My teenage daughter has got to the stage in life where she is not that keen on nakedness. I know this because I’ve been reprimanded on several occasions by her for commuting between bathroom and bedroom in my birthday suit. But I had it confirmed on that first morning on Grey Heron on the Mecklenburg Lakes of northern Germany.
‘Eeugh, look at that!’ said Rhena, looking up from her breakfast on the cabin-cruiser’s back deck, and pointing over the stern. I expected to see some particularly yucky bit of nature, red in tooth and claw. Instead I turned in time to witness two rather large Teutonic full frontals, slipping off a landing stage amongst the reeds and into the water.
‘Bully for them’ I said. 'And as for you, you don’t have to look. Concentrate on your Golden Nuggets.’ But Rhena was suddenly not hungry, taking refuge in her iPod.
A tendency to swim as nature intended should have come as no surprise, in this lush part of what was once East Germany – former East Germans of a certain vintage have long regarded being naked as part of being healthy, thanks to government-sponsored FKK (Freikörperkultur or ‘free body culture’ holidays) during the Communist era. This is a nation that likes to get its kit off, particularly when out in the fresh air.
And certainly we were getting lots of fresh air on Grey Heron. We’d come to Mecklenburg out of curiosity, having heard several good reports of a region of more than 1,000 lakes north of Berlin, in soft woodland and rolling agricultural land. But we weren’t quite prepared us for how much water there was; think Norfolk Broads and multiply by 10. Here, a network of rivers serves a hinterland of lakes, many with handsome towns or villages alongside.
We started with a typically thorough briefing from the boat-hire company. For anyone used to the laissez-faire point-and-shoot attitude in force on other waterways, it was rather forbidding, with all the talk of shipping lanes and how to tell whether your fenders are adequately inflated. But when someone asked, at the end, about the most common mishap, the chief engineer grinned reassuringly. ‘Blocked toilets. If you block your toilet we charge €150 for unblocking. So I suggest three or four sheets of paper at a time!’ That was me, then, bunged up for the duration.
Briefing over, driving lesson done, and Grey Heron (all 18 tons and three bathrooms of her) underway, our next decision was where to go. Unlike the French or British network, where you either turn left or right and keep going until it is time to come back, here there were navigation systems spreading out in all directions. Prevaricating English that we were, we decided to sleep on it, and to anchor in an empty bay at the southern end of Müritz, Germany’s largest inland lake. It was here that we surfaced in the morning to be greeted by the naked bathers.
The decision post Golden Nuggets was to head south, to avoid the big lakes and stick to smaller systems to reach waterside towns Zechlin, Rheinsberg and Fürstenberg with its World War II concentration camp. And so we plunged into a world of waterways that tapered and blossomed, sometimes reed-fringed, broad and lumpy, sometimes placid, hemmed in by necklaces of beech and willow.
Some shores were colonized by campsites and boathouses on stilts, from where old couples in skiffs and youngsters in Huckleberry Finn-like sheds on rafts were setting off on expeditions. These waterways may be unknown from our perspective, but the German capital is only 70km away, so there are plenty of users. We even found ourselves queuing for some of the locks.
That popularity has its advantages. Many of the villages are water-facing, with landing stages and facilities provided for holidaymakers who want to come ashore to buy provisions from the local (astonishingly cheap) Lidl or Netto. Many also had a waterside fish-smokery where you could buy smoked char, eel and trout at very low cost. Some of it was clearly caught by village fishermen, who still worked stake net systems out in the lakes.
Fish aside, the culinary experience was limited, but we discovered bizarre ice-cream varieties – cherry and horseradish, garlic with parsley – and one day we bought vegetables from an old Willibald who’d caught on to capitalism and sold tomatoes from a bucket to passing boats.
Thus we travelled on, sometimes anchoring overnight in lonely spots, with barely another boat in sight, sometimes using a village’s guest moorings. There was Mirow, the town with the castle-island that had been the birthplace of Queen Sophie-Charlotte, who’d married into the British royal family (and was later to be played by Helen Mirren in The Madness of King George). There was Zechlin, with its pretty little gem of a village-surrounded lake, where vegetable gardens stretched down to the water’s edge.
There was Rheinsberg, with its schloss built for Crown Prince Friedrich, who apparently ‘felt very little love for the female species’ but was forced to marry Elizabeth of Braunsweig and live in this love-nest, hating every minute of it. And finally there was the sobering Ravensbrück camp at Fürstenberg, where it turned out that most of the (female) inmates had actually been Germans who’d somehow fallen foul of the Nazi way –a largely unread chapter in the Hitler story.
All in all, it was a gentle exploration. The weather was sunny in moderation, and always warm – and the water surprisingly so. In fact it wasn’t long before we too took to plunging into the lakes ourselves, relishing the cleanliness of the water and taking advantage of lonely anchorages to go ‘textile free’, in true Mecklenburg fashion. For three of us it was refreshing, liberating and invigorating. But Rhena, forever in a bikini, strongly disapproved.
Read our expert tips on family boating holidays.