Elliot Douglas heads to the Spreewald to enjoy gherkins, kayaks and…swimming with penguins
Packing, even for two nights away, after a corona-induced six months of inertia got me surprisingly flustered. Extra shorts—an umbrella—will we need passports?—we need to leave now to have time to get our COVID tests (they were negative)—what’s the quickest way to Ostkreuz station?—train tickets!—and then suddenly, miles of Brandenburg countryside was streaming past our window, and my boyfriend and I were drinking gin from a can. It was real—we were out of Berlin!
Less than an hour later, we were in the Spreewald (Spree forest), a place famed for a series of narrow, tree-lined canals that are diverted off the river Spree to form a sort of grid system—locals used them as transport routes between villages, rather than horses and carts—as well as its bilingual signs in German and Sorbian, fields stuffed full of cows, middle-aged German couples in matching Jack Wolfskin jackets…and pickled gherkins. But after months of being crammed into a Neukölln apartment, it felt like an exotic adventure.
Like much of rural Germany, if you want to really get around you need a car, but the regional train (towards Cottbus) can deposit you at the “gateway to the forest”—the pretty market town of Lübbenau—and you can also bring your bike to explore the region. Our first impression was Lübbenau’s attractive marina, whose quaint aesthetic was only slightly ruined by an enormous pirate-themed restaurant with its own bowling alley, children’s play area and garish sign. We were then told by our hotel receptionist that we had “better rush if we still wanted to find a restaurant that was still open”: it was 7:30pm.
We found a waterside table and devoured what was to be the first of several potato-and-pickle-themed meals over the next 48-hours. Next to us, geriatric gondoliers were ushering in tourists for the last barge ride of the day. There were dozens of these long “Kahns”, each of which seated around 20 people, broken into parties of four gathered around tables separated by Covid-era plastic screens. After spending some time persuading my unenthusiastic boyfriend that a gondola trip would be just the ticket, the point ended up being somewhat moot the next day when a chilly breeze appeared and it started to rain.
Instead, we wandered round Lübbenau’s charming old town and strolled to the castle, but the weather meant we were eventually forced to look for indoor activities. At the tourist information office, we were directed to the Spreewelten Bad, a sauna and swimming pool where you could allegedly swim with penguins. Intrigued, we queued with dozens of screaming children and their stressed out parents to enter the enormous swimming hall.
The large indoor area had a wave machine and slide (which we went down twice, earning dirty looks from a group of 10-year-old girls seeking a monopoly on the activity), as well as anoutdoor heated pool where, goshdarnit, you really could swim with penguins—albeit separated by a thick sheet of glass. We swam away while the graceful birds plunged expertly past us, just a few inches from our noses, apparently nonplussed by being gawped at by bug-eyed humans all day. A helpful information board informed us of the penguins’ personality types; my personal favourite was Queen Luisa, a “partying Berliner” from the capital’s zoo, who has apparently “retired” to the Spreewald.
The complex also had a sauna area. We were a little unsure as to the dress protocol as we entered but this was quickly rectified by an old man in a hot tub barking “NO SWIMMING TRUNKS!” at us. Suitably embarrassed, we stripped down and hopped around the various saunas and steam rooms, trying out varying degrees of heat before plunging into the rainforest shower room.
The sun had come out a bit more by then so afterwards we spent a pleasant few hours consuming food and booze. I found my best asparagus of the season and my (Irish) partner found Guinness on tap, so we were both satisfied. The next day, our last, I finally won the fight about the aquatic activity; we went to hire a floating vessel of some kind, eventually deciding on an adventurous double kayak, which you can rent for a couple of hours, an entire day, or even several days if you are properly geared up. We opted for two hours. In response, the gruff proprietor assured us, we would barely be able to explore the bottom square inch of the laminated map he had shoved into our hands.
Taking this as a challenge, I decided we should try to go further. Leaving the pretty villages of wooden huts and heavy boat traffic behind us, we discovered a side-canal which was almost certainly off limits. We managed to avoid detection and get back to the main route but on the way back to Lübbenau I also managed to take us in a large circle around, without quite reaching, our docking point. Concerned that I had started swearing at ducks in frustration, my boyfriend—who had been content to let me do most of the navigating and paddling work—took charge and, annoyingly, guided us directly and effortlessly back to base.
One more Guinness in the sun—or three, as it turned out—and it was time to hop on the train back to Berlin. We hadn’t had the chance to explore the hiking trails in the forest, and COVID had slightly limited our activities since the brewery and historical museum were both still closed. We felt like we had seen the town and sampled the area to a decent extent nonetheless, though we had barely begun exploring the Spreewald’s biosphere as a whole, which boasts flora and fauna unlike anywhere else in Germany. The nearby towns of Lübben and, closer to Berlin, Königs Wusterhausen are also ideal beginning points for a forest or river adventure.
While it might often be marketed as a place where active types enjoy long kayak or hiking trips, it turns out Lübbenau at least is also a great place to just take a weekend break, eat ice cream in the market square—and casually swim with penguins.
For more information, visit Spreewald.de. All photos by Elliot Douglas.