Showing posts with label Germany. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Germany. Show all posts

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Ticks, antibiotics and a German doctor

Ticks had first appeared on the Eifelsteig - before it had been too cold. But now they have come out with vengeance! One night I took 15 ticks off me, still found another 10 that had bitten me next morning and another 5 in the evening that had survived a long shower and intense body search. Ticks seemed to be everywhere. I shook out my tent in the evening to set it up and 3 ticks landed on my hands. When I lay in my tent at night I could see several ticks crawling up the mesh of my tent. When I put my hand outside my tent first thing in the morning to get my granola there was a tick on it when I took it back. They bit me everywhere and no matter how intense I looked for them I always overlooked some. I became a tick phobic...

After 30 tick bites I had discovered and an unknown number I could not detect I started feeling feverish and had a slight cold - which are the usual symptoms for Lyme Disease. It could have been a cold as well - not surprising if you have to camp in sub-freezing temperatures all the time - but I did not know. But there was no sure way to find out and I did not want to take any risk: I started to take Doxicyclin, antibiotics my doctor had prescribed me for such a case. Treatment with Doxicyclin takes at least 14 days and I felt rather weak already at the start of it. But with each tablet I started to feel worse. I lost almost all appetite (which is a very strange thing for a hiker) and had to force myself to eat. Every spoonful of Granola tasted like concrete.

Diarrhea is a common side effect of this treatment but it got worse and worse every day. First my stomach started to rumble and winds to develop. But on my last hiking day I cooked dinner and could not force myself to eat the pasta. I had to throw away half of the dish. The same happened with my morning granola. With an empty and very fuzzy stomach I arrived in Offenburg, my next resupply stop. I was already hiking in France, but from Saverne in France there is a direct train connection to Offenburg in Germany, where Roland, another internet outdoor friend lives. I had sent a package there with new shoes and maps and of course I wanted to get to know Roland.

Ursula in her lovely apartment
Things seemed to improve, especially when Roland fed me with fresh asparagus that was absolutely delicious. I had a nice, but short stay with Roland, because I wanted to use the opportunity and visit my friend Ursula as well who lives close by. Ursula treated me with a visit to a nice Italian restaurant and I was really hungry. Food was good and I ate with great appetite. But at night things turned into a nightmare: Diarrhea got so bad that it was pure liquid. I just could not hold it any longer - and did not make it to the toilet in time. When I tried to clean myself up I was so disgusted that I started to puke and could not stop that either. This nightmare went on and on until I was completely empty and exhausted. Shakily I cleaned myself and the surroundings up and realised that I could not go on like that. I was pretty sure that the antibiotic treatment was the cause of all this nightmare. Something had to be done.

I woke Ursula up at 2 am and she was as worried about my condition as I. We decided that it would be best to take Immodium now and see a doctor first thing in the morning. I went back to bed and even pondered wearing my rain pants to prevent further "mishaps", but the rest of the night was calm. Probably no big surprise as I was sort of "empty". At 7 am in the morning I called a doctor and luckily the first one agreed to see me almost at once. He came to the same diagnosis: The antibiotic treatment had caused the diarrhea, but if I stopped taking it now I would risk the efficiency of Lyme Disease treatment. He prescribed an alternative antibiotics and Immodium to stop diarrhea.

Ursuala and I
Having entered France by then I had not health insured myself for Germany. Therefore I asked the receptionist if I could pay for the consultation straight away. If they sent me an invoice I would only be able to pay after my return to Germany in September. She said she would ask the doctor about it and returned within 2 minutes saying: "It is ok." First I did not understand and asked what she meant - and could not believe when she said that the consulation was free for me. The doctor did not want money for me in my special "thruhiking" condition. I could not believe my luck and asked whether I could at least leave a tip for the staff. She said that of course I could, but that I should by no means feel obligated. Of course I left a generous tip - and left very positively surprised. I had never expected such a generous behaviour.

