Off the beaten track Europe: Germany’s Ostfriesland and the Frisian Islands

In a tiny kindergarten in the northwestern-most corner of Germany, it was time for show and tell. And the object of study was me.

To the twenty little bodies that wriggled with excitement, I spoke the comprehensive speech I had rehearsed: “Hallo, kinder! Ich bin Jenna, und ich comme aus Amerika.” (Hi, children! I’m Jenna, and I come from America).

 

Ostfriesland, Germany’s hidden secret

 

It was the second time I had visited my friend in Ostfriesland (ōst FREEZ-land), or East Frisia (FREE-zhuh). Unless you’re from a bordering country you have likely never heard of the area, and even then you might not have visited.

After years in Germany, I’ve never met anybody else who has been there. Most break into a spontaneous grin, rather like we might after a European says, “Yes, I have visited the United States. I once went to the Ozarks.” (On top of its remote location, there is this subtext: Ostfrieslanders are often the butt of German ethnic jokes, much like the Polish were in the U.S.)

Why it remains off the must-visit lists is a mystery, because its charms are many, the pace is slow, and the people are friendly.

 

Greetsiel in Ostfriesland

Ostfriesland (East Frisia): tranquil and quaint

 

Where is Ostfriesland?

 

Ostfriesland makes up the northwest corner of Germany, in the state of Lower Saxony. To the north lies the North Sea, and to the west a harbor separates it from The Netherlands. The land across the harbor is called – you guessed it – West Friesland. There also exists a North Friesland bordering Denmark.

For a scenic tour, we started at our base in Aurich, traveled to the port town of Emden to see the spectacle of thousands of fresh VW autos being loaded onto huge container ships, then circled north along the “siel” villages – villages which developed because of their “siels,” or doors in the North Sea dyke – until Norden, before returning home:

Greetsiel siel

The siel of the village of Greetsiel

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Getting to know Ostfriesland

 

Imagine an area that looks like a mixture of Holland and Cape Cod, and you’ll start to get a picture of the region. It’s very flat, with a maze of canals and a multitude of windmills. The beaches, found on the barrier islands, are long and white and backed by dunes.

 

Greetsiel double windmills

Windmills and canals in Greetsiel, Ostfriesland

 

Wangerooge

Beautiful beaches of the Ostfriesische Inseln (East Frisian Islands): Wangerooge (Photo credit: hom26)

 

Ostfriesland remained an independent area of farmers and fishermen until it was absorbed (peacefully) by Prussia in 1744; the culture is a mix of German, Dutch and English (I’ll tell you about their tea culture later in this post). Fish – especially marinated varieties – forms a large part of the diet, and most other dishes are similarly simple and clean. A typical breakfast might be a cup of tea and a slice of dense shwartzbrot (black bread) with butter, cheese, or cold cuts.

Red brick sets the buildings apart from the traditional half-timbered style in other parts of Germany. Brick has better longevity in floods, and the strong tidal shifts of the North Sea, which ebb and flow every six hours, and the flat land (often below sea level), make the region prone to flooding (and the residents prone to amazing feats of survival).

 

Rysum

 

Series of tall dykes have been constructed to beat back the North Sea from the claimed land. As you drive through the villages, you’ll notice that all churches are built on high mounds; they served as a refuge for villagers during the worst floods.

 

Rysum church

Typical red brick church in Rysum, built on an artificial hill created to survive the North Sea floods

 

Modern industry has now replaced farming and fishing. There’s the large Volkswagen plant, shipping and ship-building … and wind technology. Yes, windmills are still in the blood, but now they take the form of ultra-modern, high efficiency wind turbines, with the principal manufacturer exporting to over 30 countries. (Alas, due to an unfortunate corporate espionage incident, the U.S. is not one of them.)

 

Enercon wind turbine Germany

Notice the door in the dark green band at the bottom of the windmill? That will give you some context of size. Several in the area even have observation decks for those unafraid of heights.

 

Island vibe: The Ostfriesische Inselns

 

Without a doubt, the Ostfriesische Inseln, or Frisian Islands, are the region’s principal tourist attraction, and in the summer months tourists greatly outnumber the locals … but then there are few locals to begin with.

They are a slow travel haven, accessible only by ferry (or wattwandern – more about that below, too). Most are motor-free, some uninhabited, and one is a bird sanctuary. The inhabited Borkum, Juist, Norderney, Baltrum, Langeoog, Spiekeroog, and Wangerooge are known for a slow pace, recreational sports like cycling or windsurfing, spa hotels and wellness centers, and, of course, the beaches.

