The Lusatian Lake District (German: Lausitzer Seenland, Lower Sorbian: Łužyska jazorina, Upper Sorbian: Łužiska jězorina) is a chain of artificial lakes which are the product of lignite mining in the German states of Brandenburg and Saxony
The region shares part of its history with the Central German Lake District which has similar origins, but they differ in a few ways, too.
The "brown gold" of Lusatia
An old Sorbian saying goes that "God created Lusatia, but the Devil put coal underneath it". And it has indeed been blessing and curse in one that underneath the gently rolling hills and plains of Lusatia is one of Europe's richest deposits of lignite or "brown coal". Blessing because for over a century it gave people work and turned what would otherwise have been a forgotten backwater into boomtowns, but curse because to get to the coal, entire villages had to be moved, the water table had to be lowered and immense damage was done to nature and environment by mining and burning the decidedly "dirty" fuel.
While the first attempts at getting the coal out of the ground date to the 19th century and before, the inferior fuel compared to black coal or even wood was long regarded as an afterthought and its unpleasant smell when burned caused it to be regarded as "poor people's fuel" until the First World War decimated Germany's industrial capacities and forced it to deliver parts of its coal production to the victorious allies. Plans to start another war to right what the German right wing saw as an injustice done to Germany necessitated energy and resource self-sufficiency and ingenious chemists discovered ways to turn any carbon feedstock (including low quality lignite) into all manner of chemical products, gearing the mining into overdrive.
After Germany lost the war, the new state of East Germany (commonly called "GDR" in English due to its long form name "German Democratic Republic") came to rely even more heavily on brown coal as it was virtually the only fossil fuel available. Homes were heated with it, trains were run with it (whether steam trains or - via lignite fired power plants - electric trains) and a huge chemical industry relied on it. The price was devastation of an entire landscape and air pollution that would let modern Beijing look like a health spa in comparison. Still, when coal fields were exhausted, leaving gigantic holes reaching well below what would be the natural water table in their wake, a solution had to be found to convert them into a usable landscape again.
From pits to lakes
The solution came with engineer Otto Rindt (1906-1994) who had been a member of the Nazi Party but was now willing to put his know-how to the service of the new GDR. Rindt's vision was to flood the pits, but not in a disorderly or haphazard fashion by simply letting the groundwater rise, but by using nearby surface waters and linking them into a chain of lakes which would be used for the "new socialist man" to recreate, bathe and recharge the energy needed to build up socialism on German soil. While Rindt was blessed with an extraordinarily long life, he must've known that he would not get to see the project through to the end, still even after the fall of the GDR in 1990 the new authorities looked to Rindt's vision in the transformation of the landscape.
While the parts of lignite mining and burning that were profitable had been sold off to investors after 1990, ending up in the hands of Swedish state owned Vattenfall, the task of dealing with the problems the mining had brought was given to a new state-enterprise called LMBV (Lausitzer und Mitteldeutsche Bergbauverwaltungsgesellschaft Lusatian and Middle German mining administration company) who would also be in charge of the Middle German Lake District. Mining in the area continued, even after a Social Democrat/Green coalition in Sweden decided that Vattenfall could not in good conscience keep mining the dirtiest fossil fuel there is while Sweden proclaimed a "green energy transition" as the states of Saxony and Brandenburg desperately tried to hold on to the economic wealth and employment lignite brought to a region still not fully recovered from the 1989/90 transformations.
Vattenfall sold their stake in lignite to a Czech company who set up a subsidiary called LEAG (short for Lausitz Energie AG) keeping mining - and more importantly local employment - going. However, the writing for brown coal is on the wall as the German federal government decided in 2019 to phase out lignite until 2038 at the latest, promising billions in federal investment to ease the transition. A large part of those investments will also be used to develop a touristic infrastructure in the region, hopefully creating a new sector of the economy that can replace the old one.
- 1 Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER IATA). Berlin's snazzy new airport opened in late 2020 lies north of the area and can be a good entry point if arriving from other parts of Europe. There are, however, only a handful of intercontinental routes.
- 2 Dresden Airport (DRS IATA). Sitting just south of the main action, this airport has only a random grab-bag of destinations and if you aren't headed in from there, it is unlikely to help getting here easier. If you have to change in Frankfurt Airport or Munich Airport anyway, chances are, you're faster doing the last leg on a train instead.
- 3 Cottbus main station. Cottbus sits on the northeastern edge of the Lake District, but "its" lake, the "Cottbuser Ostsee" (Cottbus eastern lake) only started flooding in 2019 and it'll be some years (depending on precipitation and water levels in the Spree river) before it is more than a sad collection of ponds.
Federal highways A13 and A15 lie to the north and west
By public transit
Unfortunately the state boundary between Saxony and Brandenburg makes getting around by public transit a little less seamless than it would otherwise be. For information on routes, schedules and prices in Brandenburg (and Berlin) check out VBB. The Saxon part of this area is covered by VVO and in the east by ZVON.
