Three is the charm

As fall is approaching in Germany, I wanted to make the best out of the probably last sunny and golden days this year and go out hiking the area a bit. First of all, because of efficiency and less logistical hassle, I wanted to stay in the area. So starting right at the doorstep of my parents house and also finishing here would have to be the cornerstones. The woods and low mountains in Thuringia are somewhat my hood and as over the run of the summer I explored the area quite a bit by various hikes, I came up with a different idea. This time I wanted to avoid the Rennsteig, that is the popular long distance trail that runs the length of the Thuringian Forest and that I hiked/cycled/ran quite a bit during the last months. So, a new challenge was very much needed: I came up with an individual route through the area that would last three days, combine three major water reservoirs, would cross the ridgeline three times and would make me hike over 30 kilometres ever day. 

This turned out to be an excellent multi-day-hike. It was fun to eventually combine the Schmalwassertalsperre, Ohratalspere and Lütschetalsperre (all water reservoirs) in one hike. As I crossed the ridge, it brought me not only to the highest peaks of the area, but also to areas where I barely been to before. Having grown up on the north side of the Thuringian Forest (low mountain range in central Germany), we almost never made it to the south side. Germany once has been subdivided into many tiny, little „Nationalstaaten“ (nation states), there weren’t and surprisingly still aren’t many close bonds between people lived and living in different valleys and different sides of the mountain range. Therefore, even though it is only about 12 to 15 kilometres as the crow flies, I very rarely hiked those trails on the other side of the mountains. However, I was even more amazed to eventually scout the southern side of the area and to enjoy the views over the landscape that is more hilly than the landscape to the north. After three days I arrived back happily, a little sore though, but with another 105 kilometres in the books. 

It was so much fun to explore the area on trails less hiked and nice to have a lot of solitude. I even spotted a huge stag that was crossing over right in front of me. It is always worth to leave the beaten path, to expand your view, push your limits, do things your style and – most important – do things that do you good. 

Green Belt / Iron Curtain Trail – II

A next section of the German Green Belt/Iron Curtain Trail I hiked together with my mom: 4 days along the former German-German border in the valley of the river Werra. This region is known for salt mining, therefore huge salt mine dumps characterise the landscape („Monte Kali“). They are almost iconic for the area – but with them come that the river Werra is among the most polluted water bodies in Germany. Factories dump their sewage and the salt from the dumps is washed into it. Only very less species adapt to that harsh environment. Even though the water is shallow, you cannot see the ground, also in parts it smells disgusting. Wouldn’t want to dip my toe in it. However, it’s popular among people for kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddling.

While hiking, mom mentioned, that it is astonishing, that there are no signs of the anniversary. I asked her, which anniversary she speaks of. She laughed and said, how I could forget about that it is 30 years ago this year, that Germany got reunited. I realised, even though I have been hiking along the former iron curtain for quite a bit already, that I absolutely forgot about that. All and everything these days is overshadowed by the corona pandemic. We should celebrate that the wall came down and memorise the sacrifices (even the ultimate) and the hardship a society went through on the way to freedom and democracy. Instead, this year, in the summer of 2020, most of the borders worldwide are closed to prevent the spread of a virus, and leaders who are not even worth to mention their names, talk about putting up walls to segregate people. We’ve come far. 

Anyways, hiking that trail continues being a journey into history and it continues being an adventure. The trail is overgrown in parts, so you have to navigate quite a bit. But I absolutely enjoy the solitude (no other hikers on the section I hiked together with mom) and to witness how nature recaptures what people once took. 

Green Belt / Iron Curtain Trail – I

After having finished the German section of the Eisenach-Budapest trail, I wasn’t quite ready to put my hiking shoes away. So I headed out and started another hiking project: As many borders are still closed these days, I eventually took the opportunity to start hiking the German section of the Iron Curtain Trail/Green Belt Trail („Grünes Band“). I am excited about that because of two reasons: first, it is a 1400 km long trail (so, yeah, hike it!) and second, it is historically and culturally very meaningful. I was born in the former eastern part of Germany and although I am very far from being nostalgic about life in the GDR, it is a part of my identity, which I cannot, don’t want to and shouldn’t deny. When the wall came down and somewhat ever since, having grown up in the GDR is almost seen as synonymous with having grown up in the „wrong system“. 

