Schloss Ulrichshusen: Peace Divided
Review by Fiona Duncan, published 18th July 2008.
You are in Berlin for a short break, for the city's excellent, inexpensive shopping, for its superb museums, its dark and joyful memories, its palaces and pomp (in central Mitte) and its funky edginess (in Kreuzberg). As more and more of us are discovering, Berlin makes an absorbing and affordable choice for a weekend away.
But take my advice: don't go home. Not just yet. Extend your stay by a night or two away from the city, and indulge in a contrast that you will find overwhelming. "Even Berliners need three days to completely adjust to the tempo here," say Helmuth and Alla von Maltzahn, owners of the romantic Hotel Schloss Ulrichshusen. "At first they find the peace positively unsettling."
To get there, head north and follow the autobahn through a flat landscape of tall pines and even taller wind generators for an hour and a half. Now you are in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany's second largest yet least populated region and, more specifically, in Mecklenburg's lake district, an area of hills and valleys filled with stretches of shining water, some huge like Müritz See, others no more than overgrown ponds.
More than 600 of them make a patchwork with natural forests, undulating meadows and reedy marshland, with sleepy market towns and forgotten villages dotted between.
The sense of watery calm and silence and of being about 20 years behind the times is palpable. Waren, on the shores of Lake Muritz, is the region's main town. Distinguished by a huge red brick Gothic church, typical of the area, it has cobbled streets, leading off a spacious central square, brightly painted houses, a small harbour and an air of pleasant domesticity. The lake is for boat trips, fishing, sailing and bird watching, while to the east, the Muritz national park is best for walking and cycle rides.
Now the northernmost part of Germany, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern's tranquillity is at odds with its history, having been pushed and punished for centuries, under the control, at various times, of Sweden and Poland as well as the communists from 1945 until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Baron von Maltzahn, Helmuth's father, inherited 35 properties in Mecklenburg, a land of castles as well as lakes. In 1945 he fled with his family to the West, and the ruination of his manor houses and farms, accumulated since the 13th century, swiftly followed. When the Wall came down, Helmuth, Alla and their two young daughters drove north to see what they could find of the houses that Helmuth had heard described as a child.
"I felt I knew the castle at Ulrichshusen so well that sometimes I forgot I hadn't actually lived there as a child," he says. "And when I stood in its burnt-out shell and received a hefty owl-dropping on my shoulder (since time immemorial, a good omen) I knew we had to return and rebuild it."
It took seven years. Now the von Maltzahn family lives at its foot and the soaring Renaissance castle, on the shores of its own unspoilt lake, operates as a very comfortable low-key hotel. At once forbidding, with its cliff-like walls, and engaging, with its pretty gatehouse and rocket-like tower, it offers 35 spacious, elegant guest bedrooms with attractive furniture and ensuite bathrooms on two upper floors.
On the ground floor there's a vast baronial hall and gallery and a cosy sitting room and, in former stables, a charmingly rustic restaurant. Best of all is the delightful, summery breakfast room set in the glass-walled top floor of the circular tower. All for the price of a basic b & b in Britain.
How to decorate this rebuilt castle? In a stroke of genius, the von Maltzahns invited a Russian muralist to decorate much of it, which he has done so artfully that it's impossible to tell what is trompe l'oeil and what is not. The breakfast room, surely, has a tented ceiling, complete with folds and seams and open flaps where the sky peeps through; the plunging circular staircase winds through a "family tree", whose branches are hung with coats of arms, stretching from basement to skylight.
But there's more to lure you to this lovely castle. Stay between June and September and you can coincide your visit with a concert, set in a massive, specially converted barn as part of the annual Ulrichshusen classical music festival.
"Menuhin put us on the map" Helmuth tells us, "by agreeing to play during our first season, not long before he died." Nowadays you'll find the likes of Alfred Brendel, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Nigel Kennedy among many other stellar names on the programme.
Air Berlin (www.airberlin.com; 0871 5000 737) has daily flights from Stansted to Berlin Tegel from £24 per person, one way. Avis (0844 581 0147; www.avis.co.uk) has offices at Berlin Tegel, Tempelhof and Schönefeld airports, where cars can be hired from £18 per day.
Schloss Ulrichshusen, nr Waren (0049 39953 7900; www.ulrichshusen.de). B & b from £60 to £97 per night.