South and slightly east of Berlin you’ll find one of Germany’s more unusual UNESCO sites, the Spreewald Biosphere Reserve. This inland delta of the Spree River, crisscrossed by 200 water channels and streams through bog land, forest, and meadows was formed during the last Ice Age. The area is home to a group of traditional Sorbs or Wends, whose families have been making a living here for generations by farming or fishing. What’s notable is that like Venice in Italy, the only way to get around this part of the Spreewald is by Kahn… a flat-bottomed boat perfect for navigating the 276 km of channels.
And so, I thought it might be fun to take a Spreewald Kahnfahrt.
Spreewald Kahnfahrt- A Boat Ride through the Spreewald
As an over planner, I worried that we wouldn’t be allowed to ride without advanced reservations, but the system that the tour boats have used for years is straightforward. For a basic 2-3 hour ride, you arrive, you decide if the boat tour is the right length for you, and you get on. No tickets, no hassle. (Money is collected by the guy “punting” the boat when he is good and ready.) When he feels enough passengers are on board, off you go.
Our trip set off from the Grosser Hafen in Lübbenau (home to the Gürkenmeile! Pickle Mile) (where there’s plenty of parking). At the harbor you will find a Kahn (flat bottom boat) or two tied up with the boat owner next to it. There are signs letting you know how long the trip will last. (Basic trips are 2-3 hours). Ask if there is space… then get on. (There are longer trips of up to 8 or 9 hours that require reservations…and if you are coming with a large group, it’s also good to call ahead).
The Kahns have 7 or 8 rows of seats (that fit 2-3 people). The middle rows face tables. (The tables are essential for snack breaks). The Kahns all have different colored blankets covering the seats, and table decorations vary (this is helpful later when you need to find your boat). And at the back is a platform for the boatman who pushes the Kahn forward with a pole.
When the Kahn’s ropes are untied, and the boatman shoves off, you glide into another world. No motors (they aren’t allowed) and no roads. There are a few bike paths… but even they fall behind the deeper you go into the reserve.
The Kahn glides smoothly through the water passing houses surrounded by flowers and trees. You’ll see meadows of tall grass …and small forests of trees. At times trees touch overhead across the water. All the homes have docks, most have fish trips, and everyone has a mailbox (the Post is delivered by Kahn).
Once upon a time each of the homes belonged to a working family. Today, some of the houses are rentals for vacationers looking to get away.
But locals still live in the homes, and a few enterprising families act as snack stops on your trip. On one dock they sold hot tea or cool beer…as well as Spreewald Pickles and Schmalzbrot. (YUM!)
The Kahnfahrt through the Spreewald is more than just a peaceful boat ride…it’s a lesson in history.
For hundreds of years the Sorbian (Wendisch) people farmed the land and fished the waters here. Even today, most of the homes can only be reached by boat. Our boat operator spent his whole life on the water and had so many stories to tell.
Family life in the traditionally centered on farming. The sandy soil of the Spreewald makes a fabulous growing environment for cucumbers (those famous Spreewald Gurken!) and rye. While homes might be on small islands, the main growing areas would be further away. Fathers would set off at first light, boating out to the fields. Mothers and Grandmothers stayed home to work the home garden, cook, and clean. Children were expected to go to school … also by Kahn. When school was over, they would go to the fields with a meal for the men and then await instructions for chores that needed doing. The days were long and hard.
Children living on the water quickly understood how to handle the Kahn boats. The very young children were tied to the boat for safety. Then once they were big enough, they stood between their father’s legs, pole in hand, learning to navigate the waters.
The essential Kahn was more than a people mover, and families had a few different ones, each with its own purpose. Everything that the families needed from outside came in by Kahn… from tools to shingles, and everything they sold went out by Kahn. (Even the trash goes out by Kahn)
Open Air Museum at Lehde
At the furthest point of the trip, the Kahn ties up at Lehde village. This tiny village still survives despite being cut off from roads. There are places to eat, drink, and pick up a few souvenirs. It’s also home to the Ledhe Open Air Museum, which displays life as it was 100 years ago.
Buy your ticket, and step back in time. Houses and workshops are staged to look just as they did in days past. Kitchens, bake houses, vegetable gardens, and workshops. In bedrooms you’ll see traditional Sorbian Tracht (clothing) including those magnificently embroidered headpieces.
A woman’s dowry, complete with linens and handwritten cookbooks was probably my favorite display.
But don’t linger too long… you need to catch the Kahn back out!
Disappearing Way of Life
On the way back out our boatman talked about changes to life in the Spreewald. The days of the Kahnboatman might be numbered. Every year there are fewer tourists. The life of a boatman has changed, with new regulations requiring more than just “back of the hand” knowledge of the waterways. Family farms were affected by the East German government, and the transition back to unified Germany wasn’t seamless. Today, many of the young generation moved away looking for better paying jobs.
Sadly, this kind of life on the canals and waterways of the Spreewald might just end up as a quaint piece of history.
So go… While you still can, take that Kahnfahrt for a few hours or all day. See the beauty of the area, enjoy the peace that comes with sitting close to the water. Listen to the boatman’s stories.
And don’t forget to enjoy a few pickles.
For More Information about Kahnfahrts from Lübbenau’s Großer Hafen
Find descriptions of the many different tours you can take on a traditional Kahn boat at the –> Grosser Hafen Lübbenau website
(you can read the site in English or German)
C0st of the ride varies depending on the length of the tour. Bring CASH… the boatmen are independent, and don’t have credit card machines. And bring extra to grab a snack along the way.
There are (obviously) no bathrooms on the Kahn boats, but there is a stop at Ledhe around 50 minutes into the journey. Bring change for the Bathroom Attendant.
The Open Air Museum at Ledhe costs 6 Euros (at the time of this post) for adults (other prices for students/children/seniors). If you take the 2 hour trip, visiting the museum can be tight (you only have a 30 minute stop). Longer Kahn trips have longer stops here. Talk to your boatman.
Want to enjoy more time in Lübbenau?
Stay at the Hotel Spreewaldeckenjoy biking, kayaking, a Kahnfahrt… and PICKLES!
The Gurkenmeile (the Pickle Mile)
At the Großer Hafen you’ll find a row of stands selling the famous Spreewald Gurken (pickles). The stands also sell other pickled delights (as well as Pickle Schnapps) AND they have samples. I wanted to take a bucket home…. (of the pickles not the Schnapps).