What's the first place you think of when you hear the word "summer"? Probably the sea. But what about the watery paradises hidden within the European continent? Lakes and rivers can be a great choice for the summer – and they have been throughout history.

Photo: Friedrich Cain
Lake Constance has been a meeting point for 6000 years

Lake Constance has been a meeting point for 6000 years. It is situated in the region where the borders of Austria, Germany and Switzerland meet. There, the three countries merge into one: namely in the lake itself. On its shores farmers grow wine and countless sorts of fruit. Castles and ruins tower over all those yards and orchards. When the sun comes out the landscape is strewn with coloured spots of hikers and bikers. On those days also the surface of the water is spotted by the white triangles of a thousand sailing boats. Sometimes ferries plough furrows through the milling masses and their wakes make the rower' boats swing.

Lake Constance is one of the first regions where humans settled when they crossed the Alps coming from the South some 6000 years ago. Later the warm climate and the good location meant that the cities on the lake prospered. The outlet of the river Rhine connects the region to France, Benelux and finally the North Sea. The views and the magnificent panorama of the Alps was an inspiration to many artists. One of the visitors was the young Polish writer Czesław Miłosz who set out to cross the lake from East to West with two friends in a canoe in 1931. Alas, they had picked a bad day and nearly capsized in the waves of an oncoming storm. The next day, however, they took on a beautiful journey as they were carried down the Rhine and felt as if they had entered a fairytale, as Miłosz wrote in his memories some 50 years later: "Every bend in the river concealed a secret which, when disclosed, took our breath away. If anywhere, it was here we could have said that we had penetrated into an enchanted land." And indeed, the way he put it back in the 1930's anticipated many sentimental movies shot between the 1950's and 70's.

All the latest extravagances: The River Nysa

700km northeast of Lake Constance, another border is marked by water. However, it is not a lake, but a river. It bears the name Nysa on its eastern shore and Neisse on the western. It separates – and links – the countries of Poland and Germany. That river rises in the Czech Republic and later merges into another one, the Oder. But before it was entrusted with the task of marking borders it was just a small river passing not only the fascinating city of Görlitz – in medieval times one of the largest cities on German territories – but also the estates of the lords of Pückler-Muskau.

One of those, the Prussian officer and globetrotter Count Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, admired the extensive landscape gardens he had seen in 19th century England and dreamt of building one himself. He probably dreamt of a place where he could lean back and enjoy the beauty of nature, of the meadows and the water: a place where he could spend his days off. So he designed a park with all the latest extravagances. He did that so conscientiously that in 2004 the site was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, before it gained that status, the park had been divided for over 40 years when the western and eastern halves were separated and annexed to the GDR on the one hand and Poland one the other. Only a few years ago the whole ensemble was reunited and the bridges crossing the river do not only join both parts of the garden but also the two countries they belong to.

Apart from that the Nysa or Neisse, from wherever you look at it, belongs to the cleanest stretches of water in the region and offers many ways to spend the holidays. It is not known whether Czesław Miłosz set out on another trip on this river but a fact is that nowadays more and more people do. Furthermore there is a cycle route running from the source to the mouth that is also highly frequented by hikers. Campsites and cheap hostels offer great opportunities to explore this not yet crowded waterway.

Photo: Friedrich Cain
Zalew Zakrzówek lake was not such a pleasant venue in the past

A peaceful place: Zalew Zakrzówek

Now, if, looking at a map, you drew an imaginary curve from Lake Constance to Bad Muskau and let the line continue on its way further east, then that line might run through the southern suburbs of the old Polish city of Krakow; and if you found yourself at some point at a tram stop, having ridden for 20 minutes the main railway station, you might climb through one of the holes in the rusty wire-netting fence opposite the street and enter the thorny thickets. Thinning out after some metres they give way to a magnificent view: a steep crater filled with beautifully coloured water is carved into the flat plain that extends southwest of Krakow. Its walls, so awkwardly steep and smooth, are mirrored in the turquoise lake.

