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Exploring the mythical Spreewald Forest

Literary Landscapes is a monthly column by Indra Wussow, a writer, translator and director of the Sylt Foundation.

Literary Landscapes Indra Wussow Spreewald Forest Sylt Foundation literature travel

The Spreewald, the forest of the Spree River, is just a stone’s throw away from hectic Berlin. I get on a train at the central station and arrive an hour later at the small station of Vetschau, where time seems to stand still. The Spreewald Forest was designated a biosphere reserve by Unesco in 1991, and it is a major tourist attraction due to the beauty of its fauna and flora. It is the only cultural landscape in Germany with a distinctly bicultural heritage as it is also home to the ethnic Sorbs, who speak their own language and cherish their own traditions. In the Lower Sorbian language, the area is called Błota, the swamps. 
     Even during these hot summer days (reaching 38°C), the mornings are full of mystery, with the forest’s famous mist billowing over the small canals. The 484-square-kilometre Spreewald Forest is known for its traditional irrigation system, which consists of more than 200 small channels, called Fließe, that boast a total length of 1 300 kilometres. Many of these can be explored on a canoe or kayak or in the famous Spreewald barges. 
     The mythical atmosphere of this ancient landscape that was shaped during the Ice Age has influenced dreams, legends and literature. Saša Stanišić wrote: ‘I created my own book of local legends, how they talk about themselves, how they sleepwalk through the nights as if they are not made of language and death but out of flesh and blood; I enriched the village with the chronic knowledge of evanescence.’ 

Literary Landscapes Indra Wussow Spreewald Forest Sylt Foundation literature travel

Stanišić is one of the fortunate writers who has been awarded the Spreewald Literatur Stipendium (Spreewald Literature Scholarship), which was initiated in 2008 by the Hotel Bleiche Resort and Spa in cooperation with the Spreewälder Cultural Foundation. The hotel and its owners are dedicated lovers of literature and books. Besides a spectacular library, this upmarket hotel owns one of the best bookshops I have ever visited and would not have expected to find in a hotel. Browsing through the programme, I come across philosophical works by Giorgio Agamben, the poetry of Paul Celan, folk tales from the region and cookbooks on Arab food. I had an insightful conversation about local writing with Birgit Holler, who is in charge of this treasure trove and is a knowledgeable source when it comes to literature of all kinds.
     Authors who publish in German can apply for this residency scholarship, which includes a four-week stay in the hotel, with meals, and luxurious tranquillity to work on their own projects. The landscape’s beauty, the hotel’s unpretentious luxury and its library, which has over 15 000 books, are an enormous inspiration for each of the writers-in-residence. Five writers are chosen each year by a world-class jury. In 2019, there were more than 100 applicants to choose from. This prestigious residency aims to promote contemporary writing (prose, poetry, theatre and scriptwriting) and literary conversation within the Spreewald region.
     Each winner is expected to offer one reading a week during their stay. These are highly enjoyed by the hotel guests and are open to all other lovers of literature, too. I spoke to Renate, a local shopkeeper who has frequently attended these readings. She is intrigued by the new perspectives each reading provides her on the region she has lived in since her birth.
     While I was fortunate enough to stay in this charming hotel for a weekend to celebrate my sister’s birthday, I was able to enjoy the benefits of these residencies daily. Each evening when I came back from my daily activities, a small booklet with a story written by one of the writers-in-residence was lying on my pillow. These bedtime stories connected literary excellence with the heritage and beauty of the region in the freest form possible.

Literary Landscapes Indra Wussow Spreewald Forest Sylt Foundation literature travel

Today, we so often complain about the marginalisation of literature, about how impossible it is to sustain oneself as a writer. This creative way of supporting writing and connecting it with a new audience is therefore even more remarkable. Private initiatives are vital for a cultural segment under siege, and Hotel Bleiche enables their guests to talk to writers and to spend quality time reading while they are on holiday.
     The swelling mist on my morning run makes me feel like I am entering a fairy tale; as if I am the heroine of one of the many local legends myself. While I am running along one of the channels, it is as if I am the last human left on earth. I await the famous Krabat. Maybe he will appear from the mist in his barge and take me with to his mythical land.
     The Krabat is a character of Sorbian folklore that has developed over time through oral retellings and in legends and folk tales. He is an ambiguous fellow who is sometimes depicted as an evil sorcerer or a ghost. Sometimes he is the Sorbian equivalent of Robin Hood, a beneficial trickster with an almost Faustian flair. I can learn more about this versatile character in the hotel’s cinema, where I can watch a movie adaptation of the tale among world-class films from all around the world. I am sad to be a hotel guest for such a short time. There is simply not enough time to indulge fully in all the opportunities the hotel offers. This time, the weather is too good to spend time in one of these comfortable loungers in the cinema, sharing a glass of Saxonian Riesling while watching Gravity on the big screen.
     Hotel Bleiche owns a little harbour, and we embark on one of the barges to be shipped along these endless channels. We stop only once at a local farm to buy Spreewald gherkins, the tastiest gherkins on the planet, and healthy linseed oil, another product the area is famous for. The sun is shining and scares away all sinister characters as we float through this wonderland. Their time will come later again when the sun needs to rest and the dark hours take over, turning the channels into a Sorbian Styx anew. Another night to watch out for the Krabat.

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