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 summer; but out of high season we have the place to ourselves.
It is an undulating landscape, one of crevices and hillocks 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 had climbed down from the Berlin-Frankfurt (Oder) train at the station of Hangelsberg, about 35-minutes after leaving Alexanderplatz station. The plan was to attempt a couple of stages of the 66-Seen-Wanderweg (66-Lake-Trail), a 17-stage, 416 kilometre walking route that loops around Berlin, passing through Potsdam and the Brandenburg countryside, conveniently intersecting with various Berlin S-Bahn stations at various points.
The route not only offers a tour through the melancholy beauty of Berlin’s hinterland, but also the social and political history of a region that was part of the German Democratic Republic from the end of the Second World War until the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As we did not have two and a 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 down to Wendisch-Rietz from where we would take the train back to Berlin.
We set out from Hangelsberg in the 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 fields for most of the morning, occasionally dropping in and out of the forest until reaching the outskirts of Fürstenwalde.
If we had stayed on the train it would have taken about 10 minutes, travelling in a straight line; but following the curves of the river 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 since our legs were still feeling fine we continued to follow the blue-painted spots that mark the 66-Lake-Trail route around the edge of the town.
And these really did feel like edgelands; an indeterminate area that is neither town nor country, we passed through allotment gardens, sewage works, a cemetery, a communist-era housing estate and the obligatory 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.
For a couple of kilometres, we walked alongside a motorway. The trucks, heading east and west along the Autobahn towards either 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.
With relief we emerged from the forest into the neat, sedate streets of Bad Saarow, a spa town at the head of the Schmarmützelsee. Ironically, considering the name of the trail we had been following all day, this was the first lake we had seen on our journey so far — but, as if to compensate, it was also the biggest in the region. After dinner, a few beers and a football match on the hotel room television, we went to bed early, aware that we were only at the halfway point of the walk.
The next morning, we set out past the thermal baths and along the lakeshore, an early workout for our stiff legs. By the time we reached the point where we were to plunge once more into the pine forest, we had more or less walked the cobwebs away. This second day of walking took us past more lakes than the previous day, as well as 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. We searched in vain for a way down to the edge of the Dolgensee and the chance to see the tower and the Schloss Hubertshöhe. We had seen it marked on our maps, a grand hunting lodge on the opposite shore of the lake, where first Prussian royalty and later members of both the Nazi and GDR regimes had retreated to shoot boar and other game that stalked the forest. But there was no way down to the lake until we came to the tiny village of Dahmsdorf and a bathing beach by the campsite. Through binoculars we caught a glimpse of a red roof, followed by some sand-coloured walls, fairytale towers and turrets, and a neat lawn running down to the still waters of the lake.
At the bottom of the lake we followed the path through the edge of Wendisch-Rietz, past allotment gardens and alongside the railway track that would soon take us first to Königs-Wusterhausen and then back to Berlin. What struck me, as we collapsed onto the train barely a minute before it pulled out of the station, is how varied the landscape was that we’d walked through during 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, discovered 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 the river or at the edge of the forest.
And it reaffirmed, once again, my feeling that you get a deeper understanding of a place when you pass through it on two feet at three miles an hour. As we rested our weary legs on the train, we did not see it as a journey ended, but rather one only just begun. Having ticked off two stages of the 17, we were 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. See also this useful website.