The Solo Traveller's View

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Workaway @ Proitzer Mühle

A fascinating workaway placement does not necessarily need an exotic setting somewhere near the South Pacific. I, for example, had a wonderful time at a restored historic watermill in Germany – located almost in the middle of nowhere.

Proitzer Mühle, as seen from the Tree House

Proitzer Mühle, as seen from the Tree House

The Seminarhof Proitzer Mühle is set in the beautiful, remote Wendland. Groups of people book in to attend workshops and seminars, the catering is done by a team of fantastic cooks and the housework by energetic cleaners. The management of it all – and the hosting of workawayers – is in the capable hands of Heike, who is ably assisted by Jutta and Sally. The three women divide their time between administrative tasks, animal care, Scottish dancing, cycling and carpentry, as well as looking after the guests. Their love for the English language leads to many interesting discussions of its finer points. Whenever the four of us were together, talk turned to matters of language sooner than later, and we mainly conversed in English.

Heike and Friend

Heike and Friend

Living at the mill is a mild-mannered wild pig named Nessie, and also Prince Rupert, a grumpy pot-bellied pig. They share the stables with three beautiful if somewhat aged ponies, and with Major Tom, almost bursting with a cat’s self-confidence. Heike looks lovingly after her animals and it is easy to see how much they mean to her. Ducks and chickens live here too. Red deer, red squirrels, grey cranes and storks drop by on the occasional visit.

Welcome to the Mill!

Welcome to the Mill

Going out

Enjoying the Spring Sunshine

Winter Fun

Winter Fun

At any time of the year, there may also be travelling volunteer workers at the Proitzer Mühle. These stay for variable lengths of time and help out with all kinds of tasks in kitchen and house, in stables and garden. Sometimes these workawayers make a real difference and leave their unique mark as an enduring memory, such as this beautifully crafted bunk bed:

A Workawayer's Project

A Workawayer’s Project

The mill’s buildings can accommodate up to seventy guests in thirty rooms (but most beds are of the more traditional variety). Many of the visiting groups have been here before and come regularly every year to enjoy the peaceful setting, the fine facilities and the excellent cooking. Every day, I look forward to the breakfast buffet because it is such a splendid affair: crusty, oven-warm rolls, high-quality cooked meats and cheeses in abundance, honey and homemade jams and jellies, a large bowl of yoghurt, jugs of cream and coconut cream, steaming porridge, muesli, bowls of nuts, almonds, grated coconut and pumpkin seeds. A large urn dispenses hot, delicious lemongrass-and-ginger tea all day long. This tea is a speciality of the house and very popular with the guests, who like to buy it in bags to take away with them. Most likely they will remember the lovely time they had here at the mill over each steaming mug at home …

The coming and going of new groups of people naturally adds interest to each passing week. A Tango Argentino workshop is followed by an amateur choir that replaces those seductive accordion tunes with uplifting sacral music. Sweat-lodge-builders, osteopaths and Tai Chi enthusiasts arrive in turn to pursue the study of their subject with focus, discipline and enjoyment. Tea breaks and meals increasingly take place out of doors as the spring sunshine gathers strength. The atmosphere buzzes with a zest for learning and self-improvement, and much laughter punctuates friendly conversations everywhere. Musical instruments for public use are scattered around the common rooms and make up for the fact that the mill remains a TV-free zone.

One evening there is a splendid buffet, a feast to celebrate the end of the Tango Lab. The cooks have surpassed themselves, and nothing is more surprising and delicious than the ice cream spiked with crushed pumpkin seeds and topped with a ruby-red cinnamon and cardamom sauce. Later on, I sit in and watch the tango ball in the beautiful, mirrored hall with the sprung wooden floor. One couple in particular catches my eye. A young man and woman are locked in a hold that is at the same time commanding yet utterly tender as they dance with closed eyes and great skill. Their steps are much smaller than those of other couples, and they seem absorbed in an inner space that binds them together and makes them move as one. I wonder immediately if they might be Argentineans far from home, so connected do they appear to this dance, and so pleasing to the eye is the picture they present … It turns out that they are the instructors. Another Argentinean master arrived recently, and once he begins to dance, I am unable to watch anyone else. The fluidity of his movements and the carefully guided intensity in the way he leads his partner are unmatched. He embodies the tango, which is so much more than a series of steps. The German lady he is dancing with is quite accomplished, but her face betrays the strain of trying not to be a disappointment to him, as well as the bliss of finding herself in the arms of such an expert.

Another night, there is a concert of folk music and songs by a talented trio of Scandinavian musiciansA lot of local people arrive for this event, and the dining room is crammed to the limit with an appreciative audience.

Folk Music by Huldrelokkk

Folk Music by Huldrelokkk

I also enjoy the performance put on for all the workers at the mill by the very dedicated Tai Chi group on their last night.

Tai Chi Demonstration

Tai Chi Demonstration

So much for the evenings! In the daytime, my contribution as a workaway volunteer is to wake the garden from its winter’s sleep. The beds and borders around the terrace need tidying and planting with spring flowers. Drifts of autumn leaves have to be raked off the grass, cobbled areas need to be swept and rose bushes are waiting to be pruned. I also remove bunches of dead stalks from flowering perennials and am thrilled by glimpses of new buds waiting in the soil. The air is full of the promise of spring, and the sun has a tender force that draws the cold earth slowly into the new season. But a large bush no longer displays any signs of life. One by one, I saw its branches off near the base and drag them over to the woods. Major Tom the cat joins me and tries to catch the twigs, or even the saw, in his lightning-quick paws.

Almost everyone who passes offers a friendly greeting, and some even stop to exchange a few words. And although I have barely begun, I already get comments on how nice it all looks. Oh, what a lovely change from working as a teacher, where one is criticized so readily! How agreeable is this kind of life, where there is no position or reputation to safeguard, no possessions to acquire and no ambitions to pursue! A warm and pleasant room, good food, friendly people and a variety of outdoor work in a lovely location seem an excellent bargain in exchange for the aggravations of a settled life.

I love working outside in the March sunshine, and my favourite job is the lopping of tangled branches crowning the linden tree by the main house. It is overgrown with shoots that need removing, for the old and partly hollow main branches can no longer support the growing weight. So I spend a few days perched on a tall ladder, wielding my trusty loppers and feeling increasingly at home up there.

The tallest Ladder yet ...

The tallest ladder …

A Job Well Done

… and the satisfaction of a job well done.

There is also plenty of time to explore the area with my kind hosts. (I have already described our outings to Salzwedel, the Elbe River, Schnackenburg, the former inner-German border and the Grenzlandmuseum in previous blog posts.) This gorgeous part of the Northern European Plain is particularly well suited to bicycle tours, therefore the mill has a stable full of bikes for guests to borrow. But Heike and her friends prefer their personal recumbent bikes and invite me to try one. Verdict: Wonderfully easy on the backside!

Flat land, no traffic, straight roads – cyclist heaven!

Flat land, no traffic, straight roads – cyclist heaven!

So what's a recumbent bike?

So what’s a recumbent bike?

On my last day, Heike collects me, a plateful of poppy seed cake and two thermos flasks of tea and takes me to her private sanctuary, the treehouse, for a tea party with Sally and Jutta. One by one we ascend in an electric lift that winches us up to the platform in the oak tree, towering above the mill. The view is great, for the branches are still bare at this time of the year. In the summer, it must be like a sea of green.

