We are deep in Sorbian territory. But who are the Sorbs (also called the Wends in medieval sources)? An ancient Slavic people, they apparently migrated from further east into these parts in the fifth and sixth centuries, establishing their tribal networks in the forests. Their home is Lausatia, as the Romans called it, predating the German states of Saxony and Brandenburg, as well as a parts of western Poland, in which Lausatia is found today. They were fiercely independent, fighting off the efforts at Christianisation and delaying that process for a good few centuries. They also had to deal with waves of Germanisation and Polonisation. From time to time they have asserted, requested, and temporarily obtained recognition as a distinct political entity. It is worth noting that in recent history the Third Reich denied them any distinct status at all, asserting that they were Germanic and spoke a Slavic-inflected dialect of German. By contrast, during the period of the DDR, their distinct identity was recognised and institutions established – schools, cultural organisations, literary foundations and so on – to preserve and foster Sorbian culture, language and identity. This was in line with communist policy to recognise the autonomy of different ethnic groups. That legacy continues today, with those institutions still providing a basis for Sorbian culture. Even so, as a minority, they struggle to maintain their identity, with the young people typically less than keen to speak the language and follow the customs of their parents. Of course, in their own maturity, that tradition is rediscovered and then they have to deal with their own children.
Their language is Slavic, most closely related to Czech and Polish. Spoken by the older generations, it has its own literary tradition, and is officially recognised by the German state. Thus the region is bilingual. Travellers notice this most readily in the signage, in which the Spree is the Sprjewja, Bautzen is Budyšin, and most names have clear Sorbian origins that have subsequently been Germanised – the one that strikes me is Hoyeswerda, a lightly Germanised Wojerecy. Upper Sorbian (Serbya) is found in the southern, hillier regions (including Herrnhut and its environs), while Lower Sorbian (Serby) is of the river flats, with Cottbus (Chóśebuz) at the centre. Riding through, stopping and pondering, you notice it immediately in the food, the traditional dress, the conical haystacks (that remind me of Transylvania), the flat-bottomed river boats, festivals, and so many other distinct features.
Not only are we deep in Sorbian territory, but we are also deep in the Spreewald (Błota). Here the Spree eases back and relaxes, spreading out over vast river flats of what once was called a swamp, but is now designated as a unique biosphere by UNESCO. Full of canals, pumps, punts, and dykes – for both irrigation and flood mitigation – we find ourselves wheeling through swampland thickly populated by alder trees and then over sandy ground covered in pine. The sand, dumped here over centuries through flooding, has that distinct knack of working its way into every working part of our bikes and making a light crunch, crunch at every turn of the crank.
The Spreewald may be famous in some parts as a tourist destination, which has resulted in well-heeled old fogeys swarming to places like Lübben and Lübbenau. Or indeed, in turning other places into ghost towns in the off-season – as we found when searching for accommodation. It might even be famous as one of the popular locations for the Frei Körper Kultur (FKK), the nudism fostered particularly by the DDR. Often we pass by signs with an arrow, water symbol and FKK upon it.
But it is most famous for its gherkins! Gherkins? Yes indeed. Trucks with massive gherkins plastered on their sides carry loads of the green, pickled cucumbers. A special cycle route called the Gurken-Radweg takes you through all the key locations. The gherkin from these parts is even recognised by the EU as a protected geographical indication (PGI). Why the fuss? Apparently, the secret to the delicate taste of the local gherkins is due not only to the rich, moist soil and local climate, but to a process of pickling that remains secret to all but a score of furtive picklers. I can attest to the quality of the Spreewald gherkin, having consumed vast jars of them over the past few weeks. In fact, the gherkin was one of the few items that did not suffer cutbacks or complete shutdown when the DDR was annexed in 1989.
Today’s ride is not complete without a simple discovery: the word ‘gherkin’ derives from ‘gurken’, from early modern Dutch, and then secondarily from ‘Gurke’, cucumber in German. And today’s ride is not complete without the storks. Turning a corner in the small village of Leibsch, my riding partner whistles and gesticulates wildly towards the sky. Up on a man-made pole in the midst of the village is a vast nest made of sticks, and upon it sits a big white bird with red beak and red legs. Perfectly comfortable with human beings staring away, it performs a series of preens and yawns and handstands and loop-the-loops … At the end of our ride we are to see yet another stork – more than most people in a lifetime. This one is at our lodgings for the night, prancing up and down the river bank and enjoying the local fare of grubs and whatnot for dinner.
Storks may have their comfortable nests provided from village to village, but we are lucky to find any inn open at all. Too early in the season, it seems. The tiny village of Werder is the thankful exception.