But it is where I was born, where I grew up, where my family grew up. I didn’t eat western cereals for breakfast, I didn’t watch the children’s TV shows well-known in the west; we had different childhood heroes, dishes we loved and loathed, and books we talked about. A different collective memory. Later, many members of the 3rd generation of the east (born in the mid 70s – mid 80s), often felt inferior or defeated: we remained silent in small talk situations or conversations with people of the same age who grew up in the west. We lacked of self-esteem and eloquence. There are many experiences and memories we don’t share, but we were expected to adapt to. 

Yes, it’s been a dictatorship, where civil liberties and human rights were violated: people weren’t allowed to travel wherever they pleased, people were spied on, denunciated even by close family members and/or friends, tortured, killed. But things are never just b/w or that easy. 

Fortunately it is history and nowadays the physical border is not just transformed into the German Green Belt, one of the world’s most unusual nature reserves along the former „Death strip“, but also a hiking and cycling path. The Iron Curtain Trail, once finished, will stretch all the way from the Barents Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Hiking that trail is quite an experience: learning more about German history in detail, keep the memory of that time alive and take it as a constant reminder that peace, freedom and civil liberties are nothing to take for granted. Also creating new (hiking) memories and re-connect myself with that part of also my personal history. 

Eisenach – Budapest (Sächsische Schweiz)

The last section of the Eisenach-Budapest long distance trail in Germany runs through the very popular „Sächsische Schweiz“ (Saxon Switzerland). This area, that is part of the Elbsandsteingebirge (Elbe Sandstone Mountains) is a hilly hiking and climbing area and also a national park around the valley of the river Elbe, south-east of Dresden, and bordering the Czech Republic. 

To be honest, I was quite torn apart between liking and loathing it. On the one hand, I was looking forward to some spectacular nature and landscape, but on the other hand I expected crowds of people. The Sächsische Schweiz is already a popular tourist spot, however, even more during this corona summer of 2020. Having hiked in solitude for a mere amount of time in the Ore Mountains, I was afraid that I wouldn’t like hiking in the Sächsische Schweiz. As an already not-so-good start, it was impossible to arrange accommodation for one night and I was even snapped on by some inn-keepers because they are stressed out these days out of excessive demand. Without accommodation (and as it is a national park, camping is definitely not allowed) I wouldn’t be able to hike the remaining kilometres of the EB-trail. Therefore I had to improvise a bit and put together a new route. But that last bit I didn’t hike alone! A former colleague and good friend joined me and together we tackled 30 kms and about 1450 m/4785 ft of climbing. That last day was by far the most exhausting one as it was very hot, in many parts exposed to the sun and there was a lot of straight up climbing. 

When I arrived in that area the day before I met up with my friend, I was overwhelmed by cars, tourists, the noise. I actually wanted to leave ASAP as I was purely horrified. But, the next day, after we left most of the day-trippers behind, we surprisingly enjoyed a lot of solitude. 

The landscape is terrific: in the valley of the river Elbe you find table mountains, varied sandstone formations, dome-shaped mountains, eroded long ridges and fascinating rock pinnacles. Many artists were inspired by the beauty of this area. The most famous might be German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, who got inspired here to paint his „Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer“ (Wanderer above the Sea of Fog). 

Even though I technically didn’t hike the exact routing of the EB in the Sächsische Schweiz, my whole hike came to a wonderful end when we reached the river Elbe right before sunset. In order to get to the tiny town of Schmilka on the opposite side of the river, we had to take a passenger ferry to cross. In Schmilka, where I met „my“ trail again, we celebrated my finish with some good drinks overlooking the river and the scenic valley. The town is right at the border and the trail continues into the Czech Republic from here, but I said good-bye for now. 

Oh I had so different plans for the summer! I am not gonna hide, that spending the summer in Germany is not an alternative, but an unintentional compromise. However, it was quite a hike! The past 4 weeks have been everything from fun to misery, cold and rainy to hot and dry, I enjoyed hiking on spongy forest floors but also tortured my feet on asphalt roads. I got to talk to the locals, saw the change of scenery, learned a bit about history and the specifics of the region. 

Even though I enjoyed solitude most of the time (but, yeah, sometimes it was just plain boring to hike all by myself. Oh-so-happy that podcasts exist!), I had the best of times when hiking together with friends! Catching up, talking, laughing, but also being silent together on trail is a precious gift to be grateful for. 

My hike on the Eisenach-Budapest trail is over for now. The end of one thing is always also the start of something new. 

Eisenach – Budapest (Erzgebirge/Ore Mountains)

In the meantime I finished the German section of the Eisenach-Budapest long distance trail. After 720 km and 26 days on trail, it is time to look back a little. 