Inside the large and professionally built tree house there is a table with benches, fixed to the wall, and chairs covered in furs and blankets. Two large windows let in the light, and the eye roams freely across the land. Huge branches like minor trunks pass through the interior space, up from the floor and out through walls or roof, and around the corner there is a proper bedstead under a skylight perfect for stargazing. What a view – and what a feeling!

Heike's Place

Heike’s Place

And up we go ...

Up, up, and up we go …

The sun is setting in a haze behind the dark fir forest on the horizon, and on my last evening walk along the fields nearby I spot four deer. They are watching me, seemingly unafraid. The evening air is warm and smells of spring. I feel at peace, easily able to live in the moment … It is hard to leave, for I loved being here and should very much like to return one day!

Evening Walk

Evening Walk


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Grenzlandmuseum Göhr

Saturday, 22 March 2014

This morning, I have an appointment with Herr Ritzmann from the Grenzlandmuseum in the village of Göhr, and two of my new Workaway friends decide to tag along. Although the museum doesn’t open its doors until the tourist season begins on the first of May, Herr Ritzmann is willing to show visitors around by appointment.

Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann was a youngster when the partition that became known as the Iron Curtain was built. He remembers watching the labour force at work, only a few kilometres from his home near Schnega in the district of Lüchow-Dannenberg. He was fascinated by it all and, at the age of thirteen, began to take pictures of the border with his first camera – now also part of the exhibition. His collection of photographs exceeds five hundred and represents a personal documentation of historic value.

Of course Ritzmann was at the local border crossing in Bergen (about halfway between Göhr and Salzwedel) on the day the border was opened in 1989. He describes how a long line of Trabis crossed into the Federal Republic of Germany; how residents of the West had set up tables and stalls to welcome their new neighbours with drinks, fruit and cake; how people embraced and shed tears of joy … ‘It was an exciting time’, he states with a look laden with memories.

After Germany’s reunification, Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann travelled along the former border with a GDR army truck and collected memorabilia for his little museum, anything that was moveable: parts of the metal-mesh fence, complete with wires and alarm lights, border posts and warning signs, radio communication units of Russian provenance, border guard uniforms for all seasons, documents, maps, a large flag nobody wanted anymore, various mines (complete and in splinters), buoys from the Baltic, and even an army truck and a patrol car.  The complete office of an NVA-Officer, including its red telephone, is a highlight. Ritzmann encourages our friend to dress up in an original officer’s uniform and try out the desk. Erich Honecker – head of state and butt of jokes (see previous blog post) – smiles cautiously from his picture frame.

Original Office of the NVA (Nationale Volks Armee)

An Original Office of the NVA (‘Nationale Volks Armee’)

Trying out a 'Trabi' of the Border Guards

Trying out a ‘Trabi’ of the Border Patrol

GDR border guards helped Ritzmann to stow his treasures. ‘Take whatever you like – take it all!’ they said. He is still friends with a number of them, and a press picture shows him raising a glass with the former enemy at the 20-year-anniversary of the day the border collapsed.

Border Guard on Duty

Border Guard on Duty

Details of Border Fortifications

Details of the Border Fortifications

Of course Dietrich-Wilhelm Ritzmann also knows the story of the wily mayor of Harpe and shows me the ‘Vodka Bend’ on a map. (Please see blog post ‘Cycling in the Borderlands’ for this intriguing tale.) 

The Vodka Bend, curving around the Village of Harpe

The ‘Vodka Bend’, curving around the Village of Harpe

A less amusing note is struck by articles reporting the number of casualties along the border, and the often gruesome deaths of men willing to risk their life to escape the socialist paradise. (You can read more about this in my blog post ‘Iron Curtain’s Silver Lining’). Lacerated by the shrapnel blasted by spring guns along the fence, they were sometimes left to die by the border guards who arrived at the scene without delay. Those who wandered into the mine fields also died alone, just like the wild boars, the stags and red deer that had the misfortune to get caught there. Only hares and foxes fit through the small holes cut at intervals into the mesh of the fence. These openings were reinforced with a collar of sheet metal and bolted tight from the outside. Hidden by the undergrowth on the western side, no one even knew they existed, except those small animals that were thus able to cross the border without setting off the alarm and losing their lives in the process.

Opening for Small Game

An opening for small game …

The Boar at the Back fell Victim to the Spring Guns

… but the boar at the back has fallen victim to the spring guns.

Nevertheless, people kept trying their luck, and a few were successful. Three workers at a factory in the vicinity of the fence observed the border guards over time, became familiar with their routines and hatched a plan. Before six o’clock one morning they escaped, in a bulldozer that took the shrapnel in their stead as it tore a hole in the fence and ripped concrete posts from the ground. The men got away unharmed.

Border guards were also (one might assume, especially) susceptible to escape attempts, and therefore they were always deployed in groups. They knew that their comrades had orders to shoot them, should they make a dash for it. In any case, those scouts that were sent to explore the land beyond the border, smuggled out through secret, hidden, tiny gates, were drawn solely from the politically rock-solid elite. They were kitted out with smart uniforms and the best equippment, and they always wore ties on their missions that involved a lot of crawling through bushes. Clearly meant to impress the decadent capitalists with their accoutrements, they were strictly forbidden to speak to the enemy. No greeting, no nod and certainly no smile … Ritzmann remembers meeting such eerily silent figures on his early rambles.

Border Scouts, in Summer and Winter Uniform

Elite Border Scouts, in Summer and Winter Uniform

'Our border is always reliably protected!'

‘Our border is always reliably protected!’

'Please do not touch the mines!'

‘Please do not touch the mines!’

Ritzmann explains the Alarm System

Ritzmann explains the Alarm System

It is a dark chapter in the history of man’s violence towards his fellow man, and added to the state-sanctioned cruelty is the hypocrisy with which it was justified: The armed fence was there to ‘protect’ the citizens of the GDR from the fascists beyond, the great enemy that was always trying to get in and corrupt the socialist paradise of happy workers and farmers. (Isn’t it strange then that all the guns and mines were on the inside?) Of course, a heavy amount of hysterical propaganda was necessary to shout this threat into existence in the minds of the populace. But this kind of brainwash, beginning in early childhood, was undermined by the media of the West. Westfernsehen and Westradio were of course strictly taboo, yet their allure was strong. In the end, they helped to reveal the government’s propaganda as the pack of lies it was. And when the farmers and workers saw, and compared to their own, the style of life, the means of production and the advance of technology in the West, they began to realize that they had been cheated. ‘It was then I knew that a big crash was about to happen …’ a farmer said after his formal visit to the other side of the fence.

Those living within a certain distance of the border in the West were allowed to apply for permission to visit family in the East several times a year. But they had to pay an admission fee, as well as exchange a set amount of their money at a rate of 1:1 per day of their stay. Of course there was nothing to spend that money on, so it was an expensive outing and not overly popular.

A large sign next to the road to Salzwedel marks the place of the former border line. A watery ditch running along the woods may or may not have been part of the former fortifications. Everything has been removed: The metal-mesh fencing (its raw material supplied by Krupp-Essen and the finished product by Sweden – thank heavens for neutral nations; they must have made a fortune from that order!), the barbed and the trip wires, the concrete paving, the mines … nothing remains but a bitter memory and a green belt of healthy, because undisturbed, nature.

