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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Twenty: Bitterfeld to Berlin

Spreewald waterways 
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A breath of country air. Herr Marx takes me on a private trip on the Spreewald waterways-1,200 miles of canal, river and stream just an hour south of Berlin.
Michael Palin - New EuropeThere is a temptation to see Germany only from the autobahns, so quick and comprehensive is the system, but after a diet of cities, it's a relief to pull off the E55 and take in the last stretch of relatively unspoilt countryside before we reach Berlin.

The Spreewald is an area comprising 1,200 miles of waterways radiating out from the River Spree over an area of 300 square miles. I learn all this from my authoritative boatman, Herr Marx, a punctilious man in his late fifties with an obsessive interest in the locally born explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, who disappeared, presumed dead, crossing the Australian outback in 1848. I happen to be fascinated by him too, after reading Patrick White's epic novel Voss, which was based on Leichhardt's short life. The lean, earnest Herr Marx makes me feel a complete dilettante, for he has actually been to Australia and wandered the bush in the footsteps of his hero. And can't wait to go back.

The water meadows and languid waterways of the Spreewald couldn't be more different from the hard-baked desert where Ludwig Leichhardt (probably) met his death, but Herr Marx is just as keen on them.

We pass under a railway bridge.

'Built in the year 1866 by a British company,' he shouts, disturbing a pair of waterfowl that clatter up into the sky and wheel steeply off across a waterlogged field.

'A wonderful area for nature. Fifteen thousand flowers, animals and birds. A wonderful area.'

He used to work as an engineer in a local power station which was closed down in 1996, part of the price paid when the centrally planned economic system he'd grown up with was subsumed by the capitalist, competitive West. Many people left the area, and often Germany itself.

'In the town of Lübbenau lives, in 1990, 25,000 people. Today, 10,000. Big problem.'
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Twenty: Bitterfeld to Berlin
  • Country/sea: Germany
  • Place: Bitterfeld
  • Book page no: 278

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