Bike excursion adventure vol. 3 – Time traveling from Marienthal to Görlitz

Our master students participated in a bike excursion on July 1st – 6th 2019 as part of the module “Organization and Management Systems”. Along a track of about 220 km by the Neiße river at the border between Germany and Poland, various forests and forest organizations were visited. The blog post series, written by the students, reflect the impression and lessons learned.


In front of the former excavator (©Institute)

With some 30 °C, the final ride to our first overnight stay went along the western river bank of Neisse river, through the cool forest of a deep valley, before bursting out unto the sunny open place of the Marienthal Monastery. Founded in 1234, it is the oldest Catholic nunnery in Germany and has survived and adapted to the tests of time. Various fires and floods have, over centuries, destroyed buildings, but allowed for the construction of new ones such as the still standing Baroque main building. The Monastery remains a Catholic ‘island’ following the Reformation (1517-1648) movement which saw the surrounding region become evangelical. During World War II the monastery served as a military hospital, and with the retreat of the German soldiers, the war tactic of blowing up the abbey was only hindered by the nuns refusing to leave. To counter the land acquisition movement being carried during the East German regime, the abbey formed a forestry association with other land owners. This enabled the nuns to continue their work of running a nursing home for the mentally disabled. Following severe floods, the whole abbey needed to be restored and now offers accommodation for bike riders and visitors- such as ourselves.

From the Marienthal Monastery, we cycled to Görlitz. On the scenic route, we passed by a gigantic excavator that was used for coal mining and had a picnic by the Berzdorfer Lake, which was a former open cast mine. Our first stop in Görlitz was the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History. Walking through the city takes you back hundreds of years ago, and visiting the museum takes you back to even millions of years ago.

Görlitz: a city stopped in time

It was not my (Andrea Vera) first time in this city, but every time I came here, I feel like being in a movie. Görlitz, better known as “Görliwood”, has been the perfect location for many movies. Its beautiful streets reflecting a unique architecture is the perfect scenario for filmmakers. The city was not destroyed (lucky for us!) during the Second World War, and since then it has been used for different films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inglorious Basterds, The Reader, and The Book Thief.

Before the Second World War, Görlitz was within the Province of Silesia. Then, the Neiße river became the border between Germany and Poland. After walking around in Altstadt (Old Town), we crossed the border bridge, where immediately one can see small tobacco shops and Polish liquor stores. It is incredible the difference between Zgorzelec and Görlitz, both stopped in time but with a contrast of order. However, both cities have abandoned buildings and houses left after the German reunification.

Senckenberg Museum: a museum stopped in time, too

Bird collection

Prof. Xylander showing a bird collection (©Huidobro)

Stepping into the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History, everything started with the chance of having a piece of the world in a room. If the objects could talk, how much history could the collection of this museum tell us? About 6.5 million objects store the history of millions of years of life on earth. From a whale bone to leaves of an already extinct tree species. Wolf skulls, the tiniest hummingbirds, Ethiopia’s crocodiles, a butterfly collected in 1702, hundreds of boxes with insects, 20 million years old leaves…

The Senckenberg Museum of Natural History started in 1811 as the Ornithological Society of Görlitz. Since then it has kept growing by receiving pieces from private collectors who wanted to have a piece of the world in their rooms. In 1953, the institution became the State and research museum, and since 1959 it has specialized on soil zoology research. Today it is recognized as one of the most important research institutes dealing with biodiversity and one of the oldest museums in Germany.

We had the great opportunity of being guided by Prof. Willy Xylander, former director of the museum, together with staff members and researchers. Prof. Xylander started his career in the museum studying ants, in one of the soil science leading groups, but his charisma and gifted ability led him to focus on raising funds for the institution. In 1959 he started to work at the museum with other 44 employees, a number that today is of ca. 135. In the city center of Görlitz, the museum counts with six buildings plus two “Depots”, which are planned to be joined together (except the exhibition building) in one big installation that is expected to be ready in a couple of years.

As students from the M.Sc. in Tropical Forestry, visiting the collections of the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History was very impressive. Certainly we were not expecting to see such a variety of organisms and to learn from pretty specific topics, as for example the diversity of nematodes in soil patches with high CO2 content. We could only have a glimpse on the meticulous job that scientists do there, but this gave us the idea of how we could collaborate with such an organization in the future, and of the opportunity we have as scientists to contribute to local museums in our countries. Zoology museums are windows to the past and a valuable resource to try to understand the trends that our ecosystems could follow in the future.

We ended the evening with a stroll around Görlitz and we reached a cozy restaurant at the Polish side (guided by Prof. Pretzsch) with a spectacular view. We shared some refreshing beverages and, as usual, the background was filled with fraternity chats, everyone was sharing and resting after 22 km of cycling and years of time travel.

Polish cafe

View of Görlitz as seen from the Polish restaurant (©Huidobro)

By: Johanne Eckelmann, Andrea Vera, Ana Nicole Acosta and Gabriela Huidobro

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