After my visit at the museum, I wander into the woodland of firs and follow tracks that criss and cross between the trunks of tall conifers. The ground is mossy, strewn with small fir cones … and it is quiet, so very quiet. Despite its grim history, this land is beautiful and of Zen-like tranquillity. I like everything about it: the softly rolling landscape, the expanse of sweet-smelling woodland and the charming architectural style of its settlements. And since I am not looking for employment, the absence of industrial development seems a blessing. Could a way be found to generate job opportunities here without turning the Wendland into an ugly park of industrial estates? I hope it with all my heart.

'Erich's Revenge' - 'With Original Contents'

‘Erich’s Revenge’ – ‘With Original Contents’

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Cycling in the Borderlands

Thursday, 20 March 2014

My Workaway hosts have planned a bicycle tour in the afternoon, to show me the former inner-German border nearby. The weather forecast was right: it is a gloriously sunny day, fitting for the vernal equinox. This morning, my Workaway volunteer task is to take the wheelbarrow around the grounds and cart away the thick layer of straw from the base of each rose, placed there in autumn for protection from frost. Since there are a lot of roses, this job keeps me busy well beyond lunchtime.

I spend my tea break on the jetty of Heike’s swimming pond, watching scores of toads as they move ponderously among the stalks of water plants in their search for the right partner. They seem to be quite as choosy as a certain person I know! Once in a while, a frog skims with confident legwork across the surface, newts wriggle up to snatch a gulp of air before diving back down into the murky depths, water beetles skate ecstatically in the brilliant sunshine reflected by their liquid world … I love to observe life in a pond and could do so for hours, but now it is time to return to straw, wheelbarrow and roses until my hosts call me to get ready for our outing.

I am invited to choose a traditional bicycle from their well-stocked stables. Heike and Sally adjust the tyre pressure of their sleek recumbent bikes and at half past three we set out, passing through tiny hamlets sprinkled along deserted, smoothly tarmaced lanes between rows of trees that seem to line every country road in these parts.

A typical, tree-lined Country Road

A typical, tree-lined German Country Road

I have not used a bicycle for, oh – it must be about thirty years now! But it is indeed true that one does not forget how to ride a bike, and I notice with satisfaction that the gear-changing mechanism has come a long way since those far-off days. The land is flat, thank God, and there is no traffic to speak of. We can ride three abreast, and for a while take up the whole breadth of the quiet country road that stretches straight ahead between rows of birches. Riding along with the wind in my hair, the sun on my face and not a care in the world, I am truly happy.

Bicycle Tour in the Borderlands

Bicycle Tour in the Borderlands

Our first goal is that strip of local woodland where a fiercely guarded border once separated Germany, West, from Germany, East. (See also previous blog post.) There, we leave our bikes to wander among the trees for a few hundred yards, on a narrow path overgrown with soft grass.

The former Border Path

The former Border Path

Heike describes how this was once a much wider track on which tanks and other border guard vehicles moved along the fence. This track used to be paved with concrete slabs, and the strip of land alongside was cleared and ploughed for maximum visibility and the easy tracking of footprints … Those light woods now crowding the path have only sprung up in the twenty-odd years since Germany’s reunification.

Nature has reclaimed the Death Strip

Nature reclaims Death Strip

When the border was opened, residents of the eastern side removed the concrete slabs to use as paving in their villages. They also took away segments of the metal-mesh fence and put them around their gardens. (This I find surprising and not at all easy to comprehend.) One local man had spent decades observing, travelling along and photographing the border from the western side. He now drove around and collected all he could for his museum, the Grenzmuseum in Göhr, which I shall visit on Saturday. It doesn’t open until the tourist season begins in May, but Heike has arranged a viewing for me. (Blog post of this visit to follow.) Terrible though the border was for the divided nation, nature flourished in this strip of land forbidden to humans. Rare plants and animals thrived in the death zone. Fortunately this was recognized, and after reunification Das Grüne Band became a trail of nature parks and wildlife sanctuaries. I had learnt about this at the museum in Lenzen, and today I am thrilled to be walking a few paces along the Green Belt myself. (Read more about the Green Belt in my previous blog post.)

Then we ride on, crossing over into what had been the borderland of the German Democratic Republic, the GDR. No citizen had been allowed to approach the border from that side. Villages too close to the fence were razed and their inhabitants forced to relocate. Those wanting to visit relatives in ‘The Zone’ had to apply for special permits, as did farmers who lived within a certain radius, just so they could approach the guarded strip and work in their fields alongside. Today, these hamlets seem peaceful and a little backward, for they have retained a certain old-worldly purity due to their long separation from hectic modern times.

A Village near the former Border

A Village near the former Border

It seems to me like a trip into times past, and I like the look of these half-timbered houses. Many have been beautifully restored, but others – no less appealing – have lapsed into decay. This may well be a property-developer’s dreamland …

So beautiful - could it be saved?

So beautiful – but can it be saved?

Our next stop is at a Grenzwachturm, a watch tower of the former border guards. This ruin of chipped concrete, fascinating in its hideousness, has been stripped of its doors, its window panes and all its former accessories, such as alarm systems, spotlights and wireless equipment. An empty shell, it stands divested of its former deadly power, reduced to a punctuation mark in history’s narrative.

A former GDR Watch Tower

A former GDR Watch Tower …

... or what's left of it!

… or what’s left of it!

The metal stairs too had been removed to make the guard rooms inaccessible, but local people soon put in roughly nailed ladders of wooden planks. To climb them requires a certain amount of faith in their handiwork. From the third floor we have a good view across the land – as indeed the guards once did.

A Climb with some Risks

A Climb with some Risks

Chipped Concrete and Stripped Windows remain

Only chipped Concrete and stripped Windows remain

Overlooking the Borderlands

Overlooking the Borderlands

Heike traces the line of the former border for me and has an intriguing story to tell about the village of Harpe, visible just beyond the trees: The otherwise straight border showed an odd bump at this point, abandoning its obvious course to curve around the tiny settlement and leaving it unexpectedly on the western side of the fence. People in these parts refer to it as ‘the Vodka Bend’. They are alluding to the astuteness of Harpe’s mayor, who, upon realizing what was about to happen, invited the officers of the Russian Border Commission to an evening of free drinks and merriment. Once the vodka had done its work, he found it possible to have the line of the border repositioned according to the wishes of the community, and Harpe remained firmly outside the zone of Soviet occupation. (Were queries ever raised by higher authorities regarding this suspicious bump in the line? We have no way of knowing, but may assume that the officers of the border commission in question will have invented a good reason, rather than admit to fraternizing with the enemy.)

Small, but to be reckoned with!

Harpe: tiny, but to be reckoned with!

On the road towards this wily village, we halt once more to mount a wooden and slightly rotting viewing platform. People from the West would come here to look across to East Germany, for they were allowed to approach the border at will. No one on this side of the fence was in the least concerned that they might escape to the socialist paradise beyond, though visitors were warned that there was a risk of being shot at occasionally by drunken or bored Russian soldiers on guard duty.

