Wandering with Sam
The Wendland in Lower Saxony
Dec 6, 2005, 15:48

Vietze, Kries Lüchow-Dannenburg
In September 2005, I spent a month in the tiny village of Vietze in Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) in Germany. I was there for an archaeological excavation of a medieval Slavic settlement sponsored by the University at Göttingen. However, since we did not spend every waking moment of the day at the excavation site, I had some time to explore one of the more rural parts of Europe.

Germany is a relatively small country, about the size of Montana, or perhaps the states of Washington and Idaho combined. Despite this, it has a population in excess of 80 million people, or more than twice that of California. Given these statistics, it is hard for me to imagine any rural or undeveloped areas at all in Germany, though I have seen them while traveling between cities. Typically, I have gravitated to German cities in the past, especially to the large cathedrals, museums, and vibrant pedestrian malls. The potato fields and forests along the Elbe River in eastern Niedersachsen were a total contrast to my more typical urban experience.

The village of Vietze is one of several quite small villages that dot the landscape throughout the region
Elbe River
known as the Wendland, which in translation means the “turning land," because of the large number of bends in the Elbe River. Vietze is actually located in the Landkries Lüchow-Dannenburg, a county like administrative area centered in the nearby town of Lüchow. Probably the best defining aspect of the Landkries was the fact that the license plate numbers of cars registered there begin with a “DAN."

The landscape of this area is mostly rolling hills and farm fields interspersed with dense stands of deciduous trees spread out over a vast plain that extends from the Baltic Sea in the north to low mountain ranges like the Harz to the south. This land is not exactly wilderness, because it is well settled and has largely been converted to agricultural uses, but other than a few small cities
here and there, it is largely rural in character.

Vietze itself is a tiny village of about 200 or so people living in a small cluster of tidy brick and timber frame houses along a quiet side road. There are virtually no commercial establishments other than a couple of vending machines and a soap workshop next to the house that I stayed in. The nearest grocery store was about five miles away in the town of Gartow.

Entrance to 13th Century Church in Vietze
Vietze had an old church with walls and arches dating back to the 13th century, when the village was founded, but that was the only surviving medieval structure. The remainder of the buildings in the village were most likely from the 19th or 20th centuries.

The classic building throughout northern Germany is the fachwerk, or a timber frame structure. These buildings typically were built of brick, reinforced by thick and roughly hewn timber beams, and covered with orange ceramic shingles, or less frequently, with a dark thatch. They often displayed a brightly painted panel that portrayed a brief family history in flowery bold letters, mostly in German, but occasionally in Latin, especially if it was from before the 19th century.

I was surprised at how wealthy the village appeared, with brand new vehicles, well maintained large houses and very tidy yards with elaborate gardens. This was surprising because Vietze did not seem to have any indigenous industry, not even farming, like the neighboring villages. So I suspect that many of the inhabitants were semi- retired professionals or part year residents who might also live in places like Berlin or Hamburg.

Elbe River Near Vietze
Vietze is located on the Elbe River, a fairly wide, but slow moving river that leads from the highlands in the Czech Republic to the North Sea near Hamburg. The Elbe is one of Europe’s major waterways, probably not nearly as prominent as the Rhine or the Danube, but still used for a fair amount of traffic. Vietze was at one time a port along the river, but today most of the river barges pass by without stopping. The area along the river is mostly swampy land infested with weeds and countless tiny frogs, and is periodically flooded, especially in the late summer months when heavy rainfall and winter runoff in the Alps leads to swollen brown rivers swirling dangerously close to settlements along the banks.

A series of higher bluffs along the river lay east of the village. This heavily forested area is known as the Vietze Schanze, because of the remains of a likely Carolingian (ninth century) fortress that overlooks the Elbe. A steep muddy trail winds its way from the edge of town into the forest where this fortress used to be. At one time it was a substantial earth rampart adorned by a few wooden structures (a primitive version of the traditional late medieval castle), but now it is simply a level area in a forest overgrown with thorny vines and an apple orchard. The only evidence of the walls now is an abrupt grade where the trail enters the vague rectangular level area.

