People from all over the world flock to Germany’s capital city Berlin – one of Europe’s hippest spots. And while the hustle and bustle of this eclectic, international hub is invigorating, it can be a bit overwhelming when you actually live there.
When I worked and lived in the city a couple of years ago, I was often looking for a place to escape Berlin’s craziness. After a little research, I stumbled across a magical maze of seemingly endless waterways and bucolic beauty called the Spreewald. Located in Brandenburg, it’s amazingly only an hour train ride from downtown Berlin.
Ever since I discovered this gem, I try to add an extra couple days to any Berlin trip to kayak or canoe in the Spreewald, which has become one of my favorite places in Germany.
Kayaking in the Spreewald is suitable for all folks
The Spreewald is a biosphere reserve that encompasses 1,500 km of waterways 120 km / 75 mi southeast of Berlin. It’s the official source of the Spree, the river that flows through Germany’s capital city. However, unlike in Berlin, the Spree here is not one mighty river, but a spider web of little canals that crisscross a landscape covered by forests, farms and meadows.
Don’t expect many opportunities to swim, as the waters are shallow and filled with sea grass. But the water is very clean and slowly flows through ancient forests, their mystical roots stretching into the water, treetops converging above.
Thanks to the tranquility of the water here, this trip is suitable for all levels and ages, and it’s just as easy to paddle upstream as down.
Glide through fairytale Germany while kayaking in the Spreewald
Though it’s a biosphere reserve, the Spreewald isn’t remote wilderness. There are farms, small settlements, restaurants and beer gardens along the way.
The towns along the river are historic and beautiful, boasting centuries old Tudor and brick houses. The largest town and the gateway to this area is Lübben, which is along the railway line from Berlin. In addition, there are a couple of smaller villages, of which Lübbenau, Lehde, Schlepzig and Burg are the ones easiest accessible by boat.
Kayaks or canoes are easy to find as there are numerous establishments renting boats. A kayak is a little faster, however, if you want to bring along a lot of stuff, a canoe is probably a better idea.
You can also take a tour in traditional punts if you don’t feel adventurous enough to head out alone into the spider web of waterways (though getting lost is part of the fun). Many of these punts also offer wine and food, if you want to make a party of it.
The way it works is you have a person standing in the back of the long boat who pushes the boat forward with a long stick. If you are lucky, you might even get a driver in a traditional costume. The female version is pretty impressive and reflects the strong cultural heritage that is kept alive in this region.
How to keep your energy up when kayaking in the Spreewald
Paddling can burn a lot of calories, especially if you try to cover a lot of distance (as we did). But don’t worry, you won’t starve! The Spreewald is also known for its food, and there are many local delicacies to try, making your kayaking trip not only an outdoor adventure but a culinary delight.
The most well-known delicacy are pickles, and you should definitely try the many different kinds they produce here — they have standard pickles, sour pickles, garlic pickles, mustard pickles and many more choices. They serve them in the restaurants, in the shops (they make great gift item), and you can also buy them from tables set up along the water where local women sell them for just a few cents.
Besides pickles, there are a couple of local specialties that you should also try. Whether it’s the locally brewed and incredibly delicious craft beers from the Spreewald Brewery; the Plinsen dishes (pancakes) or the hearty, nutty linseed oil (which is still being pressed by a historic windmill that uses wind power whenever possible), you’ll find something for every taste.
As you can see, there are plenty of opportunities to replenish the calories you burned as you eat your way through the Spreewald.
Wildlife watching while kayaking in the Spreewald
Thanks to its official status as a biosphere reserve, the Spreewald is home to many animals that one does not often see in Germany.
During our first trip kayaking in the Spreewald, Eric and I were paddling along a quiet section when suddenly a curious river otter decided to join us. It snaked its way just a few arm lengths away from us through the root system along the riverbank and seemed to have no specific plan in mind aside from following us down the river.
The second time I went, I spotted a couple of snakes (don’t worry – only harmless, tiny ones) swimming across the water with their heads sticking out.
And on my last trip, we almost ran over a totally relaxed beaver-like animal which would not make it into the next Colgate advertisement with its bright orange teeth.
If you look up the roofs of the houses of the many small villages scattered over the Spreewald during the right season, you may see some storks and their offspring. We missed the storks, but did see three cranes in a meadow, though they didn’t do their enchanting dance, which is supposed to be quite a sight.
Locks add the extra excitement to kayaking in the Spreewald
The Spreewald river system is connected by many locks to regulate water height and improve navigability. You’ll want to factor this in when you plan your day, as getting through them might slow you down a bit — some of them you have to operate by yourself. Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy, but the first attempt can be a bit puzzling.
Here’s the trick:
- Let one person hop off the boat before the lock.
- That person has to push the second gate on the far end of the lock closed (if it is not already closed), and shut the valves by turning the levers so that water can’t flow in or out.
- The same person then has to equalize the water in the lock (making it the same level as where the boat is waiting to enter) by opening the valve on the other gate.
- Once the water is at the same level they can open the first door and let the boat enter.
- Now, the valve on the first gate must be closed and the valve on the second gate opened, letting the water equalize on that end. (Make sure the boater holds on to something inside the lock; it can get a little rocky.)
- Once it is the same height, he or she can open the second gate and let the boat out and join their partner.
It might sound complicated, but don’t worry, you can’t do anything majorly wrong as you’ll never be able to open both locks and drain the Spreewald. (I promise, we tried it!)
Sometimes you’ll have local kids operating the locks to bump up their pocket money. Make sure you have a Schleusengroschen with you (about 50 ct) to reward them for their work.
When kayaking in the Spreewald, there are a lot of choices. You can take short half-day trips around some of the villages, day trips to the surrounding web of waterways or multiple-day tours where you can camp or stay in local pensions along the river.
One trip here that is still on my bucket list is to do the whole length of the Spree from its origin to bustling downtown Berlin! I’ll keep you posted.