A View of the Other Side

For a Peek at the Other Side …

The sun is setting and the air cooling quickly as we return to the mill around half past six o’clock. After such a long ride, the first steps feel slightly strange. I anticipate that I may not be able to move my legs tomorrow, but Heike hands out ferrum phosphoricum and magnesium tablets from Dr Schüssler’s biochemic cell salts range. She has found that, taken at intervals after physical exertion, they prevent sore muscles effectively. I am willing to give them a try. Sally mentions that riding a bike has been found beneficial not only for general muscle tone, but also for the hemispheres of the brain, as this activity stimulates and enhances their coordinated action. That sounds good too.

Supper is most welcome now! … Later, and much against my habits, I ask a member of the kitchen team if there is perhaps a piece of their daily (and always unbelievably wonderful) cake left over. I am shown to the shelf in the cooling chamber where a few remaining slices of exquisitely delicious-looking Sahnetorte await their fate – and promptly succeed in tipping the platter, spilling cream cake all over the floor. So much for coordinated action of the brain! Bang goes that theory … I am appalled at my clumsiness and the creamy mess now covering milk churns and tiles. Claudia and Heidi from the kitchen team shake their heads sorrowfully – the lovely cake! – but are very nice about the disaster and hand me all that is necessary to clear up and clean away. First, I scoop up those bits that may still be eaten by someone not concerned with food aesthetics (probably me), then wipe and scrub until every trace of the mishap is erased. That done, I retreat to my room with a last, sincere apology and a bowl heaped with the spongy, delicious, unfortunate mess, to ponder – and write about – another eventful day in my new life as a happy Workaway volunteer.


Iron Curtain’s Silver Lining

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Today, my new Workaway hosts have planned an outing to show me the area, and so we pile into a van and set out to Schnackenburg. It is the second-smallest town in Germany, numbering less than four hundred inhabitants, and located in Lüchow-Dannenberg by the Elbe River. More of those charming half-timbered houses line yet more cobbled streets, but there is no shop, no pharmacy, bank, post office or grocery store. And apart from us, there is not a soul to be seen. I am unused to such deserted settlements and wonder if it is the season, the day of the week or some unknown custom that keeps the German population from enlivening their streets. One thing is certain: It cannot be the weather, for today the sun is shining with all the force of an early spring.

Schnackenburg's Main Street

Schnackenburg’s Main Street

Once mysteriously called Snaakenborg, ‘City of Snakes’ in the Lower Saxon idiom, Schnackenburg found itself fenced in on three sides when Germany was divided by the Allied Powers. It was cornered by the Iron Curtain, so to speak, but its little harbour acquired a new importance as the last inland port of the West, with its customs facilities right on the border.



Incidentally, it seems that along this stretch of the river the exact location of the border between West and East Germany was disputed: the Federal Republic of Germany (West) saw it as running along the opposite riverbank, while the German Democratic Republic (East) placed it firmly at the centre of the waterway and secured the territory with twenty-four patrol boats.

GDR Border Patrol Boat

GDR Border Patrol Boat

Schnackenburg's now empty Harbour

Schnackenburg’s now empty Harbour

Previously, there were sometimes as many as twenty vessels berthed here, and people came from far and wide to gaze through binoculars at the communist border and its watchtowers. In those days, the commercial infrastructure of Schnackenburg was still intact, but since the reunification of Germany economic decline has sapped its life blood. Now that it is no longer a place for transferring cargo from one country to another, its little port is only used occasionally by sporty pleasure boats.

Grenzlandmuseum Schnackenburg

Grenzlandmuseum Schnackenburg

Schnackenburg’s Museum of the Border is still closed because it is not the tourist season yet. But outside its locked doors we can study panels that show its location on a map that traces the former border, as well as a long list naming those who died in their attempt to cross the fiercely guarded line. This border, to quote Wikipedia’s concise description, was “a physical manifestation of Winston Churchill’s metaphorical Iron Curtain that separated the Soviet and Western blocs during the Cold War. It marked the boundary between two ideological systems – democracy and single-party communism. Built by East Germany in phases from 1952 to the late 1980s, the fortifications were constructed to stop the large-scale emigration of East German citizens to the West, about 1,000 of whom are said to have died trying to cross it during its 45-year existence.”

"Our Remembrance includes all those who died or were injured as victims of the Inner German Border and the Berlin Wall."

“Our Remembrance includes all those who died or were injured as victims of the Inner-German Border and the Berlin Wall.”

In April 1956, lance-corporal Harry Moll of the billeted People’s Police dies of exhaustion after successfully swimming across the Elbe. – In August 1962, 15-year-old Gerd Knönenkamp is shot in his attempt to escape. – October 1963, in trying to cross the border, Bernhard Simon steps on a mine. His left leg is torn off and he dies while his brother drags him to western territory. – In June 1967, teacher Bärbel Elli Richter and her husband cross the Elbe with diving equipment, but she gets tangled in a fisher’s net near Schnackenburg and drowns. – In September of the same year, the townsfolk of Schnackenburg hear cries for help in the night. Four days later, the body of Manfred Hube is found, drowned. – A month later, Karl-Heinz Bösel drowns opposite Schnackenburg during his escape attempt. – In January 1969, Bernhard Wolfgang Zill crosses the Elbe successfully. He reaches the western riverbank but dies of hypothermia on his way to Schnackenburg. – A year later, in December, two schoolboys risk their lives in an escape attempt across the river: Rainer Bahlhorn (15) drowns in the icy water, while his friend Reinhard Bergunde (14) makes it to the other side and drags himself to the road, where he is saved … The list goes on.

It is still not certain how many victims the Iron Curtain claimed in Germany alone, for such incidents were kept secret by the GDR. (It was certainly not good for the image that one’s citizens would rather risk a grim death than go on living in the glorious Republic of Workers and Farmers.) The number of known cases in Germany increased from 197 in 1989 – the year the border was opened – to 916 by 1997, but more recent estimates put the real figure closer to 1,100 deaths.

By the River Elbe

By the River Elbe

The wide, peaceful flood plain with its glittering river gives no indication of the cruelty and the terror it was once part of. In this ideal habitat for water fowl, chattering congregations of ducks, wild geese and common cranes are celebrating the arrival of spring and preparing for another season of procreation. Their excited sounds accompany our walk, and we see them grazing in the meadows or circling in the sun-filled air. Trails of webbed footprints create delicate patterns on the river’s sandy banks. Rarer birds like sea-eagles and black storks are also drawn to the wetlands around Schnackenburg, now that they are nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries.

Below the town, a little motor-powered ferry takes cars, cyclists and pedestrians across the river and connects the end of the road in Schnackenburg with a similar road on the other side.

The Ferry

The Ferry

Our crossing takes only a few minutes. The long spell of dry weather has reduced the water to an unusually low level, but dykes indicate the height to which the floodwaters of this great river will rise at times. I try to detect the direction of the Elbe’s flow, but in this wide plain it moves in a manner too sluggish to be perceptible. Heike points west-northwest. “It flows towards Hamburg, over there.”

Low Water Level

Low Water Level

Arrived on the other side, we enjoy a snack in the sunshine, sitting on the terrace of a little café that looks like – and probably is – a family enterprise run from the home. Cyclists interrupt their celebratory spring outings and arrive in twos and threes, hungry for generous helpings of delicious German cake. Now we wander along the crest of a dyke and enjoy the glorious day, the bare, watery landscape secretly preparing to cloak itself in green leaves, and the liveliness of the birds.