The entire region tended to be a culture of farmers, small business owners, urban refugees and retired people, all keeping busy with a variety of activities to keep themselves solvent. There are no large chain stores in the area other than perhaps gas stations, so the grocery and the bakery in Gartow, or the pubs in many of the surrounding villages were owned by local people in the community.

In addition to farming, running local businesses, or pensions, many people had supplemental sources of income. One example of this was the woman who owned the house that we stayed in. She appeared to be a retired university professor who did other activities for income in addition to her pension. She ran a high quality soap workshop in a large hall next to her home where she spent much of the week making bars of soap out of olive oil and different aromas. Then she would spend most of her weekends on the road, selling her soap in nearby cities. She also earned income from renting out the upper floors of her three story house to vacationers or archaeology groups. Another family in the nearby community of Meetschow owned a dairy farm and made extra money by preparing meals for our group. Every afternoon we would pick up pails of goulash, boiled potatoes, or soup, made from farm fresh, and most likely organic, ingredients. And another counterculture oriented guy lived on a property with minimal modern amenities and produced handcrafted furniture.

The ultimate confluence of this rural culture of part time business owners was at the Sunday flea market that was held in different cities in the region. One Sunday afternoon, an Irishman from our group and I decided to ride bicycles to the Landkries administrative city of Lüchow, about 15 miles away, to visit the flea market there.

The Bicycle with the Red Basket
We didn’t have our own bicycles, so we had to make do with the old ones that our landlady let us use. One was a violet colored aging mountain bike, with warped rims and cracked tires from Yugoslavia, while the other was a shiny black three speed with a huge red shopping basket, not the most masculine bike on the planet, but it was good for hauling extra coats, maps and bottles of water.

Most of the roads in the area were a holdover from the early years of the automobile, quite narrow with no lane markings. One local road was just a single lane with two strips of concrete cutting through open fields along the former border of East and West Germany. I was told that this road was designed to accommodate Warsaw Pact tanks. However, since most of the traffic tended to be funneled onto the two major highways that actually crossed the Elbe, the other roads tended to carry very little traffic so they were ideal for bicycling, despite how narrow they were.

Even though we were in a rural area, the traffic seemed a bit suburban; mostly Volkswagon’s, Peugot’s, tiny Chevrolets, Smart Cars (a two seater that is half the length of a traditional car), minivans and even an occasional SUV. But there were no pickup trucks, that just doesn’t seem to have caught on in Europe like it has in North America. The most obvious farm vehicles were large John Deere tractors pulling double trailers filled with potatoes or corn that moved quite slowly, often leading a long string of cars behind them. It was quite scary when one tractor pulling such a load tried to pass another on a two lane road. Occasionally a large truck (Lkw-Lastkraftwagen) would pass through, thundering down the narrow road while taking up part of the other lane.

Timber-Frame Barn, Wendland
After departing Vietze on our odd assortment of bicycles, we crossed a swampy river and a beaver dam before arriving in Meetschow, a tiny dairy town with a distinct barnyard aroma of cattle and horses. This village consisted of older and smaller houses interspersed with brick and timberframe barns and lots filled with farm tractors and trailers. This Sunday seemed to be the designated day for getting rid of unwanted belongings, so we saw a lot of furniture, farm equipment, yard waste and bicycles stacked along the road, available for anyone who was willing to carry it away.

The next town beyond Meetschow was Gorleben, a quite tidy and well endowed village with a brand new set of soccer fields and an attractive town center. This town had the dubious distinction of becoming the new storage site for Germany’s nuclear energy program. Apparently the permanent storage site is still under construction, held up by political controversy, so the waste is in a temporary storage site above ground. According to the locals, Gorleben’s finer attributes are financed largely by the nuclear power industry as an effort to retain the support of the local community. The entire Wendland region is in fact quite unwilling to become a storage site for such material; they show their opposition by posting large yellow wooden X’s on the side of their houses or barns.

