handed a laminated map, were told what signs to watch out for and with a push we were on our way.
Our journey began by paddling through the neighborhood with houses on both sides and the occasional resident going about morning errands. As we left “town” the banks opened up into farmland and we found ourselves enjoying the smell of hay before heading into the forest where the trees were lush and in some areas looming, making a beautiful canopy over the water. It felt as though the area were both completely still and lively at the same time.
On the walk into town from the train station we had learned of some mythological creatures that live in the Spreewald and we wondered whether we might see them on our morning paddle. We saw a deer, many birds, several cows and strangely, even a man with a chainsaw, but as far as we know we didn’t encounter any mythological creatures. We did, however, hear some strange noises on the shore behind tall grasses that we could not explain, so who knows.
Quietly paddling through the canals was nothing short of glorious! It was like paddling through a fairytale and was definitely the highlight of the weekend for me.
Being Vegan in the Spreewald
When it came time for our first meal, it quickly became quite obvious that we had left the vegan mecca of Berlin, where there are vegan restaurants abound. Our trusted website HappyCow.net revealed that there were no vegan restaurants in our vicinity. And unlike in Berlin, getting people to understand veganism required a bit of help from us. But most people were interested in accommodating and so at our hotel’s breakfast we managed to get some bread, a variety of jams, fruit and of course a never ending supply of local pickles. This actually was not a bad spread for vegan choices. The dining hall, however, was unlike anything we had ever seen – it was possibly the worst room we had ever been in!
Every inch of wall space was filled with some sort of dead animal ranging from a huge deer to wild boar to a variety of once beautiful birds, to a doe. From our table we could see a total of 24 carcasses staring down at us. It was a vegan nightmare! We learned from this that there is a big hunting culture in the Spreewald, lending itself to such horrid decor. In addition, we often saw Wildtiere (game) on many restaurant menus in the region.
There are plenty of vegan products that you can buy from the Spreewald, however, that will leave you satisfied. We bought a loaf of pickle bread and another Zwiebelbrot (onion bread) and an apple mustard jam that was phenomenal. We also had to try the Gurkenliquor. Now might be a good time, by the way, to tell you that the German word “Gurken” can translate to either “cucumber” or “pickle” in English so when you see something like Gurkenbrot, Gurkensuppe or Gurkenliquor this would translate to pickle bread, cucumber soup (which is not vegan due to cream) and cucumber liquor, which I liked more than Mindy did.
The region is also known for Leininöl, which translates to flaxseed oil, and is often put onto the top of salads, soups and to quote the woman at the museum in Lehde, “we put it on everything”. You can find plenty of shops that are proud to sell cold-pressed flaxseed oil.
For dinner one night we ventured into Lubbenau to see what we could find. After passing restaurant after restaurant with not much to offer, we landed at an Italian restaurant where we ordered pizza without cheese and pasta with arrabiata sauce without the added cheese. Again, not the most inspiring meal we’ve had but we managed for one night without starving.
So our advice for visiting the Spreewald is taste and buy lots of pickles, enjoy the hearty and delicious German breads and wash it all down with some Gurkenliquor. An alternative would be to bring some take-out from Berlin or go food-shopping ahead of time in Berlin and buy some hummus and fresh veggies to make a nice sandwich with the pickle or onion breads and be sure to purchase some local flaxseed oil to sprinkle on top of your delicious homemade sandwich or fresh salad.
How to get there…
From Berlin you can take the Regional Train 2 (RE 2) and get off the train in Lubbenau. It takes about an hour and be sure not to confuse Lubbenau with Lubben which is the stop just before your destination. When you get off the train you can either walk or take the bus, which runs every hour and will pick you up right in front of the train station, and takes 30 minutes to the end station in Lehde. If you opt for some exercise, walk down Poststrasse, which is perpendicular to the train station, to the end (along the way you will go through a roundabout) and then turn right going through town. Be sure to stop and enjoy the sculptures of the Spreewald mythological creatures on the right. Keep following the main road and when you leave downtown (you’ll pass a castle on your left as well) the way becomes green and it is quite an enjoyable walk all the way to Lehde. For much of the way there is a path to the right that travels parallel to the busy street and is an even more pleasant walk. We stayed at a place between downtown Lubbenau and downtown Lehde making both towns accessible by foot.