I had already noticed that, in the eastern part of Germany, the Elbe seems to be everywhere. I had crossed it on my way into Wittenberg, walked along its dykes in Woerlitz, and then traversed it in Dessau and again near Magdeburg on the road to my new destination in the Wendland, where it is once again a determining feature.

Museum Burg Lenzen

Hotel and Museum in the Fortress of Lenzen

We drive onwards into ‘the East’ and stop at the old fortress of Lenzen. A museum dealing with local history is now housed inside the magnificent old tower, and a large section of its exhibition concerns, unsurprisingly, the Elbe: that long, important waterway connecting the mountains of the Czech Republic with the German lowlands, with the major ports of Hamburg and Cuxhaven, and ultimately with the North Sea.

It is here that I learn about das Grüne Band – the Green Belt: It is the new name given to that particular strip of land which, as the former heavily-guarded border of the Eastern bloc, was out of bounds to everyone for forty years. Everyone, that is, except the border guards and their dogs. This barrier ran as a death strip of roughly 12,500 kilometres from the White Sea on the northern-most rim of the continent to the Black Sea in its south-east. Nevertheless, this terrible fence, watched over by guard towers and rigged with wires that would trigger instant blasts of expanding bullets, proved a blessing in its horrific disguise to the biosphere that thrived in the absence of human interference. It is true that large animals such as stags, red deer and wild boar occasionally triggered the automatic shooting system and bled to death in the glaring spotlight of the border guards that were summoned instantly by the alarm system – but plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and small mammals thrived during those decades in an eerily protected zone.


The Iron Curtain becomes the Green Belt

Now a society called BUND – Friends of the Earth Germany has taken on the task of protecting this unexpected silver lining of the Iron Curtain. As the metal fence and all its attendant paraphernalia were removed, a green belt varying between 50 and 200 metres in width remained. Linking nearly all the diverse natural habitats of the European Continent in a long, unbroken chain, it is home to many rare plants and animals. One can hike along trails or follow the Four Countries Bicycle Path to experience “the beauty of this landscape, as well as relicts of the grim history of this borderland”. – What an unexpected discovery: The former death strip has become a line of life!


A Stork’s Nest in Lenzen

Our way back to ‘the West’ takes us onwards to Dömitz and the only bridge across the river for many miles. But before crossing over, we walk around the old fortifications, built in the sixteenth century, and look down into the waterless moat where reeds are poking through the black sludge. The large redbrick buildings of the bastion are cracked and sagging.

In the little town, the local building style of timber frame and brickwork, tastefully decorated with carved lintels and doors, makes for a charming atmosphere in the small settlement, enhanced by a sense of being lost to the world. Dömitz, located on the east side of the river, is struggling to find its place in the open market economy. They have the bridge, and a fortress in need of large cash injections, but little else it seems. Yet entrepreneurial spirit is quietly budding in the spring sunshine. By the side of the parking lot two children, boy and girl, are playing unsupervised, just as we once did. They have been busy rummaging through a pile of building rubble and have extracted cheap-looking, thin glass tiles from the socialist era. These little rectangles of glass, cleaned and polished, are now set out in a neat row on the ground to capture the fancy of passers-by. With eager voices and trusting faces the children approach us, showing us samples of their merchandise in outstretched hands while outlining their business plan. Heike enters into negotiations and buys five of these historic souvenirs for 50 cents. The children are very pleased and return to their enterprise with renewed vigour, while we cross the bridge back into ‘the West’, each wrapped up in our own thoughts.


Sauntering through Salzwedel

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

What will I discover on my day trip to Salzwedel? It is not a place I have ever heard of, this small town at the north-western edge of Sachsen-Anhalt. Yet, like so many other little and little-known places in this region, it turns out to be full of interesting links to history.

Its name already tells a story. Since antiquity, valuable wares were transported over long distances at great cost and high risk to the merchants, for numerous tolls had to be paid and bands of brigands to be fought off. And so it was that only the most precious goods made such an enterprise worthwhile: silk and spices, for example, amber, silver and salt … In any Northern German place name, the ending ‘-wedel’ is synonymous with ‘ford’ (as in Dartford, Castleford, Stratford and Oxford) and points to locations where a river was fordable. In this case, it is the Jeetze River that was traversed by one of the old salters’ roads, along which the precious commodity of salt  Salz  travelled. It is the place where salt crossed the river: Salzwedel.

Here, a fortress watched over this trade route which extended from the salt mines in Halle to the great cities of the North-West, and undoubtedly levied a toll for the protection it offered. Albrecht the Bear of the House of Askania made this fortress, Burg Salzwedel, his temporary home in the twelfth century. He is regarded as the founder of the town, though an earlier settlement in this location is known to date back to the year 800. The fortress of ‘Soltwidele’ is mentioned in surviving documents as early as 1112, and Salzwedel as a town for the first time in 1233. Thirty years later, it is already a member of the Hanse, that powerful union of German tradesmen. (The Hanseatic League was an early insurance scheme founded to protect the guild by spreading the risks of trade while sharing the profits. It also represented and defended the members’ interests abroad and soon became not only a commercial, but also a political influence of the first order, as well as an important cultural factor.)

New Town, founded 1247

Houses of the ‘New Town’ that was founded in 1247

Medieval Alleys

Medieval alleys, beautifully restored …

Gone are the horse-drawn carriages

… but where are the ox-carts and horse-drawn carriages?

But not all was well, as is usually the case when many souls are living together: Salzwedel’s protective ring wall enclosed a divided town. Old Town and New Town (‘new’ meaning it was founded as late as 1247) indulged in a love-hate relationship at close quarters for nearly five hundred years, their rivalry making two town halls and two mayors necessary, as well as separate churches, schools and town gates. A part of the ring wall and two of the old gates remain, but the division was overcome.

Old Town Gate

Steintor, Old Town Gate

However, it was not until 1713 that these segregated communities became one; not by choice, but by royal decree. Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia ordered – which means forced – the two halves to unite to what became known as Hansestadt Salzwedel.

Half-timbered Houses

Half-timbered Houses

This interesting fact is not apparent to the visitor. Instead, one notices the rows of beautifully restored half-timbered houses, with their delicate colours and variations in the pattern of beams, brickwork and doorways.

Redbrick Patterns

Redbrick Patterns

Timber Frame Patterns

Timber-Frame Patterns

Almost life-sized figures, headed by the date 1600, are carved with artistic energy into the woodwork, while carefully lettered verses run along the main beams of house fronts and remind readers of the temporary nature of life, or beseech the Lord for protection from fire.

Carved Beams

Carved Beams

Some buildings even go back to the 1500s. One is in effect walking through medieval alleys here, but without the filth and stench. All is clean and neat and attractive, and strangely bare of people on this Wednesday afternoon. The population of Salzwedel is clearly not in the habit of strolling or loitering.

'Anno Domini 1566 An Kroger'

‘Anno Domini 1566 An Kroger’

An immaculate stretch of new cobblestones is laid out in a quiet lane, still without the filling. The chunky, square pieces of granite fan out in delicate curves with organic regularity, like a pattern found in nature.

