Germany Holidays: Sorbs and the Spreewald

Ethnic minorities are rare in Germany, once you’ve discounted the migrations of guest workers. But the Sorbs have been there since the 6th century.

Turks, Greeks and Portuguese may steal the headlines when it comes to discussions of non-Germanic communities, but they’re all the new kids on the block. The Sorbs, a Slavonic origin tribe, have lived in what used to be called Lusatia – a crescent of land now in Brandenburg – for hundreds of years, many of them still speak Sorb at home, and there was even a brief movement, following the reunification of Germany, to create an independent state.

A watery mosaic of hundreds of channels, meadows, fields and forests fed by the river Spree

These days there are generally reckoned to be around 60,000 Sorbs in a region whose main towns are Cottbus and Bautzen, but the bit most readily recognisable and most attractive to visitors is the Spreewald, a watery mosaic of hundreds of channels, meadows, fields and forests fed by the river Spree, and easily accessible from Berlin.

Today, the Spreewald, with 40 lakes and ponds and 250 miles of waterways, is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and its key towns are Lübben und Lehde, where a lot of travel is still on foot or by boat. Here there’s an Open Air Museum with typical Sorb (aka Wendish) farms, a herb garden and historic costumes, as well as a boat builders yard and a gherkin museum. Gherkins – pickled cucumbers – are a big industry for Sorb farmers, and ‘Spreewälder Gurken’ is a protected name, with around 36,000 tons produced every year. A gherkin factory in Lübbenau organizes guided tours in the tourist season.

Sorbs still have their own media and schools, their own literature and traditions, including January’s Bird Wedding, when children put out plates overnight that miraculously fill up with sweetmeats in the form of birds, and the Easter Riding, when cavalcades of horsemen ride between villages announcing the good news – that Jesus is risen. They’ve also contributed to the political life of the nation, most notably in the form of Egon Krenz, a Sorb who succeeded Eric Honecker as the last leader of the GDR before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For visitors, the Spreewald is partly about the people, and partly about the landscape. Boat rides through the channels and rivers are popular, as are the Spreewald’s cycle routes, through woodlands of alder and pine, busy with storks, cranes and sea eagles, and carpeted with marsh marigolds and buttercups. This is not a region for car tourism. There’s even a unique Spreewald Marathon, every April, which involves running, cycling, walking, paddling – and celebrating. The starting command is “Auf die Gurke, fertig, los.” (Gherkin, steady, go!)

Tourist information for the Spreewald (German only).

Looking for more? See other destinations in Eastern Germany

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