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.
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.
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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
— Rachel Stern (@rthejournalist) July 13, 2020
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.