German Roadworks

Traditional Cobblestone Roadworks

In a peaceful square of the former Old Town, partly lined by ancient lime trees, the Marienkirche points its spire at the sky. Its slightly crooked tower is the emblem of Salzwedel. Local legend tells of Jan Kahl, a giant, who lived beyond the forest and was angered when the tower was completed (about 1496) and reached beyond eighty metres in height. He was used to being the tallest landmark around and meant to teach those tiny, impertinent humans a lesson by hurling an erratic boulder. It missed the tower, but the turbulence of air and the tremor of earth as it crashed to the ground caused the spire to quake and lose its former perfect uprightness … Unsurprisingly, though, experts remain convinced that the tower’s crookedness stems from deficient trusses.

Seen from this angle, the spire leans towards the viewer

Seen from this angle, the spire bends slightly towards the viewer

Today, the Marienkirche is a historic monument, a national treasure and a fine example of the Redbrick Gothic style that dominates the North-German Plain, since there has always been a dearth of natural building stones in this area.



From around 1200 it was constantly altered and rebuilt for three centuries, finally emerging in 1550 as the gothic basilica with five naves we see today, and remaining essentially unaltered in its architectural substance. A wonderful tripartite altarpiece by an unknown master was put up in 1510. It is the largest in the Altmark and shows scenes from the life and death of Christ in thirty-one panels, intricately carved from wood.

Scenes from the Life of Christ, His Death and Resurrection

The Altarpiece

A Renaissance baptismal font in bronze by Hans von Köln was added in 1522. It was designed so that the water could be heated to a pleasant degree, and infants would not shrink back and cry at the very moment of being received into the holy faith.

Baptismal Font

Baptismal Font

1541 is presumed to be the year the congregation adopted the new Lutheran evangelical faith. Before the Reformation did away with such fripperies, the church had accommodated twenty-eight side altars and services often went on simultaneously in different parts of the huge interior. Large numbers of priests were employed to hold masses in rotation, masses donated by individuals, by families or fraternities; and sometimes processions took place while the townsfolk met and worshipped. This lively usage of a great church I should have liked to witness, as a glimpse of the life of past times … The building, though magnificent, seems incomplete without attenders.

In the mid-seventeen hundreds, the prolific and highly-regarded organ builder Joachim Wagner installed a baroque organ. It was to be his last  he died before it was finished. One of his pupils completed the instrument, but it did not survive into our times. Only the original, baroque organ prospect remains and now fronts a more contemporary instrument.

The Organ

Joachim Wagner’s Organ Prospect

The Marienkirche survived both World Wars without damage, but had to sacrifice its bells to the armaments industry. Never before had I realized that bullets or cannons were sometimes cast from church bells, in a perverse reversal of swords being converted to ploughshares … I also learn that in the Second World War, the melting down of the nation’s church bells slyly served the purpose of silencing the powerful voice of Christian religion with its inopportune commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’ – under the pretext of urgently needed metal reserves. But the speed with which those bells were later replaced shows how important their ringing remained to the people. Here, too, the full set of six bells has long since been restored. More food for thought can be found in the fact that the youngest of these bells is named Shalom – the Hebrew word for peace.

Near the church, I find the house where the noble family von Westphalen welcomed the birth of daughter Jenny in 1814. Her father was the well-connected district administrator of Salzwedel, but she became more widely known as the wife of Karl Marx. At the age of seventeen, Jenny declined a suitable offer of marriage and later became secretly engaged to Marx, who, four years her junior and the son of a provincial lawyer, was not a good match for a baron’s daughter. Their engagement, reluctantly accepted by her family, was to last for seven years (while Marx matured in pursuing his studies abroad) and they were finally married in June 1843, after a decent period of mourning her father’s death. In Jenny, Karl Marx had found a supportive partner in his struggle for a new world order. Despite her pampered childhood and privileged upbringing, she followed him into penury and a restless and self-sacrificing life, faithful to the end.

Jenny Marx's House

Jenny Marx’s Birthplace

To his grief, she predeceased him: “The letters of condolence I have received (…) are all animated with a spirit of truthfulness and profound feeling in honour of Möhmchen, as is seldom the case in such conventional statements. I explain this with the fact that everything about her was natural and truthful, unselfconscious, never artificial; therefore also her impression on others lively, full of light. Even Frau Hess writes: ‘In her, Nature has destroyed her own masterpiece, for in my whole life I have never met with such a brilliant and loving woman.’”

Their youngest daughter, Eleanor Marx, observed, “It is no exaggeration to say that, without Jenny von Westphalen, Karl Marx could never have been what he was. They were perfectly matched and completed each other (…) And I believe that a tie as strong as their commitment to the cause of the working class bound them – their inexhaustible, indestructible humour.”

Friedrich Engels, long-term friend and comrade, also mourned her loss: “What such a woman, with a keen, critical mind, with such political tact, with such energy and passion of character, with such commitment to her comrades, has accomplished in our movement over almost forty years – that has not penetrated into the public awareness; it is not written in the annals of the contemporary press. It had to be witnessed personally. (…) We shall often enough have reason to miss her bold and clever advice – bold without boastfulness, clever without ever being dishonourable.”

Jenny Marx remains, of all the sons and daughters of Salzwedel, undoubtedly the most impressive  yet I had never even heard of her! But there is still more to learn, this time about a local delicacy:

Salzwedel produces a kind of cake that resembles a slice of tree trunk when cut and is therefore called Baumkuchen, ‘tree cake’. Salzwedeler Baumkuchen has been served at banquets of the European nobility for about a hundred and fifty years to date. It is sold in bakeries specializing in its manufacture, for it requires a large spit-like revolving cylinder on which the batter is brushed and baked in those thin, even layers that give the effect of year rings when cut.

Baumkuchen Bakery

Baumkuchen Bakery

Usually, this ‘trunk’ is made up of fifteen to twenty layers of batter and can be three to four feet in length. It tastes blandly sweet, with a hint of vanilla, and is also sold in various cut shapes, glazed with fondant, covered in white or dark chocolate, or as an uncut trunk, sprinkled with decorative sugar flowers for special events.

Imbued with new impressions and the sweet flavour of bakery products, I leave Salzwedel behind. The road towards Bergen soon passes a large sign commemorating its intersection with the line along which Germany, and Europe, had been divided by the Iron Curtain until November 10, 1989, at midnight.

The former Border

The former Border

Salzwedel, in close proximity to this heavily guarded border, served as base for the helicopter squadron of the GDR’s border control force. Yet its location also exposed it to radio waves and TV news from the West, and it easily received those rays of information that poked holes in the dense veil of a dictatorial government’s … ahem … miscommunication.

What an interesting day this has been!

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Holidays in Bergwitz

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the German federal state of Sachsen-Anhalt, the little village of Bergwitz pursues, in contemplative fashion, its daily business. Traditional, cobbled streets are lined by rows of large trees and low houses, a typical brickwork church raises its square spire, and a smattering of shops tentatively explores individual entrepreneurship. Annexed to the Eastern Bloc, this part of the country lived the socialist dream behind the Iron Curtain for forty years, and therefore these rural areas remain still largely free from the blight of commercialism; though much catching up has been done in all urban centres since Germany’s reunification. It is an unusual place to choose for a holiday, and certainly one even your most widely-travelled friends will not be familiar with. Yet there is much to recommend a visit:

The nearest town, a short drive of fifteen minutes away, is Lutherstadt Wittenberg, famous for being the cradle of the Reformation. (See my related blog post ‘Wittenberg’ for a brief summary of this dramatic twist in history.) The first-rate museum in the former Augustinian Monastery where Martin Luther worked with friends and lived with his family is definitely worth a visit. The Castle Church with Luther’s tomb, the Town Church and other buildings are at present being spruced up for the approaching 500-year anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

Wittenberg's Flower Festival in May

Wittenberg’s Flower Festival in May

Horse Carriage Tours in Wittenberg

Horse Carriage Tours in Wittenberg

Along the old high street of Wittenberg, strung out between the two churches and Luther’s house, there are restaurants and shops, as well as all kinds of Luther merchandise. Haus der Geschichte is a museum dedicated to daily life in the German Democratic Republic and the lifestyle of the mid-twentieth century in general – a treasure trove for sociologists. Melanchthon House tells the story of Luther’s friend and main supporter, the Antiquariat will delight lovers of old books, and the Cranach House has a historic Druckerstube (print shop) in its beautifully restored yard. The craftsman who set up his workshop here has gorgeous prints and cards for sale, traditional tools and typefaces on display, and interesting tales to tell of the painters Lucas Cranach and son and their commercial enterprises in print-making.

