The travel muse has been on holiday for much of the past year, sitting on some tropical veranda sipping some adult beverage and waiting for this challenging season of lockdowns and quarantines to pass. I’ve been applying myself to studying German via Zoom in my slow and erratic way, hoping this year to finally pass the dreaded B1 exam and end the slow drip of grammatic torture that is every permanent expat’s fate. But this past weekend, dear friends K and M, basically my entire social “posse,” invited me out for a spin, something the Germans call “ein Ausflug,” or an excursion, into the beautiful countryside along the Oder River, the border with Poland.
Our first stop was Frankfurt an der Oder (henceforth “F/O”), a source of some confusion for newcomers to Germany since of course it shares its name with the bigger version to the west, Frankfurt am Main. In both cases, the second part of the name identifies the river on which the city sits and the reasons for their existence and growth.
Lying roughly 80 km east of Berlin, F/O is one of those places whose past is considerably grander than its present. It began as a Slavic settlement and ended up passing under the control of a range of ruling entities including the Poles, the Bohemians, the Prussians, the Swedes, the Russians, the Poles (again), the East Germans, and of course then the reunified Germany. One of the civic gems is the Marienkirche, originally built in 1253.
We were bummed to realize that, of course, the church would be closed due to COVID, so we walked briefly around the town only to realize that F/O has suffered the fate of many other cities in the region – a handful of jaw-dropping ancient architectural wonders surrounded on most sides by ghastly functional modern blocks of concrete and steel. We took small comfort from this charming sculpture outside the doors of the public library but then quickly exited Stage Left…
You’ll notice the word “wending” above. On my trip to Görlitz a few years back, I discovered that much of the area south of the east-west line between Berlin and F/O and running clear south to the Czech border is an historic region previously known as either Lusatia or Sorbia, home to the Slavic Sorb and Wend peoples. The Wends may have been the inspiration for the name “Vandals, and these fiercely independent groups held out against the invading Christian Germans until around the 12th century or so. Although living throughout the ages under many flags as suggested above, the language and elements of the culture have remained and have protected status in Germany. So as soon as one crosses into these previously Sorbian or Wendish lands, one sees place names and other signs in both languages.
From F/O we headed southward, roughly following the twists and turns of the Oder River, a lovely ride that kept confusing the heck out of my Smartphone, which kept welcoming me to Poland and telling me about my roaming charges. Our next stop was the tiny town of Neuzelle, a new place to my mental map and one that you probably haven’t heard of either. Here’s my entry into the “Most Bucolic Photo of the Day:”
Just to the right of this shot is the local brewery (closed at the moment – damn!) and then up the hill behind me is the group of buildings and gardens that makes up an ancient cloister complex:
So I knew I was in for something special, but after we walked through the gates, I really did drop my jaw. I looked at K as if to ask if he took a wrong turn somewhere and landed us in Austria. But he just looked at me and smiled. “Welcome to the Abbey.”
The complex was established as Nova Cella in 1268 by a group from the nearby Cisterian Altzella Abbey. The complex grew in the 14th century, but was destroyed in the 15th century during the Hussite Wars. The Hapsburg Monarchy (ah HA! Hence this style of building) extended its reach in the 16th century through the Bohemian Crown lands and the complex remained Catholic even though the entire surrounding areas became Protestant after the Reformation. Heavily damaged during the Thirty Year’s War in the early 17th century, the church was rebuilt AGAIN in this astonishing Baroque style, unlike much of anything else in this neck of the woods. Today the monastery complex is held by a public foundation run by the State of Brandenburg and includes two churches, the living quarters for the monks in residence, a school, and a museum, along with a developing formal garden. The site has applied for World Heritage status.
We wandered inside just as the resident monks started their noon chant, which ran for fifteen minutes. This gave us time to take in the interior of the church:
You just don’t see anything like this anywhere in Northern Germany, and particularly in the areas that used to be under East German control, where many of the churches were literally stripped of every internal piece of frippery. To see this much ornamentation still intact was….head shaking.
To the rear of the complex, the old formal gardens are being re-established after decades, if not centuries, of neglect. In a year or two, this view will be even more enjoyable.
By this time I was ready to call it a day, but K had one more stop in mind. We drove south another 75 kilometers through the perfect spring afternoon and finally arrived in Bad Muskau, a little spa town on the banks of the Neisse River. But the real reason to go is to see the “Fürst-Pückler-Park,” a UNESCO-World Heritage site since 2004 and the brainchild of the prince and landscape artist Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, “The Green Prince,” a man with a vision and the means to realize it.
Pückler-Muskau was born in this building in 1785. He spent some time in the army and traveled extensively through France and Italy. He was briefly the governor of Bruge in Belgium after the defeat of Napoleon.
After retiring from military service, he traveled again, this time through Great Britain, spending time in London, Wales, and Ireland. Later in his life he traveled through Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Sudan. He was “promoted” from count to “Fürst,” a higher level of nobility divorced his first wife, and looked for a second one who could support his growing interest in…..gardening. The palace here, seen below, was the result of his first effort; he sold this estate and developed a second one near Cottbus, another city in the region.
The Fürst died childless after a long and eventful life at the age of 85, after having been a travel writer, a military man, a landscape gardener, and apparently quite a ladies’ man and freethinker, creating a bit of a stir in his day. A lucky nephew inherited his estate which included the original house on the left and the palace:
Here’s another view from the backside…
…and a shot of one of the guarding spirits….
The surrounding gardens are massive and were divided at the end of the Second World War between Germany (520 acres) and Poland (860 acres). A decent exploration would take at least a whole weekend or more.
We tumbled back into the car and headed to Berlin, our heads filled with images of beauty and tales of artistry that spanned the centuries. I’m just hoping there are many more such adventures ahead as we all begin to venture back into the world. In the meantime, stay thee safe and well and you can be sure I’ll bring you along with me wherever I go.