Wandering with Sam
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Laggenbeck/Germany, June 20th 2006
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.
Monday, June 19, 2006
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.
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