Paul Scraton discovers pine forests, sand dunes and run-down industrial estates on Brandenburg’s 66-Lake-Trail…
For the last four kilometres through the forest north of the spa town Bad Saarow, we do not meet a soul.
Signposts and waymarkers amongst the trees suggest that this must be a popular hiking and Nordic walking spot in the warmer months; but with the forest floor blanketed in snow, the only other sign of human life beyond the crunch of my brother’s boots are the two cross-country ski-tracks that we appear to be following.
It seems apt to be walking through this surprisingly undulating landscape in the middle of winter, as these crevices and hillocks were formed at the end of the last ice age, when the retreating glaciers managed to deposit two huge stones – now known as the Markgrafensteine – around which picnic tables have been built.
With weary legs, the slight inclines suddenly feel steep, and we hardly talk during the final stretch. Both of us, perhaps, are imagining removing our boots and reaching for a well-deserved bottle of beer…
Twenty kilometres and about five hours earlier, we climbed down from the Berlin-Frankfurt(Oder) train at the station of Hangelsberg, about thirty five minutes after leaving Alexanderplatz station. We had decided to attempt a couple of stages of the 66-Seen-Wanderweg (66-Lake-Trail), a 17-stage, 416km walking route that loops around Berlin through the Brandenburg countryside, passing through Potsdam and which comes into contact of the Berlin S-Bahn at a number of points; indeed, it was designed so that all of its stages start and finish within easy public transport access of the capital.
As we did not have two and half weeks to walk the whole way, we picked two stages of roughly 24km each that would take us from Hangelsberg to Bad Saarow, where we could stay overnight, before making our way across to Storkow and then down to Wendisch-Rietz and onto the train back to Berlin.
We set out from Hangelsberg in that low-hanging mist that can cloak the Brandenburg countryside at any time of the year, walking through the tiny hamlet until we reached the banks of the Spree. We followed the river past ploughed and frozen fields, occasionally dropping in and out of the forest, for most of the morning, until reaching the outskirts of Fürstenwalde.
If we had stayed on the train it would have taken about ten minutes, travelling in a straight line, but following the curves of the river – glassy and barely moving – we caught sight of the clock tower in the old town centre about two and a half hours after we set out.
Our guidebook suggested using the town for a lunch break, but our legs were still feeling fine, so we continued to follow the blue-painted spots that mark the route of the 66-Lake-Trail around the edge of the town.
From sleepy countryside and the forest along the river, we had now most definitely arrived in the edgelands – neither town nor country – passing through allotment gardens, sewage works and a cemetery, communist-era housing and abandoned buildings.
Also en route was an industrial estate that had obviously suffered with the retreat of industry following the collapse of the GDR and the reunification of Germany.
There was also a couple of kilometres alongside a motorway: the trucks, heading east and west along the Autobahn towards Berlin or the Polish border, seemed to be thundering along right on top of us. We could barely hear each other speak and it was a relief to find the tunnel that took us through and into the forest again, towards the hills of the Rauener Berge and the ski tracks imprinted in the snow.
With relief we emerged from the forest and into the neat, sedate streets of Bad Saarow, a spa town at the head of a (frozen) lake. Ironically, considering the name of the trail we have been following all day, this was the first lake we had seen on our journey so far, but was also the biggest in the region, the Schmarmützelsee.
After dinner, a few beers and a football match on the hotel room television, we slept like babies before getting up the next morning to do it all again. The walk past the thermal baths and along the lakeshore was a beautiful way of stretching out our stiff legs, and by the time we reached the point where we were to plunge once more into the gloomy pine forest, we had walked the cobwebs away.
Our route on the second day took us past more lakes than the first, and some interesting landscapes, including the largest collection of inland sand dunes in northern Europe, located on the edge of Storkow. From there, the path sent us south towards Wendisch-Rietz and the end of the walk. We searched in vain for a way down to the edge of the Dolgensee and the chance to see the tower and the palace of the Hubertshöhe, a hunting lodge somewhere on the other side of the water where my brother had been filming a few weeks before.
We were almost at the bottom of the lake before we reached the village of Dahmsdorf and a bathing beach by the campsite. Once again, we had to imagine how the place would be in summer, and for the second day running we could count on one hand the number of people we encountered.
What struck me, as we collapsed onto the train barely a minute before it pulled out of the station, is how varied the landscape is we’d walked through in the last two days.
Those 48 kilometres had dispelled any pre-conceived ideas of Brandenburg as uniform and boring. We had clambered up old ski jumps to eat our lunch, walked along deep gorges either mined out of the rocky ground or formed by ancient glaciers, kicked aside the snow to discover the sand of the rolling dunes, and walked alongside farmed fields and through pine forests.
We were also given something of a sense of how people live in the countryside beyond Berlin, whether in a Plattenbau by the waterworks on the edge of Fürstenwalde, a villa in Bad Saarow with a view across the water, or in a small, neat house by river or at the edge of the forest – and it reaffirmed once again my feeling that you get a deeper understanding of place when you pass through it on two feet, at three miles an hour.
To walk it in winter was to have these landscapes to ourselves. We had the chance to hear ourselves breathe and listen to our footsteps crunch through the snow. No sooner had we ticked off the first two stages of the seventeen, we are already planning which to walk next.
Unfortunately there is not much information on the 66-Lake-Trail available in English. We used the very informative (German language) book “66-Seen-Wanderung” by Manfred Reschke (Trescher Verlag) and the map “Scharmützelsee Bad Saarow und Umgebung” map from the Dr Barthel Verlag. Despite these resources, and the fact that, for the most part, the route was well-marked, we did use the smartphone GPS a couple of times to work out exactly where we were in the forest…after the 4,000th pine tree in two days, they all began to look the same.