From Wittenberge in the Prignitz region, a fantastically beautiful cycle path leads along the Elbe, where you can follow in the footsteps of German-German history and also discover a unique natural landscape.
The Borderland Tour is an approximately 55-kilometre-long cycle tour that leads through the federal states of Brandenburg, Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. Since 2019, it is one of several themed routes that invite you to discover the Elbe region.
Start of the Borderland Tour in Wittenberge
Our tour started at the station in Wittenberge, where we picked up our rental bikes.
Our first destination was the Wittenberg promenade just before the entrance to the marina. The well-developed promenade was only built after a flood of the Elbe, when the dike was raised here to protect against the ever-increasing water masses.
If you look along the Elbe here, you see a former border river. Here on the Elbe, the town of Wittenberge was the first port after the Federal Republic or the last port of the GDR before the West – depending on how you look at it. Ships docked here once again to fill up their supplies before heading to the West, and the border guards’ ships departed from here to control the border.
If you ask former “border guards” from West and East, one question is still unanswered. Where exactly did the border run? Some say the border was in the middle of the Elbe, others say it was on the right side of the Elbe. Even at that time, there was no real consensus, and sometimes it was not clear who was responsible for what.
One thing is certain: crossing the Elbe was the great goal for many a refugee from the GDR. One of the most spectacular escape attempts took place in the winter of 1976 near Wittenberge. While unloading a coal lorry, workers discovered something unusual in the drifting rope and pulled it ashore. The flotsam was cylindrical and it turned out to be a homemade submarine. They opened a hatch and looked into the face of a man and his wife who were trying to escape to the West in this vehicle.
Cycling along the Elbe
After looking across the Elbe and reflecting on the former course of the border, we followed the very well-maintained cycle path on the dyke. From there, you have a great view of the Elbe’s cultural landscape, spot flocks of sheep grazing now and then and can enjoy the wonderful view over the river. Here I could already catch a glimpse of the stork village of Wahrenberg in Saxony-Anhalt, which we would cycle through later on the Borderland tour.
Every now and then, the cycle path crosses a small village that is located behind the protective dyke. In Cumlosen you can take a break at the Landgasthaus Schmidt and have something to eat and drink before the ride continues into the biosphere reserve.
Elbe-Brandenburg River Landscape Biosphere Reserve
Shortly after Cumlosen, a small wooden footbridge leads a short distance into the biosphere reserve. Here you will find the Cumlosen softwood floodplain, one of the best-preserved floodplain forests in the region.
Up to this point, I had no idea what the terms hardwood floodplain and softwood floodplain meant, but fortunately the app “Auenerlebnistour an der Elbe und Aland” (Floodplain Experience Tour on the Elbe and Aland) helps. It explains very well and simply what exactly it is.
Standing on the small wooden footbridge, one has a good view of a softwood floodplain. The area is closer to the Elbe than a hardwood floodplain and is exposed to the water current and ice drift. If the Elbe carries more water, it enters the area and floods it. It can happen that the areas are full of water for up to 190 days. Gradually, the water is released to the vegetation and the floodplain dries out.
Over the years, the vegetation has adapted to these conditions and it is mainly trees and shrubs with flexible softer wood that can tolerate the wetness well that grow there. These are, for example, willows and black poplars.
If you are alone on the footbridge and keep quiet, you will certainly have the chance to discover animal inhabitants, such as the beaver or numerous amphibians, in the softwood floodplain.
Not far from this observation point, you can discover the Hohe Garbe on the other side of the river from the dike. This is a hardwood floodplain that has been renaturalised with great commitment for several years. For many years, due to human intervention (dyke construction) in nature, the water stood in this area. However, the vegetation consisted mainly of hardwoods, such as oaks, which cannot tolerate these amounts of water. Now, after the natural flood channels have been uncovered again, the natural irrigation and drainage of the area has been restored. The original native flora and fauna can thus slowly return.
Those who want to learn more about the natural area will find a visitor centre of the biosphere reserve in Lenzen.
Cycling along the Elbe: the Borderland Tour
On the dyke, I continued cycling along the traces of the inner-German border. At the side of the path I discovered a memorial stone commemorating the victims of the border.
We pass one of the last remaining watchtowers that once stood on the border strip immediately behind the front border fortifications. The watchtowers stood along the entire course of the border and were mainly used to prevent GDR citizens from escaping into the Federal Republic.