The new antibiotics and Immodium seemed to do the trick. Ursula invited me to stay as long as I had recovered and now, after two full rest days with her life looks bright again. No more diarrhea and even some appetite! Tomorrow I will go hiking again.

Still, the whole event has changed a lot. This is already the second time I have serious tick problems while hiking in Germany. Ticks have become of a real problem here and statistically, every 10th tick is infected with Lyme Disease. I wonder whether hiking in Germany (or most of the surrounding Central European countries) is worth the risk. I do not want to take antibiotic treatment every year. This has put a huge damper on my plans to hike through Eastern Europe in the near future where there is the same tick problem.

Germany: Conclusion

My hike through Germany has been ok, but definitely not as nice as a similar walk I have done exactly one year ago. Last year's hike through Germany had been absolutely fabulous and one of the most enjoyable hike I have ever done. Unfortunately this year's hike has been marred by constant cold weather and eventually by ticks. But such is life: Sometimes you are lucky and sometimes you are not.

At least my navigation strategy worked very well. My new Garmin Etrex functioned well, the tracks I had downloaded were mostly accurate and together with my strip maps I did not have any navigational issues, even on the many occasion when I changed the route and took shortcuts or detours. But I still want to mention that more often than expected the gpx tracks from http://www.wanderkompass.de/ were not accurate: Apparently the trails get re-routed every once in a while and whereas the marking on the ground is changed, http://www.wanderkompass.de/ does not update the changes. This was by no means a problem: I was just surprised how often it had happened.

But now some trail journal trivia:

Best trail: Eifelsteig (despite fighter jets and ticks)

Biggest trail surprise: Elisabethpfad (Not quite the best hiking trail with lots of concrete, but lovely little trail towns and inviting churches)

Worst trail: Pfälzer Jakobsweg (Badly marked, lots of road and concrete walking). There is so much really good hiking in the Pfalz that I would not bother with the Jakobsweg - it is just not worth it.

Most crowded trail: Rennsteig

Grossest trail experience: To enter a shelter where someone had taken a crap in the corner and just covered it up with toilet paper.

Scariest trail experience: Sleeping in a shelter in the middle of the forest and people passing 2 meters beside me in a car several times at night - despite frozen and snow covered trails.

Most enlightening event: My meeting with Gerald, the forrester and his crash course in forrestry for beginners. Seriously: His explanations on how a forrester works and how German forest is economically used has changed my hiking experience a lot. I have learnt what all the strange signs on trees mean and what sort of people are working and moving in the forest - and which ones are harmless for stealth camping hikers and which ones are to be afraid of. If you know a forrester, try to get a forrestry lesson yourself - and you will see the forest with new eyes.

Most depressing events: Waking up on Easter Saturday and looking at 10 cm of fresh powder snow, sleeping in subfreezing temperatures on MAY 15th, and ticks, ticks, ticks.... I just hate them!

Most motivating events: Visiting people I had just known from outdoor internet forums who turned out to be real trail angels. After each visit I left refreshed and motivated.

Most desolate trail towns: On the Kammweg Erzgebirge (everything was closed and the places looked like original GDR) and on the Eifelsteig, where 50s and 70s style still rules in architecture.

Nicest trail towns: On the Elisabethpfad (lots of old restored houses, beautiful little churches, sometimes even with refreshments for hikers)

Best food on trail: Knoblauchsrauke, an edible plant that Gerald had pointed out to me

Best food off trail: Eating fresh asparagus at Roland's

Monday, 21 May 2012

From Trier to France

Hiking the Eifelsteig had been a big detour for me and now I wanted to get to France on a relatively direct route. This part of my trip had been the most difficult in the planning stage as I had to piece together little sections of existing trail. I started off in Kordel but decided on the spot not to take the Eifelsteig into Trier (which I had seen the day before) but took a freestyle bike path around Trier. But even on that rather weird route that led me through the industrial suburbs of Trier and evenually over the River Mosel I encountered pilgrims. After a lot of treading concrete I eventually arrived on the Saar Hunsrück Steig - and in cold weather again.

