Whimsical. There’s no other way to describe Spreewald with its never ending maze of canals and rivers that cut through the surrounding wetlands. Even Venice is like, “Whoa… Easy with the canals!”
Spreewald is at the top of any list when you look up day or weekend trips from Berlin. But embarrassingly, it’s my first time. I’ve traveled plenty around Brandenburg––the state surrounding Berlin––with excursions to the likes of Bückow, Chorin Abbey, and I even ran 100 kilometers across northern Brandenburg along the Märkische Landweg. Yet Spreewald continued to elude me… Until now.
I’m here to run the Spreewald Half Marathon with some friends who’ve had their eye on this race for some years. But I’m not just here to run. I’m here for some Gurken.
Spreewald-Gurken or pickles are a regional delicacy. They’re the champagne of Spreewald… Literally. Spreewald pickles are a legally protected brand by the EU.
Jörg Thiele runs a cooking school in the area and he’s agreed to meet with me to tell me all about the fuss over Spreewald and its pickles. But first, I need a taste of the area myself. So I throw on my running shoes and head out the door with a little jaunt around the narrow roads and trails outside of Burg.
Learning about Spreewald Pickles and Legends
I meet Jörg at Zum Schlangenkönig, a resort and restaurant outside of Burg where he teaches cooking classes. Though he’s not originally from Spreewald, living there is a dream come true.
Like the Harz Mountains and so many other places in Germany, Spreewald is home to its own mythology and legends. Many of these were created by Sorbs, a Slavic ethnic mintority who’ve lived in the region for well over a thousand years. They’ve long since assimilated to German life, but the language and their legends live on throughout Spreewald. Jörg explains in the video above.
Now… A brief interlude.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our unexpected evening at Bruno’s Kneipe. It’s smokey inside, so we stick with the outdoor patio to enjoy our drinks. We’re the only ones staying outside. It’s clearly an odd choice. But Bruno himself keeps coming out to check in on us and others knock on our table as they pass by to wish a “Guten Abend.”
I start chatting with Bruno and another guy at the bar during a beer run. We get the beers and go back outside. It’s not long before Bruno comes out and asks if any of us play an instrument. I mention I play a little guitar. He says I can play if I want to.
To make a long story short, we go inside and find a less-smoky corner. Bruno comes over and dumps a folder of heirlooms on our table––including the file the Stasi had on him.
Turns out, Bruno was a saxophonist and played in the East German reggae band “AUT.” And about an hour later, we were jamming together.
Suffice it to say, I did not have jamming with a GDR-era saxophonist on my Spreewald bingo card. But I’ll take it.
Spreewald Biek Ride
It’s morning and the sun’s out again. Perfect for a two-wheel ride into town.
In Burg we pick up our Startunterlagen or starting numbers where the festivities for the 21st Spreewald Marathon are already underway. Today the main event is a 200-kilometer bike ride around the forest.
But we have another day to take it easy. So we hit the canals for a lazy paddle out to a beer garden in Leipe.
After inhaling a pickley potato salad, I stole bits from this Spreewalder Hefeplinse, fluffy pancakes with a side of applesauce––if you order correctly. Then, it was back on the water to finish the loop to the outskirts of Burg. Time to rest. For tomorrow, we run.
Spreewald Half Marathon
Ah, race day. It never gets old. And you could not ask for better weather. Overcast and mild. Goldilocks running weather.
And at 9:02 a.m. on the dot, it’s––as they say around here––Auf die Gurke fertig los.
With about five kilometers left, I realized I had a shot at a half marathon PR. So the GoPro went away and I pushed until my heart started beating out of my chest. In the end… I think I missed it by a few seconds. But feels like a PR nonetheless because I got a wonderfully absurd silver Gurke to take home with me.
On the many gray Berlin days ahead of me, I’ll turn over to the medals on my wall, glance at that Gurke, and flash back to those sunnier serene days in the Spreewald. And I’ll go nosh on a Spreewaldgurke and remember the simple pleasures of this whimsical place and its timeless cuisine.