Soundlessly the ferryman pushes our boat from the dock then plunges his pole to the shallow river bottom. Plop, push. Plop, push. Gently rocking with the current we prepare to enjoy one of Germany's greatest treats.
Located a mere 40 miles from Berlin, and virtually unknown 150 years ago, Spreewald's inhabitants have quietly farmed its rich soil for 1400 years. The Spreewalder Gurken, or pickle, is the area's most well-known product.
The German government placed Spreewald under UNESCO protection in 1991 to preserve its unique animal and plant life, including the famous storks that return each spring. Locals consider a stork's nest on their property a sign of good fortune.
The Wends and Sorbs of Spreewald are Slavic tribes who migrated to eastern Germany in the 6th and 7th centuries, settling in what is now known as Lusatia. This
region occupies parts of two German states, Brandenburg and the Free State of Saxony as well as parts of western Poland and the Czech Republic.
Labeled Wend by the Germanic peoples, eventually all the tribes came to be known as Sorb. Today they hold minority status in Germany, maintaining their own language, religion and cultural identity. In bilingual Lusatia all signs read both Sorb and German. As well as teaching their children ancient Sorb customs, the language, which is closely related to Polish, is taught in grammar school.
Scientists credit receding glaciers of the last Ice Age for Spreewald's more than 300 waterways and alluvial topography, producing its rich farmland. However, popular local lore is far more colorful. The Devil was plowing with a pair of black oxen. When they halted, he threw his hat at them in a fit of temper. The terrified oxen ran off in a panic dragging the plow first this way, then that, thus creating the countless arms of the Spree.
We embark on our delightful excursion in Luebenau. Our craft is called a punt. Its long, narrow body has low sides barely high enough to keep the Spree River out. The pole man stands on a small platform at the stern. Benches face each other separated by low tables, adorned with welcoming flower centerpieces. Later, gherkins and beer will be added for our enjoyment.
Presently we approach a steeply arched foot bridge spanning the water. Jointly we wonder if our pilot will scrape his head as we pass under. He emerges unscathed and we breathe out our relief.
Soon we are deep in the Spreewald. Low-hanging trees provide a protective canopy, blocking most of the summer sun. Mallard ducks dive and paddle along the banks totally oblivious of our presence in their search for a tasty morsel. One can almost touch the lounging cattle as we float past. They solemnly gaze at us through half-closed eyes, chewing their cuds in bored contentment. Dragonflies flit all about us, darting and dancing in the dappled sunlight.
Expertly, our pilot poles his craft into the watery labyrinth, always knowing the correct turn. The narrow channels require his total skill and attention as other punts approach and pass us. At some places the river tapers to the width of only one punt, necessitating the use of one way signs nailed on trees to avoid collision.
Picturesque homes perch on their individual islands of land, surrounded by the all pervasive Spree. The snow-white structures glimmer in the sun, capped by traditional straw roofs. These roofs are about 12 inches thick with the ability to last more than 100 years with vigilant maintenance. However, insurance is expensive due to fire risk.
The steeply pitched roofs have wooden snake figures crossed at each end. Both snakes have crowned heads. Sorb tradition holds these snakes possess the power to ward off evil spirits.
Each home also possesses its own boat slip and garage for the indispensable punt. Auto traffic is entirely impossible here. Everything arrives by punt, including mail and deliveries. A modest brick home was pointed out to me that had been over ten years
under construction, due to the fact that every nail, brick and board had to be poled in by boat.
Half way into our journey we dock by a Sorb restaurant situated on its own Spree- formed island. Close by lies a small, manually operated lock the size of one punt. Area children offer to raise or lower boats for a few coins.
Relaxing in the biergarten, our server suggests I try Sultze, a regional favorite. This dish consists of cooked meats and vegetables set in a clear gel and served cold. While different from anything I had eaten before, I immediately appreciate its tastiness and have since ordered it at every opportunity.
After our delicious meal and beer, we return to the punt in a festive mood. A Sorb vendor, dressed in local costume and headdress offers a sampler's plate of pickles for sale.
The Spreewalder Gurken is probably better known than the Spreewald itself. Pickled in mustard, pepper or garlic and a host of other ways, the famous gherkin is sold all over the world. The pickle enjoyed an extra surge of popularity after Germany's 2003 box-office hit Good-bye Lenin . In the film, the lead character's mother had gone into a coma just before the Berlin Wall fell. She regains consciousness after East and West Germany reunite. The doctors warn her son she must not experience any sort of shock. Part of his attempt to keep his mother from knowing her beloved socialist state has fallen includes keeping her supplied with her favorite pickle; the Spreewalder Gurken.
As we munch our pickles, the tranquility of the region envelops us. No cars, trains, or motorized traffic noise of any sort assaults our ears. Only the sounds of nature, the plop-plopping of our pilot's pole and the merry chatter of boaters fill the clear, fresh air. With satisfied sighs we settle back in peaceful contentment.
The Spreewald is clearly one of my fondest memories of Germany. For this contented tourist, no visit to Germany is complete without a trip to idyllic Spreewald, in order to savor its wonders and its peace.
The author wishes to enjoy every year God gives her on this earth.