01 Feb Exploring the Way of Saint James in the Wilds of Northeastern Germany
I now know how heaven is said in German: Wildschweinbraten in Calvadossauce mit Maronen, Apfelrotkohl und Klößen.
The literal English translation of this delight is roasted wild boar in chestnut and Calvados sauce, served with apples sautéed with red cabbage, and potato herb dumplings. The tart apple brandy melded with the nuttiness of the chestnuts and fire-roasted boar, and brightened the apples and cabbage. The dumplings, both fluffy and dense, became the perfect foil of salty starch to soak up the sauce.
All the ingredients of this divine fare — save for the Calvados French apple brandy — had been grown, hunted, or harvested in and around the Schorfheide-Chorin Biosphere Reserve, the largest of thirteen UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in Germany: With 1,300 square kilometers of protected woodlands, lakes and ponds, the reserve provides plenty of nourishment for both body and soul.
“You must really consider coming back to stay here,” said the hotel-spa-restaurant owner upon learning we were only day hikers.
My hiking companion Miles and I were sitting in a wooden-floored, whitewashed dining room, looking through wrap-around windows at a small lake, deep in the reserve’s wild forest. Above us, delicate woodcarvings of hanging apple branches echoed the whimsy of the woodland. It was the perfect place to stop for lunch during a full-day trek.
“You really should consider the full retreat,” our host added.
“Retreat?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “City people come here from Berlin and also Poland to rejuvenate in nature and to enjoy our spa.”
She went on to explain how the hotel’s certified therapist pummeled city life out of visitors’ cell tissue, and how the reserve’s natural setting massaged it out of their psyches. I had felt that same rejuvenating force the moment we stepped into the forest.
But our pilgrimage from Berlin left us no time to linger: We had our sights set on the gem of northern German early Gothic, the Kloster Chorin. Cistercian monks had built the cloister with impeccable skill in the 13th century. In fact, the monastery’s architectural harmony and sublime acoustics are so superb that even today, half in ruin, the rich, rust-red brick monastery is used for world-class concerts, all set within this enchanted forest.
We thanked our host, but declined the stay. After all, we only had one day.
– – –
The Biosphere felt like a different world, and indeed, it was.
We had arrived on the regional commuter train that left the dense city of Berlin and decanted us forty minutes later near the Polish border in the small village of Chorin. The village was our introduction to the Biosphere: a realm of lakes, primeval forest, marshes, and small patches of farmland. The region is among the most sparsely populated in Europe.
In fact, when we stepped off the train platform, we saw no one. We followed the village’s main street to the forest’s edge, passing cottages of brick, stucco, and terracotta, and gardens with herbs, flowers, and the occasional herd dog or pony. The street led naturally to the forest entrance; a sign and arch welcomed us as we passed through to the trail.
It was an uncanny threshold. In one step, passing under the arch, the village world we’d left evaporated; all that existed was the forest, which surrounded us with dapple green arms. The vegetation filtered out all sounds other than the wind, bird song, and shuffling toads on the forest floor. The ion rich air was electrifying. The light fell in layers between the striated beech, oak, pine, alder, and birch trees, and the towering trees themselves seemed to have narrowed in as we stood still.
Were it not for the mosquitoes the size of flies that suddenly surrounded us, we might have stayed like that indefinitely. I looked behind me to be sure that the trailhead and the village still existed, and then stepped swiftly into the forest.
We went in at a steady pace. Despite having to flick away our blood-thirsty attackers, we took in the pleasingly smooth, dark dirt trail. The stunningly thick forest gave safe harbor to numerous bird species, from a wide range of raptors to water birds drawn by the lakes. Other native inhabitants include otters, beavers, tortoises, frogs, toads, red deer and wild boar.
We were far from the first pilgrims to march these trails. The most famous sections of the Camino de Santiago are in northwestern Spain, but many medieval pilgrims walking to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela passed through the forest trails of the Biosphere first. Europe was, and remains, a web-work of paths taken by pilgrims for centuries.
Our intended destination, Kloster Chorin, was worth the hike and the mosquitoes, even though we could only stay a few hours. When we arrived, a group of Elderhostel visitors, who were also hiking and taking in the medieval treasure, had filled the benches of the half-ruined church. One of them sang a cappella and the resonance from the Cistercian rooftop connected lyrically to the bird song from the trees surrounding the monastic grounds.
Unintended destinations, however, can be equally rewarding. It was when we were midway through our trek in the forest, right at the perfect time for lunch, that we saw the outline of a small lake through the trees. It wasn’t long before we also saw the hotel at the lake’s shore, hidden in the folds of the forest.
I think the owner is right: We should go back and do the full retreat. Where better to be restored to balance and full health than in a forest that is thrumming with vitality from the moment you step in?
Outdoor and Cultural Adventures in Germany for Both Body and Soul: