We were almost at the end of the Mittellandkanal trying to get through the locks before the lock-keepers went back on strike. I was impressed to see that Germany is still updating and improving its canal infrastructure. This makes sense when moving large bulk heavy goods like sand, gravel, coal, scrap metal etc (you get the picture) across the country or the continent. The canals stretch across Europe from the Czech Republic and Poland to the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The use of the juggernaut barges saves thousands of trucks on the road (and their carbon emissions) moving these bulky materials. For example one big barge can move as much as 70 semi-trailer trucks (lorries), albeit very slowly. Canal traffic is therefore a green and highly efficient way to big move stuff (Rant over).
As we were leaving the canal (waiting to go through an old lock) we met another boat who had seen us in Wolfsburg. Dieter and Gaby were just returning from their trip to the Baltic Sea and Denmark. Their 11 meter Dutch steel cruiser was a bit younger than ours and had some very nice design features. They had stayed close to shore in the Baltic Sea (Ost See) and only gone out on nice weather days when they were in the open sea. This gave Martin some ideas and me some apprehensions …………… but we will wait and see.
We followed them out of the canal into a lake where they offered to anchor out with us. It was lovely to be on a lake – our boat hanging alongside another and a quick trip to the local restaurant for a fish dinner (first fresh fish in months). We were rapidly introduced to the joys of boating on the lakes of north-east Germany. After a lovely evening with Gaby and Dieter (it was their last night of vacation) we enjoyed our first swim in the warm lake. I was so surprised getting into the water because it was not freezing cold as is normal in BC – in fact the water was silky and the right temperature (24C) for swimming. Our new friends, like many Germans, were naturists who loved to swim in the nude, and believed in the health giving properties of letting your body feel the air and the water. So skinny dipping is very fashionable in Germany.
We left them after breakfast and made our way down the lake and river system to Brandenburg and then through the lakes to the little resort Ketzin in the former East Germany (Deutsche Demokratik Republik). The weather was lovely and warm (30C) and there were lots of people enjoying the water and the sun – and there was a lot of ‘derry’ being ‘aired’ as we journeyed through this watery maze. The small port was a great place to swim, and try out our old swim ladder on the back of the boat but this was also the first time this summer we had to deal with mosquitoes – in large quantities.
We had joined the Havel river system: a lovely lake and river system that was used for transportation, fishing, as well as recreation. We were on the main barge route from western German industrial areas to Poland and the Czech Republic but it was dotted with all kinds of watercraft. This was a recreational paradise with hot weather and warm water, so, in the spirit of free-enterprise companies renting rafts (called Tom Sawyer rafts) which were small huts on a raft with an outboard motor at the back driving them through the water maze. The huts were shelter from the sun, some were accommodation with cooking facilities, sunbathing and swim decks like caravans on a raft, and some were actual caravans on rafts. There were all kinds of sailboats with and without masts up, and of course a large number of cruisers. Add into this mix of watercraft some very large commercial barges, some tourist boats and some ferries and you get the sense of the size and business of the waterways.
Dieter and Gaby suggested that we spend a day or so on the lake at a place called Werder. This was a lovely spot – very nice old town built on a island that had been ‘abridged and renovated. Lots of tourists visiting the town as well as the boaters, all drawn by it beautiful reconstruction and the watery setting. The lake was very clean and warm and we were able to anchor out not too far from the marina and the local chandlery.
Needless to say we went to the chandlery a number of times as well as the local supermarket. It was hot in Werder with the daytime temperature touching 37C. Luckily we could spend time in the water (which cooled our bodies down and helped the mind work again – cos my mind is quite useless when the temperature hits 30C or more), and there was a little bit of a breeze and cooling in the evening. The nice part about 37C is that mosquitoes hate that amount of heat so we were somewhat bug free for while.
After Werder we moved onto Postsdam through the waterways and shallow lakes –this historically famous city was being reconstructed to its eighteenth century glory. Potsdam was quite beautiful and full of delightful stories and it was really hot (36C). We moored in a marina on the edge of town near the famous Glienicker Bridge – but more about that later. We took a city bus tour with a commentary. Potsdam is called the Versailles of Germany with good reason – again it is a maze of waterways and parkland were the homes and palaces of the many of the Kings (and Queens) of Prussia and the Emperors of Germany.
As the capital of Prussia, Potsdam was the home to monarchs like the imposing, enlightened King Friedrich I of Prussia. Friedrich the Great (he was also very tall), king from 1740 – 1786, was a visionary and an intellectual who dealt with the philosophical dilemmas of the day with his friend Voltaire, who lived for a couple of years at court in Potsdam. Frederick is revered in Germany for modernizing and industrializing Prussia, his military genius in winning the Seven Years War and introducing the potato as a food source to a reluctant population.