In the beginning, the B-towers were still made of wood, but from 1969 they were gradually replaced and concrete towers were erected. The construction of the towers was standardised. On top of prefabricated concrete parts was an observation pulpit. The soldiers on watch reached this vantage point via metal ladders. Usually 4-5 soldiers could work there. In addition to seating, they also found an air filter system, signalling equipment, duty book and map material, as well as the licence plate directory of the Federal Border Guard. A telecommunication line connected the guards with the border communication network. A searchlight stood on a “roof terrace”.
I know the round observation towers from Berlin. Here on the Elbe there is a large square tower that is about 9 metres high. These towers replaced the round towers from around the 1970s.
The next memorial located on the Borderland tour on this side of the Elbe is at the ferry that goes to Schnackenburg.
The Hans-Georg Lemme Memorial commemorates an unsuccessful escape attempt that ended in death. In August 1974, Hans-Georg Lemme tried to swim through the Elbe towards Lower Saxony. In the process he was discovered by a GDR border boat. The border guards tried in vain to persuade him to turn back. Finally they ran him over and the propeller fatally injured the man. A few days later, the body was found in the Elbe.
With this story in mind, the Borderland Tour now takes the ferry from Brandenburg to Lower Saxony, i.e. from the territory of the former GDR to the Federal Republic of Germany.
Once you have reached the other side of the Elbe, you find yourself in Lower Saxony’s smallest town, Schnackenburg.
This was the control and customs point for shipping on the Elbe until the political changes. In the Borderland Museum (Grenzlandmuseum) you can learn a lot about this time in a great exhibition. The museum was the highlight of the Borderland tour for me and you can read all about it in my report on Schnackenburg.
If you look closely at the map, Schnackenburg is located at the three-country corner of Brandenburg, Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. The cycle path of the Grenzlandtour now continued from Lower Saxony to Saxony-Anhalt along the Aland river.
By bike along the Aland
The Aland is a tributary of the Elbe and flows into it at Schnackenburg. The entire course of the river has several names; the Aland is about 27 kilometres long. Between the Aland and the Elbe lies the Aland-Elbe lowlands, which are part of the UNESCO biosphere reserve “Elbe River Landscape”.
Today, the area, with its wet green spaces and hardwood and softwood floodplains, is a habitat for countless animals. If you cycle along here, you will discover, for example, the white-tailed eagle, ducks, geese, whooper swans, the lapwing, the golden plover and white and black storks. However, it is better to take a break on one of the observation towers and watch the animals from there.
It’s easy to forget that the inner-German border once ran through here. Fortunately, the old border markings are a reminder of this. If you follow the borderland tour to the deserted village of Stresow, you will find the Stresow Memorial and Remembrance Site. Here you can get a very good impression of the border construction. If you want to know more about the “vermin” campaign, the border and Stresow, you can read about it in our article on Stresow.
Wanzer – a break in the bakery and a visit to the mill
Nestled between forests, meadows and the nature reserve on the Elbe and Aland rivers lies the 100-inhabitant village of Wanzer. The village in the Altmark was located within the 5-kilometre border strip of the GDR until 1989, so the whole place is actually a “contemporary witness” during the borderland tour.
Until before 1936 there were the villages Klein Wanzer and Groß Wanzer. Klein Wanzer was inhabited by Wends and Groß Wanzer by Germanic peoples. Since the unification of the two places, one speaks only of Wanzer.
Most of the buildings in Wanzer are located on or directly on the Aland dike. Most of the plots of land have what is known as “wasteland”, onto which any floodwater that occurs can flow.
Wanzer is in Mühlendorf (Mill village) and is included in the Altmärkische Mühlenstraße. In 1611, the first windmill was built here at the northern entrance to the village. In 1868, the village received a second mill at the southern entrance. This came from the village of Pollitz and was moved to Wanzer.
At the time of the German-German division, Wanzer was located within the 5-kilometre-wide border strip. Anyone who lived here needed a special pass to reach their house. Visitors, too, had to get a pass well in advance of their visit.