More art on the trail
By now we were in mid May, but the forecast was for freezing and even sub freezing temperatures for a couple of nights in a row. But unfortunately I had thrown away some of my warm clothes already as I had not expected such cold weather in May! But I survived... with all my clothes on shivering in my quilt. But back to the Saar Hunsrueck Steig. I found the part I hiked (which is only about one third) as nice as the Eifelsteig, although the cold temperatures dampened my enthusiasm considerably. The Saar Hunsrueck Steig prides itself that only 5% of its length is on concrete, but in order to avoid the pavement sometimes ridiculous efforts have been made. Very often I was on a slippery narrow up and down trail that took forever - with a quiet country road parallel 20 meters nearby. Still, the Saar Hunsrueck Steig was a nice trail and I might once hike it in its entirety.

Next was the Saarlandrunde, a trail that had been very difficult to research. It seemed to me that it had once been popular and then fallen into oblivion because there was not much about it on the internet. But to my big surprise it was rather well marked on the ground! Still a lot of it was on pavement and a bike trail and was not the nicest trail I have ever hiked. On the Saarlandrunde I made one of the worst slips of mind: Thursday, May 17th is Ascension Day or Fathers' Day in Germany and a holiday. This being Germany it means that all the shops are closed. I knew about the holiday - but somehow I still made plans to do my last shopping in Germany on that Thursday at a Lidl. Wednesday evening at 6 pm I thought about all my friends spending their workfree day somewhere - when it suddenly dawned on me that Lidl would definitely be closed as well. And I had only half a day of food left... Oh my God - this is a hiker catastrophe. Most shops in Germany close at 6 pm, some stay open till 8 pm. There was on other shop along my planned route and thanks to my new smartphone I googled its phone number and made an emergency call. Good news: The shop was open till 8 pm. Bad news: It was still 8 km and already 6  pm. I nearly flew down the trail and arrived sweating and with aching feet, but still in time to do the shopping for 5 days.

Next day was Fathers' Day and that means that half of the male German population is getting drunk somewhere out in the woods. They always do that in groups and have a handcart with them to carry all the beer. So the quiet and peaceful German forest was full of rowdy drunk Germans today - and I met plenty. Luckily nobody disturbed my sleep, but I had chosen a very hidden campsite fearing interruptions from drunk men.

Next were two days on another pilgrimage trail or camino, this one through the German Pfalz. It has been the worst trail so far. Very badly marked, a lot of pavement, not much to see - one big disappointment. There is so much nice hiking in the Pfalz that I do not understand how anyone would bother hiking this trail, but I saw plenty of people doing it. Pilgrimages are fashionable... The only interesting sight along this trail was the former monastery of Hornbach, now converted into a luxury hotel and featuring a "Historama". For 3,50 EUR  I was allowed to watch a bad movie about the history of the monastery and could then play with many interactive computer games about the building and town. A big rip-off if you ask me. But at least I could recharge my cell phone and use the luxury hotel's toilet that were luxury indeed. The handicapped toilet even featured real towel and I could not resist the temptation to wash my hair. I left much cleaner than I had arrived.

The last stretch was a freestyle route across the Pfaelzer Wald and I must say I was impressed. The Pfaelzer Wald must be one of the biggest forest in Germany and I hindsight I regret that I was just skirting it. The rock formations at the German-French border were incredibly impressive and even reminded me of Utah! I could not stop taking pictures... and because it was all so scenic there were a lot of day hikers around. More people than I had seen in a long time. The bad news though was that with the forest also hills appeared, lots of hills that quickly wore me out. But then finally on May 19th I arrived at the border crossing between Germany and France. There is not much to see of a border crossing, only old markstones indicate it. But for me it meant that after about 1,500 km I would finally leave my home country and start a new big chapter on my hike: France!

