Get on your Bike! Brandenburg, the suburbs and countryside around Berlin, is worth exploring for its stunning natural landscapes, historic villages and wildlife.
View of Potsdam from Belvedere Tower
While England is already in the grip of windy and wet Autumnal weather, I am baking in glorious sunshine as I cycle around Potsdam's gardens, palaces and city centre. Potsdam is artificial, built by the royalty and upper class of German society to be an idyllic country setting for their very own paradise on earth. It is possibly more famous for its recent history, as Potsdam was part of the German Democratic Republic and closed to western visitors.
There are fountains, follies and gardens everywhere. Sanssoucci, Cecilienhof, Bevedere auf dem Pfingstberg (a tower modelled on an Italian Villa) all are incredible palatial edifices that were built to satisfy the whims of the aristocracy centuries ago.
But at the end of the 1950s and for three decades, Potsdam was not a paradise at all. This island in the Elbe River, was encircled by and separated from Berlin by the Berlin Wall.
Today, many residents hardly remember what it was like living under Soviet rule, and often don't recall where the wall was located. But there are a few extant remnants of this period. Watch towers still remain along the river's edge and a section of the wall is still intact near the Glienicke Bridge. Famous for the real life exchange of Soviet spies, Cold War intrigue really took place on this bridge. Between the Belvedere Tower and Cecilienhof is the former Soviet prison. Many innocent citizens were imprisoned here before being sent off to Siberia.
Cecilienhof where Potsdam Conference took place 1945
On a lighter note, Potsdam has now seen a significant revival since the wall came down in 1989 and the city centre is buzzing. The Dutch quarter is a popular area with loads of shops, cafes and bars. We had lunch at the Garage Du Pont and had traditional currywurst (6.50€). Because this petrol station had formerly been in the 'No Go Zone' behind the Berlin Wall, it is almost perfectly preserved. It even houses a small museum with antique cars.
If you are going to explore the hinterland of Berlin, be ready for miles and miles of verdant, flat countryside. It is the perfect place for long cycle rides and we start with a 15km ride from the hamlet of Wolfshagen to the market town of Perleburg. A word of advice, you may want to learn a few basic German phrases as many of the locals do not speak English. It's a reminder that for decades Russian was the second language taught in school here. Having said that, the rural population will greet you with open arms and be very happy you have come to visit their villages and towns.
We felt particularly welcomed at Das Kranhaus Restaurant (Elbstrasse 4a, Wittenberge) where head chef, Knut Diete pulled out all the stops to make us a fabulous meal. He is famous for unusual combinations of food such as dessers of potatoes and marmalade or strawberries in mustard, both served with vanilla ice cream. Might sound crazy but it is delectable.
The Elbe River is one of the natural borders of Brandenburg, and is a force of nature to be reckoned with as it floods twice a year. An unexpected level of high water this summer led to a re-think of the current dyke system and a new programme is underway to give the river space to overflow without effecting humans.
About a 45 minute drive from Wittenberg, we hiked along the hazy river at a treacherous bend (for sailors that is) known as the Bōser Ort (Bad Place). This area along the river's dykes is now part of an UNESCO world heritage site and is brilliant for cycling or hiking. The trail passes a former watch tower and has far ranging views of the entire area. As the mist rises and burns off, I can see wild ponies grazing in the distance as well as a flock of geese on one of the many small lakes enjoying a morning swim.
The bi-annual flooding of the Elbe leaves fish and micro-organisms behind, a draw for birds in particular. Storks can find plenty to feed on here and return every spring and summer. In the village of Rühstädt, there are massive stork's nests on the tops of the homes and barns. Some of the nests weigh as much as two tonnes and roofs have collapsed under their weight. 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em' is the motto of Rühstädt locals who have embraced the cyclical return of the storks every summer and even have a prominent Stork Club. There are stork souvenirs, a stork balcony (the best place to observe the chicks in their nests) and even a stork museum. Miraculously, two young storks are still in the nests for us to see. As they should have flown away a month ago, we were very lucky to get a glimpse of them.
We try out the Gasthaus Zum Storchenhof, one of the local eateries, where potatoes are the mainstay: Potato soup, Potato Pancakes, baked potatoes...and also chicken and vegetable skewers, not particularly varied but tasty all the same. A couple of tankards of local brewed Pilsner washes it all down nicely.
The nearby renovated Ölmühle (Oil Mill) Hotel is a great place to stay. Accommodation is in the 18th century Villa which is part of an enormous historic rape seed oil complex. The Olmuhle has its own micro-brewery and restaurant on site, plus the owners have renovated two enormous towers creating a rope climbing and zip lining adventure zone in one (Indoor Kletterturm) and have used another tower to hold an enormous wreck diving tank. The diving experience should open at the end of the year and looks a cracker if you are a scuba enthusiast.
All images ©roamingscribe unless stated
Four nights' accommodation at the Hotel Dorint Potsdam costs from €79 - € 149 per person; prices vary according to time of year and do not include breakfast (€ 19.50 per person). To book email: email@example.com or ring 0049 331 274 9002.
Try the Restaurant Waage at 12 Am Neuen Markt, Potsdam. Daily specials. A very good Riesling wine costs 15€.