Trebeler Baurnstuben
After two hours of cycling at a slow pace through the late summer landscape of Niedersachsen, we decided to stop for a beer at the Trebeler Bauernstuben, a farmer's pub in Trebel. This day just happened to be the Bundesrat (parliament) election date in 2005. Germans hold their elections on Sundays, perhaps to make it easier for people to participate. This was just an incidental item of interest for an American and an Irishman, but it just so happened that the pub we stopped at was the polling area for the village of Trebel. In most American states, polling places are usually at a school or a fire station, whereas in Germany, it was a pub. I can see how holding the election at a pub on a Sunday would eliminate a lot of excuses for not voting! While we relaxed and drank our dunkelweizebier (dark wheat beer), we watched locals from the community wander into the pub and follow the signs to the wahlraum (election area). Most of the people appeared conservative, typical of a small town, but one particular guy with a mohawk and ripped camouflage pants wandered in to vote as well. Perhaps he was part of the constituency for the Anarchist Pogo Party, an actual political organization in Germany with goals like granting youth pensions, abolishing the police force or providing free beer that came into existence when two drunken guys got together at a pub in Hannover 25 years ago.

Wendland Road
After our brief stop, we continued along the road, past potato fields, hunting huts on stilts, piles of hay bales, stopping only momentarily to pull some apples from a tree. Eventually we arrived in the town of Lüchow, a rather small city, massive compared to Vietze, but only a village compared to Hamburg. We passed warehouses, car dealers, and schools on the outskirts of town before we ended up at the flea market. It easily filled two football fields with buses, vans, and small trucks loaded with all kinds of stuff, including clothing, books, toys, old photos, jewelry, antiques, artwork, leather crafts and other such second hand stuff that are reminiscent of a garage sale or church rummage sale. I gravitated to the books, most of which were in German, but the variety ranged from kids books and comics to fairly nice collections of literature, even if some of it was German translations of Shakespeare. One stall had a stack of old photos, with portraits of a distant relative of someone joining a cavalry unit before the First World War or someone else from a later generation showing off his sharp uniform with its swastika armband. Another stall had military equipment, including a gas mask canister from the Second World War, and still others sold flags of the former East Germany, the Soviet Union or the United States. There seemed to be a lot of souvenirs bearing hammers and sickles commemorating the former East Germany. Flea markets seem to be huge in Germany, I visited at least four during my time there without aggressively seeking them out. I could tell from the variety of license plates and how the stalls could be easily set up and dismantled that most of the vendors probably traveled a wide circuit to visit different flea markets on the weekend.

After the flea market, we wandered into the town center with a couple that we met there, a Jamaican man and his German wife, and drank a couple more beers at a pub. The town center was busy for a Sunday afternoon, with young kids meeting at an Italian café with espresso and gelato. The center was compact, rows of timber frame buildings from previous centuries and a brick medieval church. It certainly wasn´t a huge city, but it was definitely a contrast to the potato fields around the quiet village of Vietze. After enjoying our brief fling in civilation, we climbed back onto our bikes for the long ride home, as the sun slowly sank behind the thick forests looming behind the potato fields and tiny villages of the Wendland.


Laggenbeck/Germany, June 20th 2006

Dear Sam,

When I recently found your article about the Wendland I was glad to read that you as well as Vince Ryan really enjoyed staying there, for I spent my childhood in little old Luechow, my hometown, which I miss so very much since I had to move far away from there 30 years ago.

But I found one single mistake in your description concerning the origin of the name "Wendland", quoted in the following:

"[..] the region known as the Wendland, which in translation means the “turning land," because of the large number of bends in the Elbe River [...]

The name actually derives from the Slavic tribe named "Wenden", who call themselves "Sorben".
In ancient times they had been forced back eastwards by several emperors and for many a reason.
Nowadays only few of them still live in the "Spreewald" (Spree forest) in Brandenburg, south of Berlin, halfway to Cottbus town.

Kindest regards,

Bernhard Lipinski

Monday, June 19, 2006

Dear Editor,

I just happened to read Sam Woodbury’s article about Wendland, Germany, which appeared in your on-line edition in 2004. Please pass on my congratulations on a fine article. I lived in Wendland in the early 1970’s while serving with the U.S. Army, and his article brought back fine memories of a beautiful and unique place.


Vince Ryan

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