Down on the Devil’s Moor

Like to camp but tired of uptight and orderly German campgrounds? Andrew Bulkeley communes with nature near the northern German artist colony Worpswede.

Down on the Devil’s Moor
The Devil's Moor has plenty of bike routes and canals to explore. Photo: DPA

German campgrounds are generally sterile, uninteresting places. Most are simply row after tidy row of grassy plots. They’re the perfect place for fastidious Teutons to plop down a tent or park a caravan before hoisting the satellite TV antenna and cranking up the electric grill.

A lot of them include a full-service snack bar, grocery store and bathrooms that even your mother would use. German campgrounds are essentially little more than discount hotels where you have to bring your own bed.

But there are alternatives known as “nature camping” which most Germans say in the tone of voice reserved for the current American president. Nature camping, many Germans think, is a nice idea but not something you actually do.

Campingplatz Waakhausen north of Bremen and near the town of Worpswede is one of these oases of rustic calm. Once a campground of a German canoe club, the place is now run by an aging ship captain who’s had enough of the high seas – though his boat still ferries cargo between North America and Germany.

The campground offers spots for caravans as well as tents and, for those lacking the right gear, even a single, quaint thatched-roof bunkhouse. The key difference from you average camping ground in Germany is that there are no neat rows – you just find an area you like and set up your temporary housing. The place offers a sparsely-equipped kitchen with stove and refrigerator, and bathrooms that are as good as those in any youth hostel – perhaps with a few arachnids more.

The area is known as the Teufelsmoor (Devil’s Moor) and the peat from its bog used to serve as a source of heat for Bremen residents while offering its poor residents some income. Now, however, it’s a federally recognized vacation area with beautiful – albeit flat – landscapes, picturesque thatched farmhouses and a thick network of bike paths.

Since the usual German camper turns his nose up at such uncivilized digs, it’s the other kind of German you run into at Waakhausen. My kids were spared the horrors of an impromptu “Lord of the Flies” moment with some Heribert’s kids and instead spent most of their time carousing the camping ground with the progeny of a World Wildlife Fund biologist. They were occasionally joined by the offspring of a couple that I’m certain must have been high school teachers.

Waakhausen’s watery legacy has also left it with a full boathouse of ecologically friendly craft from one-person kayaks to 10-person canoes. They can be rented by the hour for about €7 or up to €25 for an entire day. The campground is connected to the calm and peat-coloured Hamme River by a system of canals that wander through cow pastures, cornfields and mossy bogs. Though smaller motorized boats cruise the Hamme, nothing fast will come whizzing by you, so it’s possible to pull over anywhere and go for a dip. However, the (small) beach at the nearby Neu Helgoland campground (a traditional German campground) offers sand, a small sunbathing area and a dock perfect for cannonballs – or Arschbomben, as the Germans like to call them.

Of course, an afternoon of doing cannonballs can make anyone hungry. So fortunately the adjacent Hammehütte has the usual assortment of schnitzels, potatoes and Matjes – which I like to think of as Dutch sushi made of herring. And, of course, beer. The building originally served as a warehouse where farmers would bring dried peat to be loaded on Torfkahnen – peat boats – for transport to Bremen. The thatched Tudor building eventually evolved into a general store and is now a great place for a respite. Torfkahnen still leave from a dock in front of the Hammehütte but now they’re full of tourists and red-cheeked captains who attempt to put a romantic spin on the tough lives of the area’s inhabitants during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The town of Worpswede just four kilometres away is the kind of former artist colony that’s usually found in the mountains of Vermont or New Mexico. Plenty of hand-woven this and water-colour that. The town is best known as the domicile of a handful of pre-war German artists who have mostly been forgotten. Designer Heinrich Vogeler lived here with his wife Martha as did Paula Becker, who later married fellow resident Otto Modersohn and is best-known for her non-affair with poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

The tiny village boasts a number of museums, most notably the Grosse Kunstschau Worpswede in the centre of town next to the quirky Kaffee Worpswede, both of which were designed by former resident and artist Bernhard Hoetger. A number of other museums and galleries line the town’s three thoroughfares and side streets, which also aren’t bad for an impromptu stroll on a summer afternoon.

A weekend trip can also be greatfor anyone who gets off by getting on historic trains. The Moor Express runs on weekends between Bremen and the village of Stade northwest of Hamburg. Although steam fans will have to look elsewhere, the Moor’s stable includes cars that date all the way back to 1925. They even hook up boxcars so you can take your bike – but a reservation is required.

To get to Worpswede from Bremen by bus, hop on the 630 and transfer to the 636 at Grasberg. Alternatively, trains go directly to Worpswede. The campground is a short 15-minute bike ride or 45-minute hike from the train stations in either Worpswede or Osterholz-Scharmbeck, the latter of which offers more connections.

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