After two weeks of hiking together with a good friend, I continued on my own and finally headed to the Erzgebirge/Ore Mountains. That’s a mountain range that runs along the Czech-German border in east Germany. The highest peak on the German side is the Fichtelberg with 1215 m/4009 ft, but unfortunately the trail doesn’t pass over it. 

The Erzgebirge is very well known for its mining history that can be dated back to 2500 BC.  But when new rich ore deposits were discovered in the 15th century, a massive wave of colonisation started. Also silver was found and mined later. 

The area is rich in interesting mining history, that – of course – had and still has a huge influence on the culture of the region. For example, „Glück auf!“ is still a very common greeting and has its roots in a traditional German miners’ greeting. It derives from the hope for opening a new lode, but also it expresses the desire that miners would return safely from the mine after their hard shift. After WWII, the processing of uranium ore for the Soviet Union began in the Ore Mountains until the wall came down. Nowadays, you can learn on several short educational trails about the varied mining history and it is even possible to visit show mines. 

But not only mining, the area is also home to the manufacture of wooden products and toys. Especially the area around the little town of Seiffen is well-known for handcrafted traditional Christmas decoration such as smoking figures, nutcrackers, candle arches and Christmas pyramids. 

Ever since commercial mining and metallurgy started, the need for wood increased. Widespread clearings of the original forest are still visible, however, also fumes from heavy industry, both, on the Czech and also in the former side of the GDR, led to dying forests. Therefore, in the last two decades, mixed forests were cultivated that are step by step replace the common spruce monocultures. 

It was very interesting to learn all that and experience the Erzgebirge on the slow pace of hiking. I enjoyed quite much to roam those dark forests in a lot of solitude. You don’t get to meet a lot of other hikers (well, in these two weeks I hiked there: 6), although a wide network of trails pervades the mountains. The trails are more or less well-marked, well-maintained. But, the downside of less-travelled long distance trails in Germany is, that they include quite a bit of road walking. When the trail was established in the 1970s as a trail that connects the back then so-called „sozialistische Bruderländer“ (socialist brother countries/states) of the GDR, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, most of the now concrete roads were mere back country gravel roads. A lot has changed since then, but not the routing of the trail. 

It’s probably more crowded in winter as the area is a popular winter sports place, but I expected way more people as this corona-summer led most Germans to spend their vacation in Germany. So, a hidden gem for vivid hikers with quite some opportunities to look left and right the trail and explore an area of Germany, that doesn’t get too many (summer) tourists yet. 

Eisenach – Budapest (Thuringia)

Today I am 19 days into hiking the about 790 km long German section of the Eisenach-Budapest long distance trail and at the moment I am somewhere in the Erzgebirge-mountains in Saxony. Yesterday morning, when I came across a sign pointing west towards Eisenach and east towards Budapest, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I remember that I very vividly told my boyfriend that Germany lacks of serious long distance trails and that a 100km-trail is already considered as quite a long distance for Central European means. Oh dear (sorry honey, I really should have known better!), I was so wrong! First of all yes, there are many 100-something-km trails that can be done in a week or ten days. But, way lesser known and also way lesser hiked are a bunch of trails that actually form a huge network of long distance trails in Europe. You could, for example, easily hike from the Atlantic coast in Spain to the coast of the Black Sea in Bulgaria. Well, easily … these lesser known long trails have their own unique challenges: from time to time marching along endless concrete roads in the hot July-sun, non-existing trail markers in some areas. And, not necessarily a downside, a whole lot of solitude! Haven’t met a single hiker since left the famous Rennsteig (it shares the trail with the EB). By the way, after having had a splendid two weeks on the first part of the trail with a very good friend, I am back to hiking alone since last Sunday. 

So, what else? Watching and experiencing eastern Germany on slow pace, getting to know the locals and their different dialects, witnessing the change of architecture in the different areas I am coming through. Seeing run-down villages, but also blossoming ones, got to know awesome people (who invited us for a “Bratwurst”), but also unfriendly and grumpy innkeepers. Also, an unexpected catch up with a good friend, I spotted a wild boar mama and her piglets, a lot of run over mice/frogs/snakes on those concrete roads, zigzagging on a trail along the German-Czech border. That’s the summer of 2020. Definitely not what I had in mind for this year, but so far it’s not too bad. 

Eisenach – Budapest – preparations

Exams are over, all necessary paperwork is done … so basically the semester is over. The pandemic has thwarted all plans and put a lot in my life on hold. But, instead of complaining and in order to stay sane and happy, I decided to go out hiking. Hiking and nature heals and brings more light into those dark pandemic days. A hiking friend of mine always emphasizes that movement is medicine … and I cannot agree more. 