Traditional Print Workshop

Traditional Print Workshop

The bustling city of Leipzig is about an hour distant and of world-class distinction. Its cultural, historical and commercial palette is thrilling to explore (see also my blog post ‘Leipzig’). For those keen to venture further afield, Dresden and Berlin are also within easy reach, as well as the Dutch baroque castle of Oranienbaum and the World Heritage Site Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm (see my blog posts describing the last two).

Wood-Carving Artists

Wood-Carving Artists

A pleasing mix of the delights of both culture (as mentioned above) and nature (as described below) is available to those who spend their holidays in Bergwitz:

In this floodplain of the River Elbe, open-pit mining for brown coal marred the landscape during the first half of the twentieth century, pockmarking its flat surface with deep craters and heaps of slag that were dug up and moved on conveyor belts to form low hills. But in the end, irrepressible Mother Nature won game, set and match by drowning the pits in quickly rising groundwater. Abandoned, their ugly craters transformed themselves into lovely lakes, their shining surfaces mirroring the changing light and fringes of reeds growing around their rim. The little lake of Bergwitz is one of them, and its clear water is of excellent quality for swimming. Light woodlands of acorn, birch and fir spread over the hillocks of heaped-up earth, and this appealing habitat attracts much wildlife.

Regatta, Lake Bergwitz

Regatta, Lake Bergwitz

These days, it also attracts people who seek rest and recreation in a simple, down-to-earth style, away from noisy nightlife and drunken crowds. The flat land is criss-crossed by a net of traffic-free cycling paths (easy on the legs and ideal for children) that skirt these lakes and lead through those light woodlands.

Bicycle Path from Woerlitz to Dessau

Bicycle Path from Woerlitz to Dessau

Swimming, paddling, rowing, sailing, hiking and bird-watching are other typical pursuits for those in search of peaceful summer holidays. A secluded campsite on the shores of Bergwitz Lake is popular and comes alive in the summer months.

More comfortable than camping is, of course, a holiday flat. Zechenhaus on the shore of Bergwitz Lake offers accommodation to families in a private setting. Its idyllic location and amiable hosts make it an excellent choice for visitors who are looking for a fully equipped home base from which to explore the area. Click to see pictures of two self-contained flats, the garden area and details of accommodation, rates and booking information. Looking ahead to the year 2017, when Wittenberg will be overrun with visitors for the anniversary of the Reformation, it may be worthwhile to consider a stay in the peaceful countryside nearby, and to dip into events in town from a distance.

Zechenhaus in February

Zechenhaus in February

Garden Area of Holiday Flat

Garden Area of Holiday Flat

I have been staying as a Workaway volunteer with Michael and Annette at their home in the Zechenhaus and can recommend this location and its friendly hosts. As members of the free evangelical Jesusgemeinde Wittenberg, they are active Christians and would be especially happy to welcome like-minded visitors. Annette is always keen to improve her already fluent English and will be pleased to chat with you. She will also advise you on anything you may need help with in a foreign country, such as public transport for example. Michael has compiled an interesting folder of aerial photographs of the region and can help with directions to places worth visiting.

Annette and Michael, your friendly hosts

Annette and Michael, your friendly hosts

My stay in the winter season did not allow me to make the most of the lake, but long walks along the shore path were refreshing even in February. The sky was overcast and the water shimmered in bands of grey, some light, some dark. Bare trees wove a filigree of dark branches over the water’s surface; a flock of sparrows pecked at seed pods and fluttered in a twittering cloud. The sun pushed through the haze and cast a sheen over the mirroring lake, caught in the reeds along the edge … For those who like to sketch or paint landscapes, this wonderful little lake certainly makes a captivating subject.

Lake Bergwitz in February

Lake Bergwitz in February

Sunrise on the Lake

Sunrise on the Lake


Workaway: Q&A

My travelling as a Workaway volunteer has been a matter of interest to almost anyone I met along the way. The topic comes up whenever my host of the moment introduces me to friends, neighbours or acquaintances. Obviously, my presence in their home needs explaining.

“So you work here? … For free? … How long are you staying?” they say. Or, “Workaway? What’s that?” – They are eager to learn more. If not for themselves, then for their gap-year teenagers, because what I have to tell them clearly appeals.

These are the questions I am asked most frequently: What is Workaway? Who can do it? How does it work? Are you enjoying it? Would you recommend it? How long will you be doing this?

Herewith I shall answer these questions one by one, taking stock of all I have learnt as a fairly new ‘Workawayer’. So to the first question:

“What is Workaway?” is a good-looking website, holding a database of over 8200 hosts (at the time of writing) on the one hand and travelling volunteers on the other. Here, registered hosts from almost every nation on earth are looking for registered helpers intending to travel to their country, while travelling volunteers can find hosts in the location of their choice. Workaway aims to promote cultural exchange and understanding, it facilitates an affordable way of exploring the world and helps people to practise their foreign language skills. It is intended as a fair exchange of work/help for bed and board, with a generous slice of culture on the side. You can find more information about them on their website by clicking the link above.

“Who can do it?” – Meaning: “Is Workaway for young backpackers only?”

Ideal Workaway volunteers are friendly, easy-going persons of all ages who seek to explore other parts of the world and improve their knowledge of foreign languages. In return for free accommodation and meals they will work for their hosts five days a week on various tasks, as required. The details of this exchange, as well as the length of their stay, are negotiated by both parties according to individual needs, though the general guideline is understood to be five hours on weekdays, with weekends off to explore the area.

Most Workaway volunteers are indeed young people on gap year travels. Their youthful enthusiasm and keen interest in other cultures are appreciated by their hosts. However, mature volunteers with a wide range of proven skills and life experience are also in demand. Especially popular – from what I have been able to discover by trawling through nearly a hundred host profiles – is the handyman with a good working knowledge of plastering and plumbing, a sound back and ample muscle power, for there are many hosts seeking skilled help with the renovation of buildings. Families are often looking for a woman with childcare experience and a love of cooking to ease the busy life of young working mothers. No special skills are needed for clearing rubble, general cleaning, weeding overgrown gardens, replacing dilapidated fencing, and more of a similar nature. As a Workaway volunteer you often contribute to making the world a tidier place and should get satisfaction from this.