 

Historical palisade for protection

Baltrum Island (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The iconic symbol of the islands is the striped Strankörbe, or beach chairs, though the direct translation is closer to “beach baskets.” Each is numbered, and upon selecting one you must locate the person sitting in a little hut like this …

 

:Beschreibung: DLRG-Rettungsschwimmer auf der ...

Strankörbe renter on Borkum Island. Photo credit: Lorenz Teschner via Wikipedia

 

… before taking your place among the others in strankörbe like these:

 

Borkum Strand

Borkum Beach (Strand) Photo credit: froutes

 

They are so well known that at a recent travel trade show, the region provided strankörbe for weary show-goers:

 

strankörbe

Strankörbe for the weary

 

A UNESCO-listed ecosystem

 

“The site is one of the last remaining natural, large-scale, intertidal ecosystems where natural processes continue to function largely undisturbed.”

 

So reads the UNESCO World Heritage webpage which describes the tidal mudflats called the Wattenmeer (VATTEN-mayhr), which lie in between the coast and barrier islands. The area is abundantly rich in biodiversity and is one of the most important places for migratory birds in the world. At low tide, you can literally walk to the islands.

Looking for a new sport? Why not try Wattwandern, or mudflat hiking? (Look it up if you don’t believe me!)

 

sunset 5

A spot of tea?

 

An article on Ostfriesland would be incomplete without referencing the strong tea culture, unusual in a land of coffee drinkers. This is perhaps the most English of the cultural overlaps. Tea is taken several times daily, following a specific ritual:

  1. Using specific china (there are just a few traditional patterns), steep the local black tea leaves.
  2. When the tea is ready, place a lump of rock sugar candy into your cup, and pour the tea on top, listening to the crackling sound. (In winter, you might want to use brown rock sugar, which has been dried with rum.)
  3. Fill the cup half or two-thirds full, in order to keep the cup sweet (the same rock sugar lump might last for two or even three cups).
  4. Using the small spoon provided, add a dollop of heavy cream and watch it hit the bottom of the teacup and then rise to the surface. Ideally, the resulting design will look like a rose.
  5. Repeat. There’s a saying in Ostfriesland that three cups of tea is the right of every Frieslander.

tea ceremony

Kindergarten

 

Back in the kindergarten, the children – each seemingly fairer and bluer-eyed than the next – were excited by the change in routine. German kindergartens are normally quite structured: In the entryway are twenty cubby areas with name, artwork, coat and gloves, plus special rain boots and workman-style impermeable overalls for playing outside; in the restroom, twenty named cups align on a ledge, each featuring a diminutive toothbrush.

My friend had brought a globe in order to show everyone where Amerika lies in relation to Deutschland. After marveling at the pretty shapes and colors and getting sidetracked with penguins in the South Pole and “ice bears” in the North Pole, we got down to business. They were free to ask any questions they wanted about life in the United States.

“Do you have a TV?” asked one.

“Do you like dinosaurs?” asked another.

And then it was playtime, and the children spilled outside in their dirt-proof clothing to enjoy the sunny, early-spring Ostfriesland day.

 

*Looking for more undiscovered European gems? Take a look at Italy’s Golfo di Orosei*

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Comments

  1. Isn’t it interesting how windmills (the older, more picturesque ones) differ in looks (i.e., those on Santorini as compared to those in Germany)? Wonder if this comparison would make for a good story, not only between these two locations but also between other countries? A “History of Windmills” might make a good “coffee table” book. Oh, well, it’s probably already been done!

  2. I’m absolutely charmed by this whole area. Who knew? It’s Germany’s well kept secret. The buildings and canals are beautiful. I loved the story about the tea and the children in the kindergarten class were adorable. What a memorable trip you must have had.

  3. This is a fabulous post! Since moving to the Netherlands, I’ve been fascinated by the shared history and language of the Dutch, English and German cultures. I’m hoping to venture past Groningen one day to experience the islands off the coast and maybe do some hiking on the mudflats 😉
    The tea ritual is fascinating (and sounds sweet and delicious. I’d love to try the winter rum option!) I never imagined there was any part of Germany that favored tea over coffee (In Venlo, NL we get a lot of German tourist traffic for the inexpensive coffee sold in bulk). I’m intrigued by the saying that 3 cups of tea is every Frieslanders right. I can live with that!! Reminds me of the novel ‘Three Cups of Tea’. Tea rituals are an important part of various cultures, it seems.

