Brandenburg's big headliner grabber maybe Berlin but much of the state’s appeal lies in the surrounding suburbs and countryside. After years in the second rank of destinations, the rest of the region is ready to be discovered writes Kaye Holland
Since the fall of its world famous wall two decades ago, Berlin has been reborn as Germany’s capital of cool. And deservedly so owing to its superlative culture and clubbing. But Brandenburg’s lure isn’t limited solely to the remarkable resurgence of Berlin.
The rest of the region has plenty to recommend too - particularly for both history buffs and fans of the great outdoors - as I discovered on a recent trip. The state’s small towns, churches and series of low hills serve as a welcome antidote to the hustle and bustle of Berlin’s bewildering array of bars, museums and modern buildings.
For me, Potsdam - with its fabulous fountains, follies, palaces and gardens - was a particular standout. Most people associate Potsdam with the aftermath of the Second World War: Potsdam’s Schloss Celcilienhof is where the victorious Allies arrived on 2 August 1945 to work out details of the division of Germany and Europe. The city, whose beautiful baroque buildings were badly damaged during the war following a bombing raid in April 1945, was assigned to the Soviet zone and effectively closed to the west when the Berlin Wall went up overnight in 1961. Today you can still sections of the wall near the Glienicke Bridge.
The Bridge of Spies, as reporters referred to it, is where the United States and Soviet Union exchanged agents and prisoners no fewer than four times during the Cold War. Today the bridge is a beautiful vantage point affording jaw dropping views of Schlosspark Glienicke (castle grounds), Babelsberg Castle and Park as well as the Sacrower Heilandskirche (church of the Saviour).
However the jewel in Potsdam’s crown is arguably Sancssouci - the summer residence of Frederick the Great. Old Fritz (as Frederick was known) decided in 1744 that he needed a place where he could live sans souci (without cares): step forward Schloss Sancssouci. Built above a beautiful terraced vineyard, the palace - the work of architect Georg von Knobelsdorff - took three years to complete, while the landscaped grounds took a further five years. It was worth the wait: today Sancssouci is considered a major work of Rococo architecture in Germany and a rival to Versailles.
Cecilienhof Palace is also worth checking out - if only for the fact that this is where the Potsdam Conference (the final big 'big three' meeting between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain about the future of Germany) was held at the end of the Second World War.
But if you’re after a holiday not a history lesson, make a beeline for the buzzing Dutch quarter - teeming as it is with trendy shops and cafes. We stopped for lunch at Garage Du Pont: a great spot to sample currywurst, aka the iconic German sausage. As the name suggests, Garage Du Pont was - in a previous life - a petrol station and automotive aficionados can ogle antique cars in the affiliated museum after their meal should they so desire.
And don’t worry about any gastronomic indulgences: you can easily get on your bike and burn off any excess calories consumed by pedalling to charming towns such as Wolfshagen (part of the municipality of Uckermark), Wittenberg (where Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses) and Perleberg - capital of the Prignitz district. A word of warning: locals don’t speak much English but regardless you’ll be warmly welcomed by residents. Indeed one of the unsung pleasures of a visit to Brandenburg is the chance to meet its people. Rightly or wrongly there’s a stereotype surrounding Germans - they’re invariably portrayed as staid and serious - but in Brandenburg I was struck by how warm, friendly and, shock horror, funny (our Potsdam guide Michael was an absolute hoot) the locals are. Special mention should go to Knut Diete - head chef at Das Kranhaus Restaurant - who went out of his way to tickle our tastebuds with generous portions of innovative creations (strawberries served in mustard anyone?) Unusual yes, but nonetheless they had us purring with pleasure - as did the pints of locally brewed Pilsner beer. Yet while Brandenburg (and by extension Germany) is known for its beers, oenophiles shouldn’t overlook the area’s wines either. I enjoyed many a glass of Riesling which, despite the unenviable reputation that German wine enjoys abroad - a legacy of the 1970s when the country exported its worst wines overseas - proved highly drinkable!
Well fed and watered, our group slept extremely well at Ölmühle . Situated on the banks of the River Elbe, this 18th century hotel boasts an onsite brewery, beach bar and restaurant and is an ideal base from which to hike, cycle or simply stroll the well marked trails that follow the elegant Elbe River. Yet although the Elbe River appeared picturesque during our visit, the river overflowed earlier this year causing thousands of homes to be evacuated.
Along the Elbe, you’ll find the stork village of Rühstädt. Every spring more than 70 storks return to Rühstädt to raise their offspring so expect to storks nests - some weighing up to two tonnes - atop of houses. As a result Rühstädt’s residents are, perhaps unsurprisingly, somewhat stork obsessed: there’s a cornucopia of shops selling stork souvenirs, a stalk balcony from which to observe the birds in their nests and even a dedicated stork museum in this small town of 600 people.
What was a surprise was that we got to glimpse two storks in September (they should have flown the nest at the end of August). But then the state of Brandenburg is full of surprises: who knew that there were romantic palaces, parks and endless avenues of trees, pine forests and waterways all within easy reach of the bright lights of Berlin? And now - ‘goldener Oktober’ - is a great time to go...
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