On warm summer days, not too many people stroll around here. A group of elderly people might be going for a hike and others will have found a place for a long sunbathe. At some distance a family might be having a barbecue. Birds are singing and a refreshing breath of wind ruffles the water. At some point this pastoral scene will be shaken by a sudden scream followed by a loud splash. Bending over the edge of the crater the curious will see concentric circles on the water, in the middle of which a head will surface with cheerful sounds. 20 metres above the swimmer some boys roar with laughter, and then follow their friend into the water.

This peaceful place named Zalew Zakrzówek did not have its current appearance until some twenty years ago. It was only in 1990 that the valley formed over nearly 150 years by the workers of a local limestone pit was flooded. Traces of those works can still be seen in the characteristically graded structure of the walls that seem so unnatural at first sight. Apart from that, legend offers a different explanation for the rugged structures. According to folklore tales the sorcerer Pan Twardowski ran one of his laboratories between the rocks towering behind the gorge's northern edge. Some day an experiment went terribly wrong and Twardowski blew up the whole spot. As a result of that accident the area is now covered by deeply fissured rocks and rubble. Another less fantastical part of history is also connected with the area. During the Second World War the stone pit was taken over by the German invaders. It was here that a certain Karol Wojtyła had to do forced labour in the quarry for the occupiers. Some 30 years later he was to become pope John Paul II. Down in the lake nowadays a commemorative stone reminds of that episode from his life.

But that stone is just one exciting spot underneath the lake's surface. The underwater world also houses several cars and a sculpture of a dragon. This submarine landscape is not only the habitat of various fish but also a scuba-diving club. Equipped with oxygen cylinders the frogmen explore the lake. It was they who installed the memorial to John Paul II. Due to them it is also possible for other people to enter this world: diving classes with guided tours are frequently offered. And for those who prefer to stay above the surface, the clear waters offer fascinating views down to a depth of 15 metres.

Where east and west merged: Balaton Lake

How could someone tell the points of the compass when standing in the centre of a vast flat expanse of water, assuming they had no compass and no help from celestial bodies? Could they say where the East and West were? It is hardly possible that this issue bothered people from both East and West Germany when they used to spend their vacations together at Lake Balaton, the "Hungarian sea." As one of the places where they regarded each other as kinsmen, and not as political subjects of their home countries, Balaton is considered to have contributed to the "peaceful revolution" after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. There, Germans buried their differences, relishing their mutual culture, and, in the end, living the political irony of the Cold War era – divided by stone and connected by water. Today, the lake is the most popular holiday resort in Hungary, during summer and winter alike. Depending on the season, all sorts of activities are organised on its shores – from sailing and swimming competitions to winter sports which take place on the frozen surface of the lake. Balaton is also an invaluable part of the cultural and natural heritage of Central Europe, a sort of historical landmark. Medieval churches and castles rise above the surface of the lake, with vast vineyards adding up to the picturesque atmosphere which defies time itself.

nothing more sacred than bridges: The River Drina

For centuries, the Drina river has been a place where during summertime people come looking for their place under the sun, but away from the heat. The famous Yugoslav novelist Ivo Andrić wrote that even in the "old days", the inhabitants of the nearby towns enjoyed fishing and strolling near the river and that children spent their entire childhoods playing between its banks. Ever since the nineties, the Drina has been the host of an event called "Drinska regata". For a couple of days, the visitors have a chance to enter a rafting competition, swim in the lake Perućac and enjoy numerous cultural events such as concerts. Being the natural border between Serbia and Bosnia, the Drina is a place where people from all around the region come and have fun, along with huge amounts of barbecue and fish stew. A bit greasy, but you could still call it cultural exchange! As Ivo Andrić wrote in his novel The Bridge on the Drina: "From everything that man erects and builds in his urge for living, nothing is in my eyes better and more valuable than bridges. They are more important than houses, more sacred than shrines". If you ask me, the Drina doesn't actually need bridges. It is a bridge in itself.

As you can see, there are many places far from the sea which offer great ways to spend the summer holidays. No matter when and how all those places might be swum, dived or sailed, each offers unique possibilities for "recreation" in all the active and passive senses of the word. Luckily, those who year for water do not have to travel to the sea. With a bit of luck and a hint from a trustworthy resident, some watery paradise will certainly be close – wherever, whenever.

Main article by Friedrich Cain. "Balaton Lake" and "The River Drina" by Aleksandar Savić.

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