Trier

Modern statue of Holy Rock
The Eifelsteig ends in Trier and that was to be my next rest day as well. But unfortunately, I had not taken into consideration the "Heilig Rock". Now what is the "Heilig Rock"? Quite frankly, I did not know either. I had seen posters announcing the "Heilig Rock" before but I had not paid much attention. "Heilig" means "holy" in German und "Rock" can either be a skirt, an old fashioned word for garment or refer to rock music. As the posters had all been very modern and stylish I had assumed that it is as Christian Rock music festival - but I could not have been more wrong. Heilig Rock is the supposed garment of Jesus Christ that has been kept in Trier cathedral since the 16th century. It is always there but it is very rarely shown. This only happens every couple of decades and is then declared a pilgrimage. The last Heilig Rock years have been 1933, 1953, 1996 and now 2012. The garment is only shown for one month - and I happened to arrive in Trier on the second last day before it would be locked away again for the next decades.

I did not know about all this when I started my first accommodation inquiries. First I tried couchsurfing, but nobody was available. I really can't understand why I have been successfully couchsurfing all around the world but I never ever find a couchsurfing host in Germany. Next I tried hostels, but they were all fully booked. Then someone mentioned Heilig Rock and what it really means and it dawned on me that my peaceful rest day in Trier might be more complicated than I had anticipated.

Trier cathedral
But for once luck was on my side. The last stage of the Eifelsteig starts in a little town called Kordel which has a direct and frequent train connection to Trier. I started calling B&B places but of course they were all fully booked. One lady said I should try her neighbor and there I got lucky: I scored a whole holiday aparment for 18 EUR per day!!!! The place even had a TV and when I arrived there Friday afternoon I just took a long shower, picked 15 ticks off me, washed my clothes, went to the only restaurant in town and then collapsed in front of the TV. When hiking your standards are so low that a TV is a great event!

Next day I took a day trip to Trier and encountered one of the nicest trail towns. Already at the station there were various counters with Heilig Rock volunteers helping the pilgrims. Almost everyone in Trier seemed to be either a volunteer or a pilgrim by the way. The town was absolutely packed and I was given the advice that the best time to view the Heilig Rock would be late afternoon. Otherwise I would have to wait a long time - and a long time really meant about 2 hours and more. When I passed the cathedral the first time there were so many people queuing that you would assume someone gave away free tickets for a Madonna concert. Hundreds of nuns and priest, many of them from Eastern Europe.

Porta Nigra
But Trier has a lot more to offer and I visited the Rheinisches Landesmuseum first. Trier was created as a Roman settlement and Roman artefacts are still all over Trier - and in the Museum. Most famous sight in Trier is the "Porta Nigra", the old Roman town gate. Once there had been four of equally imposing size, but only this one had survived because it had served as a church in post-Roman times. All sorts of Roman city tours were offered with German tour guides dressed up as Roman soldiers speaking bad English. I was very surprised to see a tour group around a bearded guy with an ill fitting black priest habit and I was wondering what sort of adventure tour he was offering - when I realised that he was an authentic Russian orthodox priest with a Russian pilgrimage groups.... oops.

But as my own German (and not dressed up) tour guide said: "Even if the Japanes cease to come and see the Porta Nigra and the Europeans to see the Heilig Rock, we will still have the Chinese coming to see the birth place of Karl Marx." And so I took a look myself - and really, Karl Marx' birth place in Trier was full of Chinese. Everyone a pilgrimage to his taste: Romans, Jesus garments, Karl Marx... you name it and Trier has it. But now it was time for me to eventually see the Heilig Rock. The crowds had diminished considerably and I only waited for about half an hour to get inside the cathedral and see the old brown garment myself - with volunteers all over the place telling everyone to slowly move on.


Pilgrim merchandise
The garment itself was not very exciting, but I liked the pilgrim's merchandise tent next door with all sorts of Heilig Rock souvenirs. They must have made good business as 550,000 pilgrims had come to Trier for the Heilig Rock in one month. For me only I short hop into an internet cafe to update my blog was left and then back to my lovely little holiday apartment.

