Brandenburg: Beyond the Bridge of Spies

The state of Brandenburg is a bucolic slice of the old German east, whose sleepy hamlets and wild nature parks were preserved in the aspic of communism. In fact, it couldn't be more wondrously at odds with the capital city it surrounds on all sides.

By Chris Leadbeater
Published 18 Apr 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 12:41 BST
River Oder at sunrise

River Oder at sunrise.

Photograph by Getty Images

Crossing the Glienicke Bridge does not feel like a seismic scenario. It's a low-slung affair, pretty yet unremarkable as it hovers above the surface of the Havel River, the green paint on its steel haunches chiming with the grassiness of the banks on either side of the water. Four pedestrians stand at one end, taking photos. A small child totters away from its mother near the middle. And two weekend pedallers trundle in the cycle lane. I overtake them, pulling the car slightly to the left, nervous of their arrhythmic, wobbly riding — and in doing so, miss the moment when I leave one world and drive into another.

It's only when I've parked and walked back to the bridge that I find it. An iron plaque, buried in the pavement, which reads 'Deutsche Teilung bis 1989'. Four words — 'German division until 1989' — to sum up a dark period of passive aggression, distrust and fear. For the Glienicker Brücker was the infamous 'Bridge Of Spies', one of the most crucial connection points between the supposed freedoms of West Berlin and the frowning face of East Germany; a junction where captured operatives were swapped — CIA for KGB — as the Cold War postured its way through four decades of suspicion.

But even in the relative warmth of 2016 — 26 years after Germany was formally stitched back together — to flit across the Glienicke Bridge feels like an exchange of sorts. It's still a line in the sand, part of the boundary between Berlin and Brandenburg — the fifth biggest of the 16 German states; the region which, by quirk of history and the map-sketcher's hand, surrounds the country's capital on all sides, yet cannot claim it as its own.

Not, I've already realised, that it wants to. It takes me just half an hour to flit southwest from the city — but by the time I reach the Glienicke Bridge, Berlin is already a ghost in my mirrors, its metropolitan presence soon lost amid a blur of fields and lakes, the lights and bright graffiti of Kreuzberg dimmed and forgotten as the forest closes in. Such is Brandenburg's lot — the wrapping to one of Europe's most vibrant urban packages, but a place utterly removed from the cacophony of the conurbation. By contrast, it's almost evangelically rural. Farms lay their furrowed-soil tapestries across the landscape, villages tuck into the folds, and protected spaces — nature parks and biosphere reserves — link arms around rivers, woods and floodplains where eagles soar and wolves prowl.

There is a reason for this. Brandenburg was at the forefront of the Cold War, a fragment of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) which shared a barbed-wire frontier not only with West Berlin but with the West as a whole — its north-western corner bristling with gun turrets where the River Elbe drew a blood mark between capitalism and communism.

Yet for all the documented deprivations of the epoch, Brandenburg's 40 years directly behind the Iron Curtain bequeathed it something special: a slowing of time, a lessening of the clock's urgency, where development — towns, roads, buildings — slumped, and a leafy tranche of Germany was preserved. True, there were blots of industry — ground-scouring mines and smoke-belching chimneys — but the Brandenburg which emerged from Soviet-era strangulation in 1989 did so with much of its inherent beauty and pastoral reserve intact.

There was a further side effect too — one of perception. Perhaps it's the fact that this slice of Europe was off limits for so long — but the number of British travellers who appreciate its joys could fit into a small football stadium. In 2015, Germany had two million visitors from the UK. Some 480,000 of them headed for Berlin. Only 25,000 ventured to Brandenburg.

The comeliness of what they are missing is clear as soon as I reach the opposite end of the Glienicke Bridge. At first glance, Potsdam looks nothing like a place that could once have been considered one of the planet's most powerful cities — the state capital spreading out as a grid of narrow lanes, cobbles and baroque majesty, the houses on the streets of Charlottenstrasse and Gutenbergstrasse pretending to be palaces, all ornate facades in pastel pinks and yellows. They are architectural echoes, tributes to the 18th and 19th century, when they stood at the heart of Prussia — the duchy that grew into a kingdom, then into the key player in the unified Germany which came into being in 1871.

On the west side of town, the Kaiser still strolls — in memory, at least — in the gardens of Sanssouci, the high edifice that was the summer residence of Prussia's royalty until 1918.