I am very miserable that I cannot hike with my boyfriend this summer and that love is not seen as essential travel. We indeed had other plans but corona forced us to postpone. But, fortunately I can always take along my favourite person in my heart.

On the other hand, though, I am happy to be able to spend some time on a trail with a good friend, who I haven’t met for more than three years. Looking forward to catch up and make some memories with her. 

So, on Sunday I will start hiking a stretch of the Eisenach-Budapest trail. That’s a recognised European long distance trail that follows ridges in Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, before it eventually terminates in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. All in all its about 2700 km long. But no, I am not going to hike the entire length, the German part of it will have to do. I am amazed and I am curious how hiking long distances in Germany and especially this year, will feel.

Rennsteig

As the corona-crisis forces the world to be on hold and stay at home, I try (hard) to make the best of it. So I decided to go back hiking where my passion for that actually started: the Rennsteig. This is a ridge walk as well as a historical boundary path in the Thuringian Forest and Franconian Forest in Central Germany. That trail runs for about 170 km from Hörschel (close to Eisenach) all the way to Blankenstein. On its way it’s mostly at heights of 500 to 970 m and it also crosses Thuringias highest mountain, Großer Beerberg, at 982 m. The trail itself has a long history and was mentioned the first time back in 1330, however, as a hiking trail it was described and mapped first in 1832. 

As I grew up in a village in the vicinity of the Rennsteig, I hiked and biked it a couple of times on its entire length as well as on day hikes and sections. I also ran sections of it in the well-known trail running event „GutsMuths-Rennsteiglauf“. Recently, as I am stranded with my parents in Germany, I am out there quite a bit, as it helps me to stay sane during those darker days in the pandemic. So, you can say that I know that trail quite a bit. 

After some stressful months I decided to challenge myself and hike the roundabout 170 km of the Rennsteig within 4 days. I needed to get away from everything and get rid of frustration and all the uncertainty. 

Wild camping is not allowed in Germany, but along the Rennsteig you can find small shelters every 5 to 10 kms, so I packed my sleeping bag and mat and also, just in case, my tent. With that and with enough food for a mere 5 days I set out to hike it from the end to the beginning, against the traditional direction. Corona apparently inspired many people to hike because I met about 50 hikers and cyclist on the very first day. Most of them were friendly, but worlds apart from being as talkative as I know other hikers. In Germany people have a very different hiking approach and attitude.

And something else I realised: The Rennsteig is very much male dominated. It’s not only that all the displays along the way praise men for what they did for the trail in former times, but also the majority of hikers are men. Sometimes I met hiking couples, but the frequently asked question by women basically was whether I am scared to hike out here all by myself. I got that slight underlying feeling that hiking in Germany is seen as a mens world and women only come along. 

So, confessedly, it was almost fun for me to crush peoples perception of hiking women by sharing my way of hiking: Wearing trail runners instead of heavy hiking boots, hiking more than 40 kms a day, with a backpack smaller than most of the ones of hikers I met, but with which I am independent from any infrastructure, and, last but not least – hiking all by myself. But still, sexism and low respect towards us hiking women exist. I met a group of male hikers under a roof in the rain, that, after I asked them whether they please could remove their packs from the bench so that I could have a seat, laughed and pointed to a seat on the bench not covered from the rain. I remained silent, pushed away a pack, took a seat (under the roof, of course) and instead listened to their showing-off and pretentious talks. After quite some time they started asking me about my where from’s-where to’s and suddenly they started to treat me with respect. Or, a bunch of elderly guys watching me stretching my feet and asking me – without having had a conversation with me before – whether my ‚little feet are aching‘. 

But I also had super nice meet-ups: Stefanie spontaneously met me on trail and brought cake and bread, the next evening my mom and my aunt accompanied me for a couple of kilometres and they brought chocolate and even a small bottle of sparking wine.  