The story goes that people of the 18th century believed that vegetation that grew above the ground was edible by humans and vegetation below the ground was for animals. The potato, of course has the opposite configuration, the green part of the potato plant, above the ground, is actually poisonous to humans. King Friedrich wanted to cure his people of such superstition so he ordered some very lax troops to guard a field of potatoes to ensure no-one stole them. This, of course, aroused the curiosity of people who suddenly became interested in what was under the ground and proceeded to steal potatoes. Once they tasted them and felt a full stomach after a meal of potatoes, the news spread, as did the use of the potato as a food source.
Nowadays it is very hard to find a German recipe that does not contain potato. To honour and remind people of this story, fresh potatoes are put on Friedrich der Grosse’s grave every day.
My dad was called Frederick and was also a tall man who was quite enlightened. When I was a little girl we lived in a house with coal fired heating and unfortunately were not rich enough to afford servants (unlike King Friedrich). So every morning my dad would get up and make a fire, so my mother nicknamed him ‘Frederick the Grate’
Friedrich the Great was a very learned man but not a very social one. He built himself a beautiful summer palace called ‘Sans Souci’ (without cares or worries). I must admit having visited this lovely palace and gardens – it was a place or palace I could live in. Potsdam had some other interesting palaces – they were located and built with ‘the view/vista’ in mind. So there are palaces dotted around the maze of waterways and parkland around Potsdam.
Potsdam is built on marshy land and Frederick wanted to drain the land and create a system of canals. So he imported some Dutch engineers to this work. To make them feel at home the Dutch quarter was built – houses with facades and frontages like those of a Dutch city. The work was done and the engineers stayed. Another cultural icon is the especially recreated Russian small holdings built especially for the Russian choir brought in to entertain the royal households. These buildings have been restored and are still owned by some of the families brought in to sing for the King two hundred and fifty years ago.
German royalty still live in Potsdam, as we met the great great grandson of the Kaiser; Franz-Friedrich Prinz von Preussen who was in the business restoring the beautiful heritage houses of Potsdam and his lovely wife Susann who had trained as a concert pianist under the East German regime but had difficulty finding work in the new Germany. They were quite taken by Kerry and we spent a pleasant hour talking dogs history and politics. They believed that this lake land area of this part of Germany was the most beautiful part of the country, as it was never industrialized and remains an unspoiled nature reserve with a treasure trove of preserved villages and towns.
Potsdam was also a garrison town. It is the kind of place you think of marching horses and soldiers parading before the King and Emperor, but is also housed about a tens of thousands of Soviet troops for 40 years. Potsdam also housed the offices of the KGB in East Germany and has an infamous prison located at near the outer limits of the Berlin Wall. Now there are lots of empty buildings and palaces waiting for a new purpose and are being snapped up for redevelopment, the tourist industry or by the University populations or the movie industry.
Potsdam was also the Hollywood of Germany – with a great film industry. Indeed with the rebuilding of many of the old palaces and castles it feels a bit like Tinseltown. However, there is a darker side to the history of Potsdam when Cecilianhof became the site of the famous Potsdam Conference July 17 to August 7, 1945 . This conference determined the fate of the German people after the obliteration of the Nazi regime and their defeat in World War II.
The Allies were clear that Germany should never again be a military power, but they also wanted Germany to have a democratic future. The final meeting of the leaders of the Allied Forces: Churchill, Stalin and the new President of the US – Harry Truman. Half way through the conference Churchill was required to return to the UK to fight a general election, which he lost and so did not return to Potsdam. Clement Attlee the new Prime Minister arrived at Potsdam after being in office for only three days. Neither Attlee or Truman had any experience in dealing with Stalin and this may have effected the resulting division and occupation of Germany – between the UK, US, France and the USSR. (Canada also had bases Germany as part of the Allied Forces),with Berlin being administered by all four powers. Germany became an occupied country for almost 70 years after the end of World War II (and the Americans are still leaving).
Potsdam at the Glienicker Bridge was also a place for the exchange of spies. Famous exchanges like that of the US spy plane pilot Gary Powers in 1963 and a Russian spy are well documented in the annals of this historic bridge. The white line and change in the green paint colour in the middle of the bridge was the line between the old DDR and West Berlin.
The tensions that had been created by the world’s Superpowers at the Potsdam Conference shaped the lives of millions of people in Germany and beyond for over 40 years. The opening of the Bridge in 1989 was the beginning of a new era for Germany and the rest of the world. More about that later when we cruise through the city (and the ghosts) of Berlin. The remnants of the Berlin wall and the stories of reunification are very evident in this area. We heard more tales when we cruised to our next destination Spandau.