Almost a century on from the fall of the House of Hohenzollern and the abdication of Wilhelm II, the German Versailles is still a model of regal sophistication — manicured paths edging past classical sculptures, fountains flirting with sunlight. The palace itself is a rococo feast, clinging to the 18th century in flourishes and curves, and I find myself in the time of Friedrich the Great — his library awash with thick tomes, the bedroom where he died in 1786 still mourning him, his chair empty in a corner. It's a universe away from the bars of Friedrichshain or any other cool Berlin district. Elsewhere, the Brandenburg parliament holds court in a 2013 reconstruction of the Stadtschloss (the 17th- century original in the city centre was bombed in 1945), while the Dutch Quarter dreams of 18th-century Amsterdam with its red-brick townhouses. I slip inside one of them — the restaurant Zum Fliegenden Holländer, where the crackle of fire in the hearth is inviting, the roast pork with dumplings a delight.

It's a busy evening — couples sitting at the tables close to me, a crowd at the bar. Potsdam might be a sliver of just 162,000 people, but in the context of Brandenburg, it's a New York or a Las Vegas — a big-eyed metropolis whose neon glow could not be more at odds with the state around it.

Into the country

So much becomes clear the next day as I forge southwest — in search of the Brandenburg that has no truck with the 'city' or its noise. It doesn't take me long to find it — Naturpark Hoher Fläming lurking just 40 miles and 45 minutes distant. Somewhere on the off-ramp of Autobahn 9, the last cry of municipal life dies in the throat — and I'm into the country.

And into the real Brandenburg. High Fläming is one of the state's 11 'nature parks'. Its 319sq miles of tranquillity were officially recognised in 1997, but it was always popular in the GDR days. "An escape from the factory floor," the park's Steffen Bohl tells me, sitting in his office at the Naturparkzentrum in the hamlet of Raben. With its squat church and cluster of houses, Raben is as developed as High Fläming wishes to be (aside from the main town of Bad Belzig, which boasts thermal baths and a medieval castle), and it's not hard to understand how the park has been able to sustain a population of 40 wolves. Their howls can pierce the night — although they are not the reason why tourists visit. Instead, they come to hike along the 24 miles of the International Art Hiking Trail as it curls between Wiesenburg and Bad Belzig, dotted with contemporary sculptures by local artists. And they come for the birds that haunt the heavens — the rare black stork, the middle-spotted woodpecker and the great bustard. When Steffen and I stride out near the village of Baitz, we spot 40 of the latter, relishing their safety in numbers and large wingspans in the face of two foxes eyeing them from the undergrowth. And when I slip into slumber that night — at Landhaus Alte Schmiede, a rustic retreat in the village of Lühnsdorf — I've almost forgotten what a city looks like.

My plan from here is simple. To see if I can circle a metropolis that dominated the global narrative for much of the 20th century — without noticing that it's there. This seems more than possible as I continue southeast. There are few reminders of Berlin in the town of Lübbenau, the whitewashed Nikolaikirche rising above the central Kirchplatz; Spreewald Biosphere Reserve ebbing beyond as a 187sq mile pocket of canals and meadows, with 800 miles of man-made waterways cutting through its copses and groves. I board a punt in the hamlet of Lehde — my pilot is one of many who earn a living on these canals, where the branches above flicker in reflection on the surface below — and marvel that one of the thin eddies we approach is the same River Spree that arches past the Reichstag in central Berlin, just 60 miles north.

I go the same way, but the capital stays invisible as I pass it to the east — through Königs Wusterhausen, Neuenhagen, Bernau bei Berlin, Eberswalde, Angermünde. Occasionally there are signs along the highway — for Dresden, Hamburg, Leipzig, as well as Berlin — which hint at the sprawl beyond the horizon. But by the time I reach the minuscule outpost of Criewen, I'm beyond Germany's brash cityscapes. In fact, I'm almost beyond Germany.

Here, in the northeast of the state, I have reached the Uckermark — a defiantly bucolic district of Brandenburg where the barrier in my way is international. I first lay eyes on the River Oder in mid-afternoon, the declining sun settling upon an angle which casts Poland — on the opposing bank — in a golden haze. The river, though, is in no mood to appreciate the perfection of the picture, barging north on the final sprint of its 531-mile journey to the Baltic — its ruthlessness evident in the levees along the banks which try to tame its ire.

