Spas come back in vogue

About 88 kilometres
southeast of Berlin, the gentle landscape of Brandenburg unfolds: a patchwork
of forests and flax fields. Like other parts of rural Germany, villages in this
eastern state pop up every few kilometres. But here, distinctive flat boats
float in river harbours. Country roads, lined with tall trees, cut through
cucumber farms and marshes.

This is the Spreewald
(Spree Forest in German), a region near the German-Polish border where the
River Spree turns into an inland delta, with kilometres of shallow rivulets flowing
through the countryside. In 1991, UNESCO designated the 42,500 hectares of the
Spreewald a UNESCO biosphere reserve, assuring the preservation of the forests,
wildlife and canals that have long made it a popular attraction for domestic
travellers.

But it turns out that
one of Spreewald’s greatest treasures lies underfoot: A hot spring discovered
more than a decade ago sits about 1,350 meters below ground, with minerals and
salts at levels similar to those in the Dead Sea. When the spring became accessible
to the public in 2005, Brandenburg named Burg, a sprawling rural community of
4,500 in which the waters were discovered, a kurort, or a certified spa
destination.

Since then, overnight
stays in Burg have increased by about 40 percent, according to municipal
authorities, and the town attracts more visitors than anywhere in Brandenburg
except Potsdam. They are catered to by a number of new hotels and pensions –
some of which offer spa treatments on site – in addition to standbys that now
stay open all year instead of only in the warmer months. A road that has been
renamed the kurortroute (spa route) winds through the community past farmsteads
and on bridges over canals; a bike path follows most of the way for those
visitors who balance out their spa treatments with physical activity; and
Burg’s public harbour for punts, or kahns, has even been updated and
beautified.

At the heart of
Burg’s redevelopment as a spa destination is the Spreewaldtherme, whose pools
draw from the hot spring. It opened its doors five years ago, sealing Burg’s
designation as a kurort. In a modern building tucked into the forest, nine
pools from 64 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit cover 775 square meters, offering
varying degrees of mineral and salt content. Guests pad around the extensive
sauna zone in slippers and bathrobes between sauna sessions that include hourly
steam infusions made with local herbs. Treatments include massages with
native-grown flax seed oil and Spreewald algae packs.

Stefan Kannewischer,
the Spreewaldtherme’s Switzerland-based investor and operator, values the
setting beyond the waters that his spa draws on. Kannewischer, whose family
business has outfitted baths in Baden-Baden and Bad Kissingen, recalled his
first time here. “I thought, ‘Why am I going to this town near the Polish
border?’ But as soon as I arrived, I realized that this place is magic,” he
said.

At the time,
Kannewischer took a canal tour in a kahn. “As soon as I got in, I was in
another world for two or three hours.”

Burg retains the
tranquillity that exists throughout the Spreewald. The region, home to a Slavic
ethnic minority that calls itself (and its language) Sorbian, relies in part on
agriculture and exports of its trademark thick spicy gherkins flavoured with
mustard, dill or garlic, in addition to tourism, which first blossomed in the
late 1880s.

Local oarsmen who
regale visitors with historical details, guide the kahns – once the primary
means of transportation in the area – through shallow channels teeming with
river life. Dragonflies land on water lilies, weeping willows brush the water’s
mirrored green surface, and everything suddenly becomes very, very still.

Christine Clausing,
who owns Zur Bleiche Resort and Spa with her husband, Heinrich Michael
Clausing, was also taken with Burg’s charm when she arrived. “The Spreewald is
a place where you can relax very quickly,” she said. “Every time we leave and
return, we notice how it’s a little utopia.”

So is Zur Bleiche.
The 90-room resort, with a 4,000-square-metre spa and a Michelin-starred restaurant,
17fuffzig, is a wellness world unto itself. The complex of buildings dates from
1750, when King Frederick the Great had his soldiers’ uniform shirts produced
and lightened here. (Bleiche means bleach.) Other buildings were constructed
during the communist era as holiday lodging for the association that oversaw
around 15 labor unions in the German Democratic Republic.

The Clausings, who
came in the early 1990s from southern Germany, have managed to transform the
place into an opulent yet casual paradise. Outdoor and indoor pools beckon
everywhere. Even in summer, a fireplace crackles invitingly in a room whose
soaring ceiling reveals its origin as a barn. The extensive sauna area – an
entire floor devoted to treatments, a women’s spa zone and a warren of rooms
filled with pillows, hammams, books or Buddhas – offers seemingly endless nooks
to curl up in. Even the smallest guest room has its own suite-like seating
area. The nine restaurants offer Spreewald specialties like a freshwater pike
fillet topped with a light vermouth sauce. The resort has its own kahn, moored
behind the glassed-in breakfast room on the canal behind the hotel.

With recommendations
whispered like a secret password among harried Berliners (and, increasingly,
Dresdeners and Leipzigers), the resort, which opened in 1997, has steadily
gained in popularity, even beyond Germany’s borders. “From the beginning, we
were geared toward attracting both German and international guests,” Clausing
said. “Now, interest in the area just keeps growing.” Burg still has some
attractions to come. In the works is an 83-room hotel, scheduled to open in
summer 2012, that will connect via tunnel to the Spreewaldtherme facilities.

“At first, people
were skeptical about Burg, but now they make special trips here to come to the
baths and see the area,” Kannewischer said.

There might be
moments when service seems slow, but then you realize that the whole point of
visiting is to slow down and enjoy the laid-back pace, friendliness and natural
beauty. Stop at a farm to pick some strawberries, or have a huge pickle
straight from the barrel; linger in the Spreewaldtherme’s inhalation chamber or
get a salt scrub at Zur Bleiche’s day spa.

“In other resort
towns, you might have to be beautiful. But you don’t have to be anything here,”
Clausing said. “You can just relax. It’s like taking a ride in a kahn. You
don’t even have to paddle.”

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