Weekend Wanderlust: An ancient seat of wealth and power in Braunschweig

You might think of Berlin or Frankfurt as Germany's centre of power. But this overlooked city played a key role in European power for several centuries - and is still well worth a visit.

Weekend Wanderlust: An ancient seat of wealth and power in Braunschweig
The Braunschweiger Löwe stands out majestically next to half-timbred houses. Photo: DPA

Originally a Saxon settlement, founded in the 9th century, this Lower Saxon city first gained prominence when it became the base of power for Henry the Lion, the legendary Duke of Saxony who massively expanded his territories across what is now modern Germany, and was one of the main power players of 12th century Europe.

Henry, along with his wife, Matilda, are buried in the crypt of the Dom St Blasii, the city's cathedral, built by the Duke during his lifetime. The cathedral is a masterpiece of medieval German art and architecture, and when services are conducted, and the incense is burning, one can very easily feel the centuries fall away.

SEE ALSO: Braunschweig: The German city that deserves to be put on the map

Outside the Dom is located the statue of the Braunschweiger Löwe (Braunschweig's lion), both Henry and the city's heraldic symbol. The bronze lion you see today is an exact replica of a statue that has stood on the spot since the 12th century, and the original was a significant technical feat for the time. Naturally, the people of Braunschweig are very proud of it!

Sun shines on the mighty Braunschweiger Löwe. Photo: DPA

You can see the original statue next door at the medieval Burg Dankwarderode, now a museum showcasing some of the former Duchy's art treasures, accrued over several hundred years. The building itself is also well worth your exploration – after falling into ruin in the 18th century, it was rebuilt and redecorated in spectacular, almost gaudy style in the late 19th century.

While you're in the area, check out the Braunschweigisches Landesmuseum close by, that tells the story of the region from the earliest, prehistoric times. Look for the elongated skull of an ancient Saxon (created with bandages and wooden boards), and an iron 'Hexenstuhl’, built to torture suspected witches.

Braunschweig came into its own with the rise of the Hanseatic League, the trading league that brought such wealth to northern Germany during the late Middle Ages. Long after the league broke up, the city was a powerful trading centre, supplying much of northern Europe.

The riches that flooded into the town manifested in the both magnificent merchant's houses and churches throughout the Magniviertel, the city's oldest standing neighbourhood. For lovers of half-timbered buildings, or 'fachwerk’, this is heaven.

Also within the Magniviertel is the Magnikirche, the city's oldest church, lovingly restored after World War Two. Throughout the church can be found a number of treasures gifted to the church by wealthy burghers over hundreds of years.

During the 18th and 19th century, Braunschweig was the home to the Dukes of Brunswick. The spectacular Braunschweiger Residenz was their home in the city, built in spectacular neo-classical style.

Members of the family would marry into the British royal family – Caroline of Brunswick the most prominent. She married George IV of England and was very, very popular – the opposite of her indolent, debauched husband.

Braunschweig's magnificent old town, including its town hall from the 14th century. Photo: DPA

Today the Resident serves as the city's palace museum and tells some of the stories of those who lived within, tracing the role of family members throughout a turbulent time in European history.

Braunschweig has more than enough both to keep history lovers, and fans of picturesque German cities busy for a weekend, and is easily reached by road and rail. It's about 240 kilometres west of Berlin.

If you decide to visit, we recommend the Hotel Ritter St Georg, housed in a magnificent medieval building, with rooms boasting massive exposed beams and decoration. The breakfasts are also grand in size and taste!

SEE ALSO: Braunschweig: 'Totally friendly to foreigners'


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Travel: Six reasons why the Spreewald near Berlin is worth visiting

Situated only a 45 Minute train ride from Berlin, this lush UNESCO Biosphere reserve and cultural gem transports visitors to another world.

Travel: Six reasons why the Spreewald near Berlin is worth visiting
Tourists canoeing through the scenic Spreewald. Photo: DPA

Around Germany, the colloquial verb herumgurken (pickle around) has the meaning of traveling around and around when lost.

