Imagine a place where people make their home in the heart of the forest. Canals outnumber roads, and bridges are more common than crosswalks. Cars are obsolete since many of the homes are built on little islands, and wildlife roams free regardless of where your fence is. This almost mythical sounding world is found in Spreewald, and it’s a place that has held on to its own unique culture and traditions for centuries.
I had the opportunity to visit the Spree Forest on my most recent trip to Germany, and it’s a destination that I won’t soon forget. If you ever find yourself craving a little escape from the busy capital, this place is just a short 1.5 hour drive from Berlin but if feels like you’ve travelled back through time.
Not let me show you just a few of the unique things you can experience in Spreewald:
An introduction to Sorbian culture at Freilandmuseum Lehde
First up, I visited the Freilandmuseum Lehde for a glimpse at the 19th century Sorbian culture that existed in these woods. The place was set up as an open air museum where you could freely walk around, wander into old homes, and experience some of the games and household duties for yourself – a great place for children, but also a fun place for adults who like their museum visits to be interactive. I tried doing the laundry with a washboard the good old fashioned way, and I also attempted walking on stilts (a game that would have been played by the children at the time).
To give you a little bit of background, the Sorbs are a Slavic people who live mainly in the states of Brandenburg and Saxony. They speak their own languages (Wendish and Lusatian), they have their own traditional dress, and they have their own traditions. While their numbers have been shrinking, there is a big effort to try and keep their culture alive, and this outdoor museum is just a small part of it.
While walking through the town with my guide, I learned that 19th century Sorbian houses had one main room where the bulk of daily life took place – a room where you ate, slept, and carried out various chores. What caught my eye is that in the corner of the room there was a rather large bed; my guide informed me that the reason for this was that the Sorbs used to sleep on family beds. That meant the grandparents, parents, and children would all share the same mattress as a way of staying warm. Newly wed couples were sent up to the attic for a month to get on “the baby-making business” (her words, not mine) and then it was back down to the 3 generational bed. How they found time for more romantic escapades after that is beyond me.
Sampling pickles by the barrel
The swampy terrain of Spreewald makes it an ideal location for growing cucumbers and this is a tradition that farmers have long held on to. When I checked into my hotel, I was surprised to see that there was a Pickle Museum (Gurkenmuseum) right on the premises. That seemed too good to pass up!
The receptionist at the hotel doubled as my tour guide for a half hour as she shared a bit of the history behind the pickles. It turns out that many centuries ago, a law was passed allowing farmers to produce a maximum of 500 barrels of pickles without taxation. This was good enough for some, but others wanted to sell more pickles, so since the law makers had forgotten to specify how large the pickle barrels could be, the farmers built huge ones. Just check out the size of the barrel I’m standing next to – that was just for pickles! I got to sample different pickles during my visit to the Gurkenmuseum, and as we all know I’m a big fan of any museum that feeds you. (I’m thinking back to Berlin’s Currywurst Museum now!)
I also learned that a Pickle Festival takes place every summer and that girls from the area submit their best pickle recipes. Judges sample the submissions and the girl with the best tasting pickle recipe is crowned Pickle Queen for the year. I was sad to miss the big event by only a few weeks, but if you’re in search of a unique festival, this is definitely one worth adding to your calendar.
Punting down the Spreewald canals
You can’t come to a village where waterways outnumber roads and not travel by punt. These flat-bottomed boats are a fun way for visitors to experience the forest, but they are also very convenient for locals who need to transport goods – not only did we see crates of beer being delivered to restaurants by punt, but we also learned that some of the homes still receive their mail by punt!
On our second morning in Spreewald, Sam and I headed down to the canal where we met our ‘punter’ and set out for a leisurely journey through the woods. We saw cute little cottages with timbered walls and reed roofs, we went past farms where animals grazed and bales of hay sat forgotten on the fields, and we crossed under wooden bridges that help connect the people who live on this network of islands.
Our guide used a 4.5 meter long pole to maneuver the canals and he made it look so easy that I was genuinely surprised when I tried it a few days later and discovered that it actually requires a lot of muscle to propel the punt forward. And if you’re an avid kayaker, that’s another fun way to get around Spreewald.
Stripping down at Spreewelten
When I first heard about Spreewelten, I pictured a giant swimming complex geared towards families with children. While that is true to some extent, this place is equally as popular for adults who want to make use of the Sauna Village.
The Sauna Village is a collection of small cottages that have been transformed into saunas. Each cottage has a distinct style; in some you sit next to wooden carvings of pigs and in others you sit on wooden carvings of home furniture. There are saunas that smell like lemon and saunas that smell like peppermint. And when it comes to temperature, you have saunas that feel like a day in the tropics and saunas that make you feel like you’re descending into an active volcano as they reach 80 degrees Celsius.
Now before you go packing your swimsuit, I should mention that this is a naked sauna… Men, women, strangers, acquaintances, they all strip down to their birthday suits. Not only that, but after the sauna people like to sunbathe…naked.
Having previously travelled to Finland, I already knew about naked sauna (though in Finland it’s generally segregated into men and women), but it still came as a bit of a surprise to find people just hanging out in the nude. So if you don’t feel totally awkward stripping down in public and you’re up for something a little different, there’s naked sauna in Spreewelten. Or you can just enjoy the pools, hot tubs, and communal napping areas with your bathing suit on like I did.
Where to stay
While in Spreewald I stayed at Hotelanlage Starick, which was located right in the middle of the forest and overlooking a canal. Not only was the setting beautiful, but it was so peaceful out there that when I woke up at 4:50 a.m. on my first morning, I actually saw a baby deer munching on grass outside my window!
The hotel is also nearby some great restaurants including: Quappenschänke (great potato soup with sausage), Gasthaus Hirschwinkel (delicious pike with crispy skin), and Kaupen 6 (Sam ordered a game goulash with cranberries and it was tasty).
For something a little different, the town of Luebbenau has turned part of the train station into a bed and breakfast where you get to sleep in a work of art. Spreewelten Pension has 11 rooms, and each of them were designed by a different local artist.
Have you ever been to Spreewald or any other cool villages set in the forest?
This trip was planned in partnership with the German National Tourism Board as part of their #JoinGermanTradition campaign which seeks to highlight unique customs and traditions across Germany.