A Recovering Eastern Germany, From a Canal's-Eye View

By Clay Risen
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 18, 2009

Our host, Peter Hofmann, was astounded. "How is it that two Americans from Washington, D.C., could end up here?" he asked over a hastily constructed dinner of wild boar, black bread and sekt. My wife and I had just arrived by canoe at Pension Engel und Teufel (Angel and Devil), which Hofmann runs with his wife, Angela, on the outskirts of the German town of Oderberg, a few miles from the Polish border. We had found the couple at the tail end of a birthday party for a neighbor; within minutes we were part of the celebration.

Hofmann posed a good question. Even 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, eastern Germany is stuck with the same old stereotypes: abandoned towns, high unemployment and polluted streams. And while that's not the whole picture, it's not far off the mark. Why would anyone want to spend three days there?

But Hofmann, a retired construction engineer, was only partly serious. After all, he had opened his pension earlier this year in response to a swell of tourists -- mostly domestic, but increasingly international -- coming to experience the explosion of nature overtaking the east's rusting brick factories and collective farms.

Over the past decade, thousands of square miles of unused farmland in eastern Germany have been turned into preserves, while the once-polluted rivers, lakes and canals around Berlin are now home to millions of ducks, swans and other water life. Lately Hofmann and his neighbors have been at war with a particularly aggressive colony of beavers that regularly raid their yards for building material.

Not all the farmland has gone back to Mother Nature. The fields around Berlin are home to a boom in organic farming, which funnels fresh produce to the capital city's food markets and trendy eateries. And thanks to an infrastructure blitz in the 1990s, the region is easily accessible, while pensions and small hotels have sprung up to accommodate weekenders looking for a bit of green.

* * *

There's any number of ways to explore the natural beauty surrounding Berlin -- by car, on a bicycle, in a hot-air balloon -- but canoe was our transport of choice for three days over an early September weekend, traveling from Liebenwalde, due north of Berlin, to Oderberg along the Finow Canal, one of the countless waterways that ring the German capital like an opal necklace.

We left Berlin's central train station at 8:30 on a Friday night, and by 9:30 we were in the company of Siegrid Kaftan, the co-owner of Wallapoint, one of the leading canoe rental companies on Berlin's northern edge. Located on the outskirts of Zehdenick, Wallapoint mainly offers tours of the Brandenburg lake district to the north. But the Kaftans were equally willing to rent us a fully equipped boat for our own a la carte trip, along with a spartan but clean room in their pension.

"It's a bit unique, this trip you've planned," Kaftan told me Friday night. "But then again, why not?"

Indeed. Though not as steeped in natural beauty as the marshes and lakes of north Brandenburg, the Finow is a watery guidebook through German history. First built in the early 16th century by Elector Joachim Friedrich to link Berlin to the Baltic, it was destroyed by marauding Catholic armies in the Thirty Years' War.

During the 18th century, Prussian kings made repeated efforts to reconstruct the canal, but it wasn't until the turn of the last century that the Finow regained its role as an important trade route, only to be rendered obsolete in 1914 by the much larger Oder-Havel Canal to its immediate north. Nazism, World War II and communist East Germany followed, leaving the canal in polluted disrepair for half a century.

In the 1990s the towns along the unused canal, seeing its potential as a water-tourism magnet, began to rebuild it, including its 12 hand-operated locks. By 2000 it was completely renovated and open for business, along with a bike and running trail that stretches most of its length.

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