In the course of the Borderland tour I took part in, a resident of the town told some stories about his life in the village, about forgotten papers and returning to the village at night on surreptitious routes, but also about the dogs in the border strip. Today, there is hardly anything left to remind us of that. In a meadow, you can still see the crooked wooden poles of the former lighting. At that time, the leashed dogs ran up and down these poles. Every 100-150 metres or so a dog, which was not used to people either, was leashed, did its “border duty” and prevented people from escaping into the Federal Republic of Germany.
View into the church of Wanzer
The small village in the Altmark also has a church. The Protestant church was built of brick in 1320-1350.
During my visit to Wanzer, I had the opportunity to look inside the church. You can definitely see its age, and you can’t miss the notice about the appeal for donations for the renovation. Nevertheless, I find it beautiful, simple and almost cosy. In contrast to the ostentatiously decorated churches, which often seem very impersonal, the village church is inviting. The painted pictures probably date from 1634 and the windows are also quite old. A baptismal angel hangs in the church, which has certainly seen better days. For a long time, the figure was thought to be lost, but was found again in a monastery. It was hung unrestored in the church. I think it fits perfectly in this place of worship.
The Bockwindmühle (trestle windmill)
The Garbe Windmill and Local History Society has made it its business to look after the mill in Wanzer.
The mill that originally stood at the northern exit of the village no longer exists today, it fell down in the 1940s. But the Bockwindmühle, which had once been moved from Pollitz to Wanzer and stood at the southern exit of the village, was still there. It is one of the last Bockwindmühle in the Altmark.
In 2002, it was decided to let this southern mill wander. It was gradually dismantled and rebuilt on the old mill hill at the northern exit of the village. On the mill’s 200th birthday (2005), it stood on its new site with millstones and rod shaft. With a little support, it was possible to finance the interior furnishings and to start operating the mill on Mill Day 2007.
When I arrived at the mill in Wanzer, however, it was missing something important – the wings were being repaired. Once the mill is fully reassembled, it is of course also used for grinding. The flour is then made into pizza and cakes in a wood-fired oven in the bakehouse. Every second Sunday in the summer months, the bakehouse is open right next to the church. I’ll tell you this much: the cake is great and the vegan pizza (covered with nuts) totally convinced me.
If you would like to take a closer look at the mill, the best way to find out the opening hours is to call (Tel. 039395 81280).
Wahrenberg Stork Village
The cycle path along the Elbe leads through the small village of Wahrenberg, which lies directly behind the Elbe dyke. Wahrenberg is the northernmost Elbe village in Saxony-Anhalt and is one of the stork villages in Germany.
The site is one of the oldest settlements in the Altmark. On the basis of sherd finds, it has been established that there must have been an Old Slavic settlement here as early as the 9th or 10th century. The first documentary evidence of a settlement dates from around 1375.
To this day, most of the buildings in the village stand on terps. These are artificially created hills that are supposed to offer protection against the floods of the Elbe.
Wahrenberg is one of the places in Germany with the most storks. There are more than 20 nests in the village, of which about 18 are occupied every year, and storks grow up in almost every nest.
On the Borderland tour, the path first led me through the town, up to the dyke on the Elbe. On this short stretch I could only discover two stork nests, which were also occupied. There were no young birds to be seen yet.
Return to Wittenberge
After 55 kilometres, the borderland tour finally ends in Wittenberge. Over the railway bridge, the trail leads back across the Elbe to the town. Next to the rails runs a narrow wooden plank path meant for pedestrians. Cycling is prohibited here – but when I crossed, I actually only encountered cyclists on the move. Since the path is so narrow that two bicycles cannot pass each other, they meet on the bridge while walking.
Once you reach the other side of the Elbe, you are in Wittenberge, where you can round off the tour in comfort.
My impression of the Borderland Tour
Cycling along the Elbe is really beautiful. The cycle paths are well developed and the signposting is excellent. If you are on the road here, you should make sure you have enough food and drink. Unfortunately, there are only a few opportunities to stop at restaurants. However, cyclists and hikers will find enough benches for a break with a view.
During the tour, I was lucky enough to hear super interesting eyewitness accounts about living and working on the inner-German border. The stories were exciting and informative. It would be too bad if these were not “preserved” for later generations and could be heard as audio files at certain locations, for example. Some information can fortunately already be found in the app “Auenerlebnistour an der Elbe und Aland”, but there is so much more to learn.
I think it’s worth discovering the Borderland Tour!
The cycle tour along the Elbe took place as part of a press trip.