Wilderness in the muritz national park: the moor is also returning

A landscape shaped by humans is now to become wild again. Visitors roam the national park on many different paths.

The Muritz National Park is Germany’s largest national park Photo: dpa

An opera sounds in many voices on the lakeshore, a trilling, chattering, whistling work, although none of the artists can be seen. From the left, nimble chirping of several songbirds resounds from the birch forest. On the other side of the footbridge, a drumming on tree bark echoes the singing, steady and almost well-behaved, like an organic part of the forest; a black woodpecker furnishing its living room. Then from the lake, as if on cue, the startled call of two cranes begins. It’s still early in Mecklenburg’s Muritz National Park, cool and peaceful. Drizzle is in the air.

Old pines stretch their bare trunks majestically toward the sky. The undergrowth is eaten away in many places, deer. Germany’s largest national park was partly a state hunting ground in GDR times, the high lords were supposed to get a lot in front of the shotgun; there are still large game populations here today. And new old wilderness: the moor is returning.

The sun shines warmly on the wooden footbridge, still slippery from the last rain. Mill Lake in the western part of the park is a renaturalized bog that was once drained. Dead trees rise ghostly from the still waters. If you continue hiking, you will reach the moor footbridge on the right. The mud, deeply churned up, proves unmistakably: wild boars were here. Slippery planks lead toward the lake, the ground underneath becomes softer and softer, reeds rise out of the water. Then suddenly the green opens up and gives a view of the motionless water. A great egret flutters up and disappears.

Nature conservation and local tourism

The Muritz is an example of how nature conservation and local tourism can be combined in Germany. Muritz comes from Slavic and means "little sea," and anyone sitting on one of the huge lake’s bathing beaches is involuntarily reminded of the Baltic Sea with its swells and screeching seagulls. Surrounding it is a diverse fauna with cranes pecking in the meadow almost all year round, with effortlessly gliding ospreys and sea eagles, and with shy red deer, fallow deer or mouflons.

Shortly before the fall of the Wall, it was possible at the last minute to make two areas a nature reserve. In 1990, Germany’s largest national park on the mainland was created. And an extremely varied one. It offers a potpourri of means of transport and excursions: Passenger boats on the Muritz River, a national park bus through the forest areas, the horse-drawn carriage on designated trails, canoes and kayaks on many of the hundred-plus bodies of water, bicycles for rent for the bike paths, and, of course, the hiking trails. And slowly, a secondary wilderness should emerge here: A landscape formerly shaped by humans that is gradually and independently becoming wild again. As free as somehow possible.

"Nature is largely left to its own devices here," explains national park guide Birgit Zahn. Measures within the scope of the road safety obligation are excluded. Forestry has been terminated since 2017. It is a new era, an attempt towards the future: Already in the Middle Ages, a lot was deforested, even in GDR times, this was a pure commercial forest. At the same time, it was also a training ground for the Russians, who drove their tanks over everything that stood in their way.

"The Mecklenburg Sahara" was the joking name given to the site in the past because of the sandy open spaces. Today, not much feels like the Sahara in the dense greenery. The sandy soils have shaped the region in many ways. To this day, pine trees can be seen on every corner – they cope best with the difficult subsoil. With its rapid growth, it was also once well suited for reforestation. According to the national park administration, 70 percent of the trees are still pines, although it would obviously be much better to see mixed forests again, but they have a hard time in the shade of the pines.

Charming half-timbered villages and agrarian towns

The inhabitants of the region also suffered from the soil for a long time. The nutrient-poor subsoil made agriculture difficult, and the nobility often did not even come. "For knights, the area was unattractive because of the poor soil," says Martin Kaiser of the National Park Administration. That’s why there are hardly any manors here to this day. "Farmers remained free but destitute." The area is dominated not by country estates but by agrarian towns with colorful half-timbered houses.

Today, vacationers are happy about this: outside the national park, places like Robel or Waren with their small alleys and picturesque little houses are popular destinations for excursions. Charming half-timbered villages with cobblestone streets press up against the Muritz, cozy cafes and restaurants, sleepy harbors where visitors stroll in the summertime, and in some small towns glass manufactories or potter’s yards.

The world also came to the agrarian towns early on: Jews above all. In the Middle Ages they were forbidden to settle in towns like Rostock, and so they moved to the small towns. Since the 12. Jewish citizens have been documented in the Muritz since the 19th century. Today, the restored synagogue in Robel with many artifacts tells the story of a long rootedness that later no one wanted to know about. Almost all Jewish citizens of Robel were murdered during the National Socialism.

And for another reason, the Muritz area gained dubious importance during the Nazi era: Rechlin was once home to the largest testing site of the German Air Force. Here, in the run-up to the Second World War, training was carried out in secret for the great war. An aviation museum displays replicas of old fighter planes. Those who want to see small historical treasures have many options at Muritz. And can then get back to nature.

Observe wild animals

Near the small town of Boek, just outside the border of the national park, Gerd Piethe steers his Kremser. He is an original from the region, grew up here himself, and drives tourists to the game park in a carriage. The game park is a miniature version of the national park: tall pines on mossy ground, bog lakes with dead tree stumps, lots of game. And just on the 80-hectare area much easier to see.

"You have to be lucky, of course," says Piethe. To help the luck, he lures the animals with dry bread and whistles. The deer training works: A herd of red deer approaches the carriage to within a meter. He affectionately calls the biggest one with the shed antlers Hirsch Heinrich, after the classic GDR children’s book. In the distance, a large group of fallow deer, which obviously doesn’t think much of bread, flees. And from the left, two black mouflons approach hesitantly. As Piethe turns the corner a few meters away at a wetland, three ospreys fly toward the sky.

The populations of the white-tailed eagle and osprey have recovered strongly in the region. And anyone who is disappointed because wildlife can only be seen from a distance has a rare opportunity here throughout Europe. At an osprey nest south of Federow, which is located on a high-voltage pylon, the municipality of Kargow has installed a camera. It has a zoom and pan function, unique in Europe, says Birgit Zahn. The camera makes it possible to observe the ospreys and their young without disturbing their peace. It’s as if you were sitting right there in the eyrie.

Half a million vacationers a year want to see the wilderness on their doorstep and visit the national park. Vacation resorts like Waren on the northern shore of the lake owe countless local jobs to tourism. However, with hard downtime. The season at the Muritz runs from April to October; many employees in the tourism industry are unemployed in winter or scrape by with small odd jobs. Or go directly away from the region. For the small vacation, the Muritz attracts many strangers. They are mainly visitors from the nearby states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg and Berlin.

"Nature is left to its own devices here. There is no planting, the forest is not treated."

From Berlin, it takes less than two hours by train. The tourism association hopes that this will also make life easier for local residents. Because the Muritz area suffers from similar problems as many rural areas. "The low population density – despite the best efforts of our district – inevitably leads to a reduction in regional public mobility," says Bert Balke, managing director at the Mecklenburg Lake District Tourism Association. His wish: To be part of the Berlin metropolitan region, for example by expanding the Berlin Brandenburg Transport Association (VBB) would not only improve regional public mobility, but also make the region more palatable to commuters and newcomers. Going to the Muritz on the weekend instead of Wannsee. A good connection to Berlin is a tourist trump card.

Since this season, overnight guests have been able to use the bus around Muritz for free with their guest card. It is already possible to return to Berlin by train without any problems. And theoretically even by canoe or kayak across the Havel. However, that would take a week.