Trier is a fantastic trail town and I liked it as much as Passau on my last year's hike through Germany. Trier has a lot of very different things to see (even without the Heilig Rock), everything is within walking distance, plenty of shops and internet cafes in the centre. I really enjoyed my day in Trier - and maybe you should give it a try, too? But the date for the next Heilig Rock pilgrimage has not been fixed yet...

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Eifelsteig


If you look at my route on the map you will realise that the Eifelsteig is quite a detour for me. Why did I go so much out of the way to hike it? Well, first of all I have never hiked or even been in that part of Germany before. But most of all I was curious to see the location of the famous "Eifelkrimis" or "Eifel crime novels". I think it all started with author Jacques Berndorf, whose real name is Michael Preute. His alias is actually the name of a village in the Eifel and a place I hiked through on the Eifelsteig. He started writing crime stories that are all set in the Eifel - and became a great success! Right now 2,2 million copies of the Eifel crime stories have been sold and I am one of their biggest fans although I always listen to them as audio books. Berndorf is not only a great writer, but also a fantastic reader! Of course I was mostly listening to Eifel crimes while hiking the Eifelsteig...

But I am not the only Berndorf fan. The whole thing has taken off so much that there is a "Eifelkrimi-Trail" now, a Eifel crime hiking trail that takes you to some of the locations of Berndorf's Eifel novels. In Hillesheim various guides offer tours to those locations and there is a crime cafe called "Sherlock". After so many Eifel crime stories I was expecting to find corpses behind every tree but so far no such luck! But after finishing the Eifelsteig I guess that this German region definitely needed the "crime incentive", because otherwise its towns and villages are rather drab. Almost all the houses and farms are definitely very 60's and 70's - there are hardly any timbered houses that I had so much admired in Hesse! Here coloured glass brick windows, 60's design and bugling deers paintings still rule.

Maar
But as boring as the towns are as great is the nature stuff. I have to admit that the route of the Eifelsteig has been very cleverly chosen. Plenty of forest, long stretches along rivers and green everywhere! Naturewise definitely the best trail I have hiked on this trip. An interesting geological feature where the lakes in extinct volcanoes called "Maar" - thus also the name "Vulkaneifel". I especially liked the long river stretches, for example along the river Lieser. Mostly the trail is routed along single file trail high above the river which overs spectacular views. And that not only refers to the Lieser but to almost all stretches. The slogan of the Eifelsteig makes sense: "Wo Fels und Wasser Dich begleiten" ("Where rock and water accompany you").

But unfortunately, not only rock and water were following me but also fighter jets of the German air force. Very close to the Eifelsteig is the German air force base of Buechel. When I did some research on Buechel I had to learn that this is the only place in Germany where the US store atomic bombs which of course are protected by American troops. When I was hiking there everyone seemed to be happily indulging into air maneuvers. The noise of the fighter jets was incredibly. Every day 30 to 40 jets were flying above my head and whenver I thought the spectacle would be over now the jets were returning and creating more noise. I must admit that it really bothered me and I wonder how the locals are dealing with it.

Another fact that made hiking complicated was the rain. By now I had sort of gotten used to the rain and because it was usually just a light but constant drizzle it did not bother me so much any more. But unfortunately all this rain had turned the trails into mud slides. My shoes and pants were just dirty and I gave up on washing my pants. The biggest problem was not slipping! I have not been successful all the time and slipped various times - but luckily not in the steep stretches where I could have hurt myself badly. In the end I looked like a pig fresh out of its wallow.