  4. Kate McIlvaine says:

    It is beautiful! I’m intrigued… wonder if we can fit it in before we move back to the States in July.

  5. Wendy – I like it! Maybe we’ll have to make windmill spotting one of the themes when we transition to Asia. Hmmm

  6. Kristen – Now I’m left wondering why I didn’t search out some of that rum sugar before I left! Though I did get the sweetest coffee mug. The top of the rim says “Flut” and the bottom says “Ebbe,” referring to the ebb and flow of the tides … and beverages 🙂

  7. Gayla – Thanks so much for the kind words! I was so happy to stumble upon such a special area, because I knew everyone would be intrigued.

    I’ve always been more of a coffee person myself, but this might change things. Cute tea sets AND heavy cream AND rumsugar? What’s not to like?

  8. Hi Kate – Are you narrowing down your list? We’ve got exactly two months left in Europe, today, and I still keep telling myself I’ll fit in a trip to Slovenia, the Istrian Peninsula, Riga, Bordeaux, Corsica…. A girl can always hope, right?

  9. Wow, what a gem! This post is so interesting. There’s so much information in it. It makes me want to do more research about the history of the area and the corporate espionage involving the windmills. I never knew anything about this region. But, it looks beautiful and now I want to go there! I could live with having three cups of tea a day as my right! I also love how the kids just wanted to know about tv and dinosaurs. Some things might be different, but there’s more that’s just the same 🙂

  10. Griet Gerdes Atkins says:

    My family is from Ostfriesland and I now live in the Southern US. Having grown up spending my summers there it all seems ‘normal’ to me. But it’s fun to read an outsiders take on things. My parents have brought the tea tradition back home. They have tea just once a day (3 cups, of course) instead of 2-4 times/ day. They also use regular sugar because the rock sugar is so heavy and expensive to ship. But the tea, it comes from Ostfriesland!

  11. Hi Griet, thanks for leaving a comment. I’m sure your parents wouldn’t agree, but I think the rock sugar is the best part of the tea! Too bad they can’t get it now. Fyi, in the States we call rock sugar “rock candy,” so that might help the search. Lucky you for spending summers there!

  12. Sherry McMurtrey says:

    Griet Gerdes Atkins,
    Our US military family just moved to Belgium wand my mothers family is from Ostfriesland and I hope to visit soon. Your Gerdes name is actually part of my ancestors names as well.

  13. My grandfather was born in Bagband, Ostfriesland. I never knew anything about the region, but now I want to visit. Thanks! Great post!

  14. My maternal grandmother came from Ostfriesland, Germany when she was a year old. She has been gone for many years now. Her maiden name was Renken. I don’t know what part of Ostfriesland she was from. Her family came to America. She married and had 9 children. I remember as a child, her telling me how she learned to walk on the sailboat when they were coming to America. I was 16 when she passed away and now am 58. I still remember her telling me how they packed up and came to America. All of her children have passed on except 1 and she is in her 90s now too. It was interesting reading about the places on this sight. And when you mention tea and having sugar in it, maybe that is the reason she always had tea with us grandkids and we all had to have sugar in it.

  15. Dieter A. Pollmann says:

    Karisa Brunken Rowland,
    I offer my help in this matter.
    Neuemoor, parish Bagband is my birthplace.
    Greetings, Dieter

  16. Dean Frerichs says:

    Thank you for the information. I am researching my husband’s ancestors from Ostfriesland (including some in Bagband). I have been puzzling about how the emigrants from Strackholt got to Bremen in 1853? Any help would be appreciated! Thanks, Linda Frerichs

  17. Hi Linda, I’m hoping someone in this thread can help you answer that question. Good luck with your research!

  18. Hi. I am working on my family genealogy and was wondering if anyone can translate the following from German to English, specifically the “gnt. von Hafen” part. Is it “from the port”?

    Johann Albert Lübben gnt. von Häfen

    Thanks in advance.
    R. Martin

  19. Local Tea in Europe? Tea is imported into almost all European countries, perhaps if you were in Portugal maybe.

  20. Vivienne says:

    Tea is not grown in Europe as far as I know so how is this tea from Ostfriesland?

  21. Hi Vivienne, I believe it’s about the blend, not the provenance, like English breakfast tea or French morning tea.

  22. Vivienne says:

    Now I get it

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