Etched along the German side of the flow, the Nationalpark Unteres Odertal (Lower Oder Valley National Park) makes a virtue of this waterworld. Its 41sq miles frame the system of dams and dykes which, carefully controlled, allow the river's torrents into the floodplains beyond in winter and spring, and out again once April brings new weather.

It's a thrill to amble along these polders as the skies swarm with feathers — a buzzard levitating 160ft up, its gaze fixed on a rodent rustling in the rushes below; an osprey equally focused on the water; a giant sea eagle soaring with the sort of grace that no plane can match.

You can find 284 bird species in the park — 160 of them who stay here to breed. But its charms weren't always appreciated by the fishermen and farmers who worked the area before it became a protected space in 1995. "People were not happy," says Michael Tautenhahn, the park's deputy director. "There were concerns that it would affect agriculture and fishing. We spent a long time searching for compromises. But now it's popular." The park's perimeter flanks the villages of Schöneberg and Criewen, with its cosy homes and hamlet hostelry. Ensconced in the latter, the Pension Zur Linde, with a bowl of wine-heavy goulash steaming on the table in front of me, I seriously consider hibernation.

The tower

But instead, I head to the border where I began. Not to Potsdam, but to Prignitz on the opposite edge of Brandenburg — and the portion of the River Elbe where the globe's political tectonic plates scratched against each other.

The drive west is another showcase for Brandenburg's beauty — the hilltop citadel Boitzenburg, where a clutch of former stables in the shadow of a 16th-century Cinderella castle have been converted into boutique bolthole Gasthof zum grünen Baum; the swarthy town of Wittenberge, increasingly a commuters' halfway house between Berlin and Hamburg that the Elbe sweeps through; the Alte Ölmühle — an oil-processing plant, founded during the industrial boom of the 1820s, now reborn as a hotel and artisan brewery; the hamlet of Cumlosen, an emphatically idyllic version of Germany, pinned to another pale church.

When I see the Elbe again, at Lenzen, it has changed from the sullen workhorse visible in Wittenberge. Nor is it the popinjay that dances with the cathedrals and opera houses of Dresden. It's the magnificent centrepiece to the Elbe-Brandenburg River Landscape Biosphere Reserve, a 498sq mile parcel of land where two sets of dykes do battle with the river's eternal energy. "We have a real mosaic of habitats here," says my guide Susanne Gerstner. The vista, as we take in a section of the 600-mile Elbe Cycle Route, is an eco-cocktail — brackish ponds, water meadows, the dank remains of alluvial forest. Swans touch down on the river with a splash. A flock of geese strafes the sky.

And then, there it is. Up ahead. Unmissable. Unmistakable. An old GDR watchtower, its windows still glowering at the Lower Saxony village of Schnackenburg. But now, where once there were guns, a birdhouse ­— designed to accommodate falcons — is perched on the roof. The Elbe eases on, entirely uninterested in man's disputes. Never can a swathe of scar
tissue have appeared so serene.


Getting there
The delayed Berlin Brandenburg airport will not be ready until at least 2018 — so for now, the city's two existing airports are the best arrival points. Berlin Schönefeld is served by easyJet (from Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Glasgow, Liverpool, Luton and Manchester), Norwegian (Gatwick) and Ryanair (East Midlands, Glasgow, Stansted); Berlin Tegel by British Airways (Heathrow), Flybe (Birmingham and Doncaster-Sheffield) and Eurowings (Heathrow).

Getting around
Brandenburg is most easily toured by road. The usual vehicle-hire operators all have offices at both Schönefeld and Tegel.

When to go
Brandenburg is at its best in summer. But there is also much to be said for visiting amid the new blooms of spring or the colours of autumn.

Need to know
Currency: Euro (EUR). £1 = €1.30.
International dial code: 00 49.
Time: GMT +1.

How to do it
Naturetrek offers 'The Birds of Brandenburg & Berlin' — a five-day group tour in search of the great bustard and other local bird life. Prices start at £995 per person, with flights. Next departure is 10 October.

Freedom Treks offers an 11-night self-guided 'Berlin to Copenhagen' cycle tour, which spends its first three days in northern Brandenburg. Prices from £1,047 per person, including hotels, breakfast and luggage transfer. Flights and bike hire are extra.

Published in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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