Germany’s natural world: Spreewald, Hainich

punt-tourOur captain maneuvers us like a gondolier, standing as a pole propels his flatboat through a maze of canals that gingerly pass tree canopies, tiny towns, flower beds, thatched roofs, haystacks and orchards.

Between each row of blanket-covered seats is a table with fresh flowers. We have much of the waterway to ourselves, if you don’t count sea eagles, kingfishers and unknown others that caw, twitter, swoop and flit. Black storks and Eurasian cranes keep a graceful but wary silence.

On this gentle spring morning, Dirk Kleemann narrates as he navigates. At least 20 kinds of fish share these 800 miles of channels, he says. His boat is a punt, not a gondola, and the setting is Germany’s Spreewald, not Venice.

The 120,000-acre Spreewald, about 60 miles south of Berlin, is a UNESCO biosphere reserve and one of Germany’s richest areas for agriculture, especially fruits and vegetables (several are trademarked as regionally distinctive products).

The area is known as “the green Venice,” thanks to Ice Age impact, which left a network of rivers and blend of primeval forest with meadows.

Most of the 200 canals are manmade, to help farmers manage Spree River water levels and prevent flooding, and now nature lovers find their way here, too. Dirk’s typical tour is three hours for under $20 per rider. He also rents a “holiday house” to travelers.

Bicycle and canoe rentals are other ways to get acquainted with the blissfully rural area. “If you drown, you are just too lazy to stand up,” Dirk says, of the shallow and calm inlets.

We glide to a tidy shoreline vendor, who sells a mix of cucumber and gerkins by the jar or chunky, individual serving. You don’t need to leave the punt to buy or indulge, even in morning, and others sell similar products throughout the day on this route and throughout this web of hamlets.

The area’s 50,000 residents are mainly Slavic Sorbs who have their own language, customs and cultural clothing. English is not widely spoken, but it doesn’t really matter.

After checking in to Hotelanlage Starick, an earthy resort in Lehde with lots of taxidermy as lobby and restaurant décor, we looked for dinner and found an orchestra whose concert turned into an informal singalong. The resort has its own Gherkin Museum, too, and it was an easy walk to the harbor. Rates begin at $85, including breakfast.

Nature is the big attraction, so don’t expect to be wowed by shops or nightlife, even though beer is everywhere and Germany’s biggest city is just a short train ride away.

For more about the area, consult or email, who can correspond in English. It is not unusual to arrive by train and rent bikes for multi-day touring.

Roughly 190 miles southwest of Berlin and in the middle of Germany is another treasure of the natural world: Hainich National Park. It certainly is not as well-known to foreigners as Bavaria’s Black Forest, but quite unlike anything in the United States.

The former military exclusion zone is one of Europe’s largest unbroken forests, and the abundance of ancient beech trees make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most popular way to see the area is to “climb to the roof of the forest,” as promotional literature suggests, following the Treetop Trail boardwalk that rises above the highest branches and foliage.

Along this handicapped-accessible route, less than one-half mile long, are whimsical nature sculptures and an observation tower. Hiking paths are numerous. Living in the forest are about 50 wildcats, but unwanted housecats sometimes end up here, too.

Ranger Axel Ziehn was raised an hour away and as a child visited often with his father. “That’s where I’d like to be during my life,” he decided, and his work began as a tree cutter many years ago.

The Thuringia park is 40 miles west of Erfurt, best known for Merchants’ Bridge, built in 1325 and lined with cafes, galleries and buskers. No other bridge in Europe is lined with more inhabited buildings.

A convenient home base is Hotel Kraemerbruecke, a block from the bridge and in the oldest quarters of the city (less than 10 percent was destroyed during World War II). Rates start at $135 for two, including breakfast, but you’ll need to rent a car to get to the park.

Walk to Petersberg Citadel for the best panoramic views of Erfurt, which is in the middle of the Luther Trail, a 37-mile route with 30 stops of religious interest for spiritual pilgrims. Those funny statues that appear periodically elsewhere are likely reminders of puppet characters in KiKa television shows for children; the channel is based in Erfurt.

For more about the area, check out For more about travel in Germany, consult