An Englishman abroad
“…and so young families go to Dresden or Leipzig?”
“Hmmm…or Dusseldorf or Munich…”
We’re busy with freelance work at the moment so taking time off feels a little counter-intuitive. It was only a glance at our calendar (and that ticking sound in our heads) that encouraged us to sieze the day, go camping and see other parts of Germany while here.
So where did we go? Which of Germany’s natural wonders did we head to? Well, none of them, actually. We headed south from Berlin to what was an enormous industrial chunk of East Germany, now called Lausitzer Seenland.
I’d never heard of lignite before. Apparently, it’s brown coal – a softer, inferior fossil fuel to the hard black stuff we’re more familiar with in the UK. They’ve been mining brown coal in the southern part of Brandenburg for a long time but it was the East Germans that turned it into a vast project. After a coking process, it was used in homes and industry throughout the GDR.
As it was such a vital resource, this part of the world became characterised by open cast mines, colossal machinery and the tens of thousands of people required to make it all work.
Since re-unification, most of the industry has gone and thousands of people have moved out. The little piece of dialogue above is from a conversation I had with a tour guide, a very nice man who used to be an electrical engineer. I was quick to understand that people move out when the jobs dry up – we all have to go where the work is. What my guide was hinting at is that if you’re born in the former GDR, the work isn’t necessarily in the nearest city. It’s in the former FDR.
The area is dotted with sleepy-looking towns and villages. You see lots of signs for pensions/B&Bs as locals do their best to diversify. Many of these places have their own forgotten corners – empty apartment buildings, knackered municipal facilities and disused bus stops. As you drive towards a small town you eventually come to a roundabout with perhaps three or four roads leading from it. Of the exits you can take, there might be one that looks a little less driven – we found ourselves trundling down some of these.
I’ve always found dereliction to be amazingly evocative but even I accept that it’s a niche interest. A town can’t live off the meagre proceeds of dereliction and those who seek it out. So what do you do?
Well, since the turn of the century, Germany has been creating Europe’s largest man-made lake district. They’re filling the open cast mines with water and there are some ambitious plans for tourism, sport and recreation. A tiny percentage of the industrial infrastructure remains and these are being opened as iconic landmarks (like the Lauchhammer Bio Towers ), or attractions like the hugely impressive Besucherbergwerk F60 . As well as the lakes, there are new visitor centres, observation points and almost sci-fi developments of floating homes and lagoons.
Judging by the number of cyclists and roller-bladers we saw, Lausitzer Seenland might just realise these plans but for now the area is in a sort of limbo. I used to work for the tourist board for Manchester. Manchester’s industry was at its most powerful many, many decades ago and yet many people still associate it with dirt and grime. It takes time to for the stigma of industry to turn into a proud legacy.
Having said all this, we found some lovely beaches (some FKK, “Ian! Get Dressed!), pleasant walks, peaceful forests, bio-diversity (we have the mozzie bites to prove it), nice campsites, friendly people, cheap food & drink and clear, quiet roads. We had a cracking weekend.
So, I’m gonna raise a glass and hope that plans for Lausitzer Seenland work out. It would be nice if Germany’s prosperity could spread to areas of the east like this. I just hope they don’t get rid of all the old stuff so that I, and the handful of other dereliction-junkies, still have something to get all misty-eyed about.