As the trail runs along the ridges of the Thuringian Forest, you mostly walk through spruce forests. But that is not the primary forest of the area. Basically most of the major forests in Germany are a mono culture of spruce, fir or pine plantations. Forests therefore are mainly for forestry and only secondly for recreation. You can see that when formerly narrow rugged hiking trails disappear and make room for wide forestry roads or even tarmac roads.  With all my hiking I did the last couple of years in areas with unspoiled nature, my perspective on middle European forests changed and I have to admit that I am not enjoying it not that much anymore. I rather started to see the realities of forestry, the results of climate change and a not respectful treatment of our forests. Dying trees are a result of droughts and bark beetle infestation, that in turn are a consequence of climate change. Also, heavy machinery for harvesting wood are compressing the soil, destroy the ground and existing hiking trails. Even sign posts were just plowed over. The more people are out in nature, the more used tissues and garbage I spot alongside the Rennsteig. As well as leave-no-trace-principles need more attention, people also need to raise their awareness that electrical MTBs don’t belong on a hiking trail, especially if there is a tarmac cycling path running parallel to the Rennsteg. I’d really wish for a more sustainable and more respectful contact between people, forestry and nature. 

But certainly all in all I can highly recommend hiking the Rennsteig. It is easy to access by train and busses; as you come through many villages along the way it is easy to resupply in supermarkets or even to enjoy a traditional Thuringian dish of dumplings, roast and red cabbage. Also, every 20 kms or so you can find a so-called ‚Rennsteighaus‘, that is a service facility where hikers can shower, use the toilet and fill up their water bottles. Unfortunately, though, only one remains open during the pandemic. Overnight you could stay in shelters or in one of many guesthouses and hotels along the way that are open and wait for guests. Fun fact: you definitely have to try hard to get lost as the Rennsteig is very well marked with a white R, that is referred to as „Mareile“. The Rennsteig is indeed a trail that brings you to the heights of the Thuringian Forest, challenges you with quite a bit of uphill and downhill, boasts nice views over the countryside, leads through little towns and villages with typical slate facades of the area and also offers insight into the cultural and history of the area. 

Shenandoah National Park

Roadtripping and hiking is a combination I really like. 

Life in times of the epidemic, part II: In times when having to practice physical distancing, being away from your loved one, having to spend a lot of time inside (I am with my parents in Germany at the moment) it is a good opportunity to catch up on writing some stuff and sharing stories. 

Let me take a look back to earlier in the year …

The more often I go, the more I like the Appalachians. 

I am not gonna hide: I love wild, rough, spectacular, remote mountains. Mountains, where you loose yourself, challenge yourself and where every step offers new views, … epic views. 

However, the Appalachians Mountains are not quite like that. 

They’re relatively close to the densely populated areas on the US-east coast and therefore easy to access. So, remoteness – not that much. Rough, also not that much – not that rugged and high and rocky as, let’s say the Northern Cascades in WA or the European Alps. Views, ehm, if you’d go in spring and summer you won’t see much but a green tunnel. 

But, however, a different beauty can be found in the endless foothills and ranges of the Appalachian Mountains that stretch out from northern Alabama all the way up to Maine and further into Canada. But not just the mountains, also the whole area is an interesting one. Far from the bustling and well-known east or west coast urban centres, another shade of the country could be found: especially in the south amazing hospitality, down-to-earth food, an interesting history. But also a lot of guns and conservatism. 

A trip along the Appalachians is always worth it, always surprising, always adding new perspectives.  

One of my favourite stretches is the Shenandoah National Park in the state of Virginia, about a 2-hours-drive south west of Washington D.C. This park offers rolling hills, picturesque creeks and – if you’re lucky – a bit of wildlife to spot. The Appalachians there are not stunningly high: the highest peak is Hawksbill Mountain at 4,051 feet (1235 m). But once you’re off Skyline Drive (a scenic road that runs the entire length of the park) and once you leave the Visitor Centers behind you, you’ll dive into that typical eastern Mid-Atlantic woodland with commonly found plants such as oak, hickory, chestnut, maple, tulip poplar, mountain laurel, milkweed, daisies, and many species of ferns. Once there was the predominant American chestnut tree, that was effectively brought to extinction by a fungus known as the chestnut blight during the 1930s. John and I learned on our hike on the Benton MacKaye-Trail (though, further south in the Appalachians) that there are re-planting programmes, but apparently the tree dies back before it can actually reproduce. 

Anyway, one of the most iconic trails, the Appalachian Trail, goes right through the park, also, there are miles and miles of more and other trails. Shenandoah NP is a true hikers paradise and so its not surprising that John and I hiked there a couple of times and added more miles to our trail journals.

I, in particular, like the late winter, early spring time the most: the trails are less populated, the air is crisp and cool, the views are – because of the lack of leaves – undisturbed. The higher up you get, the more likely you’ll come across some frost on the leaves that are covering the ground. Beautiful! But be aware of the wind! Nothing will protect you from the occasional gust. But, as a matter of fact, I really love the rattling and whirring sounds the wind creates when you’re standing on a mountain top in the Appalachians.