There is also much work with animals on offer. Donkeys, cows, pigs, sheep and ducks need understanding souls to look after them – and muck out after them. Dogs need walking. And then there are, of course, the horses. Among host listings for Germany alone I found a high percentage of idyllic places for horse-loving girls. What a pity I’m not one of them! My speciality is organic gardening. I like to improve the soil with compost and the shape of young fruit trees with judicious pruning. This set of skills is also in high demand, as I have found. And unlike young backpackers who need picking up at airports or stations I arrive in my own car, equipped with favourite secateurs, a handy billhook and first-rate loppers.

Another important aspect of ‘workawaying’ is the learning and practising of language skills. As an English-speaking volunteer abroad, you are usually both a learner and a teacher. Your hosts will be happy to instruct you in their native language, but they will also be keen to improve their English with your help. Personally, I have always found the time spent in language studies rewarding, and a lot of fun as well.

“How does it work? How do I become a Workaway volunteer or host?”

After signing up at you create your profile page. (Yes, yes, I know – yet another one). For individual volunteers, this useful service is offered for 22 euros (at the time of writing) and covers a period of two years – 29 euros for couples, or two friends travelling together. This allows its users to avoid high agency fees for often dubious services. You list your nationality and language, your interests, relevant experience and skills. You also reveal your allergies, dietary requirements and other restricting factors. If you are a smoker, admit it. If you need internet access daily, say so. If, like me, you are useless in the kitchen, don’t like dogs and are scared of horses, mention it. Tick the countries you wish to visit and add the dates you are free to travel. If you are raring to go, put yourself on the ‘Last Minute’ list.

Important: your portrait photo! It should show your smiling face (without hats and sunglasses, however stylish) and convey the feeling that you are a person anyone would like to welcome into their home. Once completed, your profile will be approved and go live, and from that moment on you may get invitation emails from potential hosts. Of course it is much more likely that you will find your perfect placement by actively looking for hosts, but your image and profile are now added to the column of teasers that pop up whenever a host visits the Workaway site.

As a registered volunteer, you, on the other hand, will see the teasers of hosts popping into your field of vision. This is my favourite feature. Trawling thus through an immense range of projects on every continent can become seriously addictive and give you the heady feeling that the world is indeed your oyster and that you will never return …

All right, let’s calm down now! – So much for registering as a volunteer.

If, on the other hand, you are snowed under with simple tasks awaiting the day when you will have a few spare hours and heaps of energy – (ha!) – you might consider signing up as a Workaway host. That spare room, that cosy caravan could accommodate just the helper you need to get things moving. You would of course offer meals, share your home, bathroom and internet access, and assist with language-learning and sightseeing in return. As scores of heartwarming testimonials prove, that useful temporary helper may even become a long-term friend.

Registering as a host is entirely free of charge. Once you have signed up, a guideline will help you to create a detailed profile of your home, your family and pets, the work to be done, the landscape to be explored and the attractions to be enjoyed. All of this should induce the right volunteers to send you an application, but of course you will also be searching the profiles of travelling helpers actively for anyone you find compatible.

So, speaking as a volunteer, what am I looking for as I scroll through those long lists of host profiles? Firstly, a heading that identifies the area and gives some idea of the work needed, or the type of host: ‘Help a family with three kids in Ireland’ for example, ‘Work at a hostel in Barcelona’, ‘Teach English near Warsaw’, ‘Work on a ranch in Canada’, ‘Help with my B&B in Brighton’ … etc. You get the idea.

Crucial – but often missing – is a portrait picture of the host(s). That this is not mandatory for all is my only criticism of the Workaway site. Wonderful snapshots of cute pets, a sunset over the hills and the thriving tomato seedlings are all very well, but volunteers are naturally most interested in the people who are going to be their ersatz family and home base for a while. So here’s my plea to all hosts: Hide your camera phobia under a cheerful smile, discard those hats and sunglasses you like to hide behind, have a trusted friend take lots and lots of digital pics, choose the one you can live with and delete the rest, upload it bravely and trust that your face(s) will appeal to those volunteers that are right for you. Please, please do this! I have often clicked past otherwise interesting profiles because they did not feature the people involved, and it is fast becoming a personal rule not to consider any hosts that will not show themselves.

As a registered host you have access to the troops of travelling volunteer workers and will be able to send invitations to the ones whose profile appeals to you. And what will you be looking at, first and foremost? Their smiling faces, that’s right! Would you invite a foreign person into your home whose face you have never seen? Exactly! I trust you see my point.

Initially, all communication happens through the secure Workaway website. You will send invitations and receive enquiries, and it is of importance, as a matter of common courtesy, that you respond reasonably quickly to all of them, even if your answer should be politely negative. The Workaway site rates its members according to the feedback they receive (oh, right, the feedback: a self-explanatory feature, really – but after a good portrait picture it is the most important deciding factor!) and the frequency with which they update and communicate.

On a practical level: Once I had signed up, I found that it does take a while to achieve a match if one has certain places and dates in mind, even if one is using the ‘Last Minute Host List’. It is advisable to make contact with potential hosts or volunteers well in advance, after having checked for free slots on their featured calendar, because some people take a long time to reply.

“Are you enjoying it?”

Oh yes, I am – very much so! After three months on the road and staying with my third Workaway host, I am finding this lifestyle greatly to my taste. At first, I admit, it did take some getting used to. I would wake up in the morning in a strange bed in a foreign country, thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” And although there was nothing wrong with my first host, it was not one of those placements that leave a warm, happy memory and impel one to write such glowing feedback as can commonly be found on Workaway host profiles.

In such a case, the average time span of two weeks – sometimes set by the host as a trial period – is plenty long enough. However, things soon looked up. I easily made friends with my next hosts, got into the swing of things, found a satisfying sense of purpose in being needed and loved delving into the places and the history of another country, as you can see from my recent blog posts. Workaway certainly took the strain of where-to-stay-and-what-to-spend out of my road trip …

“Would you recommend it?”

Absolutely! If you have energy, a few skills or the willingness to acquire them and the interest to engage with foreign places and people, then Workaway could be for you. You will find it pleasant to have a home base rather than a hotel, and of course it makes long-term travel so much more affordable. The personal contact with local people, the insight into their lives, the long talks and interesting friendships could not otherwise happen so easily, and one might find it much harder to learn about the customs and the stories of the area.

For practising languages it is also excellent, because one is truly immersed in and part of the language environment in a way that the usual travel contact with taxi drivers, bar staff and street vendors cannot match. Young people proudly mention the skills they learnt as travelling volunteers, while mature workawayers – though surely not beyond learning new tricks – get a sense of satisfaction from being able to contribute their expertise in a meaningful way.

“How long will you be doing this?”

That question I cannot answer because I have no idea. Since all my time is all my own these days, I mean to continue as a travelling and writing volunteer for as long as I enjoy being on the road, and likely until I discover something, within or without, that suggests a change of course.

And now, my question to you is: What are you waiting for?

You can just get started and let things develop. There is no need to feel rushed. Sign up and work on that profile even if you don’t mean to set out straight away. In my case, ten months passed between joining and arriving at the door of my first host. But I had saved many favourite profiles in ‘My Host List’ (another great feature) and received lots of invitations.

Begin by reading those mouth-wateringly wonderful project descriptions from all around the world. They may fire your wanderlust like nothing else. And if you have any questions regarding this topic that I have not answered yet, I’d be pleased if you raised them in the ‘comments’ section below.

Happy travels to you all, fellow Workawayers!