While I was equipped with a map, the word still seemed the most fitting way to sum up my time in the Spreewald, known not only for its vast pickle production, but also stunning nature and culture to discover by bike, foot or – especially – canoe.

READ ALSO: Travel in Germany: 10 must-see places within reach of Berlin

Here are six reasons it’s worth a visit, whether as a Tagesausflug (day-trip) from Berlin or a week-long adventure.

1. Pickle paradise 

The pickle harvest in Kasel-Golzig in the Spreewald on July 17th. Photo: DPA

Known for some 50 percent of the production across Germany, Spreewalders take pride in their pickles. In the three days I was there, it felt like I sampled every sort of gourmet Gurken delicacy there is, from creamy Gurkensuppe (served both chilled and warm in the summer), Gurkenaustrich (spread) and a surprisingly good Gurken and raspberry Radler

Tucked into the forest, the town of Burg even offers Gurkeneis if you fancy the summer sweet with a green tint. 

2. The Sorbian language 

People going for a Gondola ride in Lehde. Photo: DPA

You might mistake the text under German signs around the area for Polish or Czech. Yet it’s actually Sorbian, an official minority language of Germany spoken by over 60,000 people. 

Many of them live in the Spreewald, and the little village of Lehne – a two kilometre walk or cycle from the old town in Lübbenau  – pays tribute to their way of life and language, including an open-air museum that gives a glimpse of how the Wends (as they are known locally) lived in the 19th century. 

3. Bunte Biodiversity 

Otters are often spotted swimming in the Spreewald. Photo: DPA

With its more than 5,000 species of animals, Spreewald is so rich in biodiversity that the 475 square metre area was given the title of an UNESCO Biosphere reserve in 1991.

One particularly striking species are the white storks, which are often spotted perched atop large nests they’ve created on large protected pillars. The species is critically endangered elsewhere in Germany. 

The Spreewald can also at times feel like the tropics with colourful animals and amphibians like the fire-bellied toad and over 900 species of Schmetterlinge (butterflies).

4. Rural charm

It felt like we were much further from Berlin as we hiked past Hütte (cottages) with thatched roofs and cozy country stores with local products that closed at 2 pm each day. From Lübben, we hiked along a 14-kilometre riverside trail to Schlepzig, known for both its Bauermuseum (farm museum) and Brauerei with locally brewed beer.

5. Water Wanderung

A true streaming service: a postal woman delivers mail by water at the start of the Post's canoe delivery season on May 14th. Photo: DPA

With 1,500 kilometers of waterways, one of the best ways to explore the Spreewald is by water. The area is so-well connected by water that even mailmen and women from the Deutsche Post pragmatically paddle from home to home to deliver post.

We had a sporty Sunday, leaving Lübben at 9:30 am and paddling 14 kilometres to Lübbenau, just in time to a devour a hearty lunch of potatoes and Quark cheese with linseed oil, a Spreewald specialty, at a beer garden affixed to the side of the river. We then headed back for another adventure, as small waves formed amid the windy afternoon weather. 

Families of swans, cranes and ducks joined the journey at times, unfazed by their human companions. 

If you're looking for a more leisurely journey, all sorts of canoes, kayaks and other boats can be rented by the hour, or you can sit back in a Venice-style Gondola as a host in tradition garb guides you through the landscapes.

6. Official bike trail

Bike riders in the Spreewald town of Leipe. Photo: DPA

Distinctly marked by yellow signs of a cycling pickle, the Gurkenradweg forms 260 kilometres of scenic trails that lead through the forest, starting in Lübben and leading to Cottbus, the heart of Brandenburg’s Sorbian-speaking community. Bridges break up the journey (and sometimes, this being Germany, construction projects as well.)

If you’re timid about trekking longer distances, most bike rental shops also offer daily e-bike rentals for around €25 a day. Just be advised, especially in the summer months, to reserve bikes at least a week in advance.