Train stations in the area
The following is a selective list of train stations in the area, not listing all there are.
- 4 Bahnhof Senftenberg.
- 5 Bahnhof Altdöbern.
- 6 Bahnhof Forst (Lausitz).
- 7 Großräschen station.
- 8 Bahnhof Guben.
- 9 Bahnhof Hosena.
- 10 Lauta.
- 11 Neupetershain.
- 12 Bahnhof Ruhland.
- 13 Bahnsdorf Bahnhof. Despite the name, this village well predates the rail line.
- 14 Sedlitz Ost.
- 15 Bahnhof Spremberg.
- 16 Bahnhof Weißwasser.
Several of the lakes are linked to each other via canals and some are open to motorized shipping whereas all are open to unmotorized watercraft. There are two passenger boats, both run by Reederei M. Löwa one is called "M.S. Santa Barbara", the other "Aqua Phönix".
- 1 Hoyerswerda — a town of 33,000 (2018) that is in the historical area of settlement of the Sorbs
- 2 Senftenberg — a town near Lake Senftenberg (Senftenberger See), a flooded former open-pit lignite mine
All these lakes are in the state of Brandenburg.
- 1 Lichtenauer See.
- 2 Schönfelder See.
- 3 Bischdorfer See.
- 4 Schlabendorfer See.
- 5 Drehnaer See.
- 6 Gräbendorfer See.
- 7 Grünewalder Lauch.
- 8 Bergheider See.
Some of these lakes are in Saxony, others in Brandenburg and a substantial number straddle the state line.
- 9 Großräschener See.
- 10 Senftenberger See. Flooding ended in 1973, making this one of the "oldest" lakes in the region and already a popular bathing spot in GDR times (with the obligatory naturism (FKK) beaches to show for it).
- 11 Partwitzer See.
- 12 Geierswalder See.
- 13 Neuwieser See.
- 14 Blunoer Südsee.
- 15 Sabrodter See.
- 16 Bergener See.
- 17 Spreetaler See.
- 18 Erikasee.
- 19 Felixsee.
- 20 Halbendorfer See.
All these lakes are in the state of Saxony.
- 21 Bernsteinsee.
- 22 Knappensee. Already flooded in the 1950s, this lake served as a "model" for subsequent development. Particularly lucky circumstances led to excellent water quality early on and a rich fauna of freshwater fish and waterfowl.
- 23 Graureihersee.
- 24 Speicherbecken Lohsa I.
- 25 Dreiweiberner See.
- 26 Speicherbecken Lohsa II.
- 27 Knappenrode energy museum. From 1918 to 1993 this heritage-listed building was a factory turning lignite into briquettes for home heating. Today it is a museum about the history of lignite and the region and how those two are indelibly intertwined. Adult €7, reduced €5, under 6 free.
- 28 Besucherbergwerk Abraumförderbrücke F60, ☏ . This gargantuan industrial machine whose purpose it was to move the overburden out of the way to access the coal is sometimes nicknamed "Lusatian horizontal Eiffel tower" due to its impressive size and construction mostly from steel. While there were plans to dismantle it and sell it for scrap as it was no longer needed after the collapse of the GDR, cooler heads prevailed and turned it into an industrial heritage museum. School kids throughout Brandenburg have excursions to see this impressive machine and learn about the mining history of their state.
- 1 Waldeisenbahn Muskau. A 600 mm (24 in) gauge heritage railway. The expansion of the Nochten open pit mine led to part of the route being dismantled and replaced with a new route in 2017.
- 2 Lausitzring (EuroSpeedway Lausitz). Built on top of part of the former open pit mine Meuro (filled up with overburden) this automotive racing circuit has held numerous motor sports events in addition to concerts and the likes. During important events, there is a bus-shuttle from nearby Senftenberg station.
There are campsites in the vicinity of several of the lakes.
In addition to German speaking people, this area is home to one of Germany's linguistic minorities, the Sorbs, who speak a collection of Slavic idioms usually broken down into the two standard languages of Upper and Lower Sorbian. You'll notice that several towns have bilingual town signs as a nod to the Sorbian population and there are even some high schools and college classes where the language of instruction is Sorbian. English proficiency tends to be lower than the German mean, but you have better than average chances getting somewhere with Russian (mandatory first foreign language in the GDR and still taught at many schools with Dresden having a tourism and shopping industry catering to Russians) and a small but nonzero chance with the neighboring Slavic languages of Czech and Polish.
Having moved gargantuan quantities of dirt and water and having removed millions of tons of coal from the area, the mining activities have disturbed the stability of many places. The LMBV is in charge of getting those places back into a stable state and is putting up "do not enter" signs where it is still dangerous to tread. Millions of tons of sediment or discarded overburden can suddenly get moving for no apparent reason where they are in an unstable state, so stay well clear. Obviously you should only swim where it is allowed.