The Eifelsteig is deservedly very popular and I kept meeting the same hikers all the time. While I spent the night in my tent they stayed in hotels and were slackpacking. I usually love sleeping in my tent but now another problem has turned up that puts me off camping in German forest: Ticks! I had had a huge tick problem on my hike through Germany last year and was sort of relieved that so far I had rarely spotted any ticks. Unfortunately this changed a couple of days ago: Ticks had come out with vengeance and I have already found ten on me. Ticks in Germany carry Lyme disease and I am not really looking forward to antibiotic treatment again.

But despite ticks and fighter jets the Eifelsteig is a great trail: I can definitely recommend it!

Westerwaldsteig II and onwards

Hollow trail
 I had a very nice break on the Westerwaldsteig. When I had posted my hiking route on a German outdoor forum a long term member had contacted me and said that he is living just 700 m off my planned route - and invited me to stay with him. I had happily accepted, especially since Werner is the most knowledgeable person about long-distance hiking in Europe that I know. He had helped me a lot in planning this route. Most European hikers go long-distance in the US or other countries, but not very often in Europe. Although hiking is extremely popular in Germany not very many hikers actually hike long-distance here, except for the pilgrims. With Werner being such an experienced hiker himself we had a lot to talk about - and I learnt a lot about what to expect on the Spanish caminos. I was very lucky to meet Werner because he had planned to start his first long bike trip just a couple of days before I arrived, but due to the very cold and wet weather he had delayed his start and made our meeting possible. As usual it was great to get clean again: A shower and clean clothes can turn you into a different human being.

Rhine at Bad Hoenningen
I stayed two nights and thus had a full rest day that I used for updating my blog and chatting with Werner. But on May 2nd we both left: I went hiking again and Werner started his bike trip after he had brought me back the place where he had picked me up two day before. That left me with two days on the Westerwaldsteig and they were actually the best ones. First of all this Western part of the Westerwald is much more forested than the Eastern part I had just hiked through. All Germans know the typical hiking songs about the beautiful Westerwald but so far it had been a mystery to me why everyone was so enthusiastic about this forest - because there was not much forest! Of course there were patches of forest everywhere but not what I had expected. All that changed now: For two days I almost constantly hiked through woods.

Reconstructed Roman watchtower
The closer I got to the river Rhine the more evidence of the Romans were to be seen. The Westerwaldsteig crosses the Limes, the old border of the Roman empire. Several watchtowers had been reconstructed and gave me a nice change in sightseeing. Another unexpected attraction was a wild pig farm where I could watch wild piglets happily playing in the mud because of course it was raining again. The Westerwaldsteig ends in Bad Hoenningen which could also be called mineral water city. Wherever I went I saw mineral water factories. I was a bit suspicious because this is so close to the river Rhine and the last thing you want to drink is Rhine water! In Bad Hoenningen I took a little passenger ferry and finally crossed the famous river. Of course on the other side I was rewarded with a steep ascent!

I now had to make my way over to the Eifelsteig and Werner had been most helpful in finding a good route. He had even supplied me with the relevant map. I was very positively surprised by that short 3 day stretch on the Ahr-Venn-Weg. It was very forested which made for easy camping and was a really nice and rather scenic stretch.

But now the verdict on the Westerwaldsteig: First of all it definitely wins the price for the best marked German hiking trail. Trail markers and signposts are everywhere and access trails make for easy logistics. The whole trail is quite varied and there is a lot of things to see if you are interested from old quarries to monasteries to Roman relics. It is definitely not straightforward but meanders around a lot. It is quite a good trail, but I would not go to much out of my way for it.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Westerwaldsteig

Marienstatt
By the time I hit the Westerwaldsteig I was tired. I was tired of the cold and weather. What had happened to spring? We were nearly in May and I had not been able to hike in a T-shirt only yet. Nights were especially unpleasant. As soon as dinner was eaten I had to retire into my quilt or I would freeze. Every morning I got up later and later. Some days I started hiking only at 8.30 am which is a shame for a long-distance hiker. I must admit that I started to lack motivation. This trip had a very difficult start. I struggled to find my hiking rhythm and lacked my usual enthusiasm for hiking. The weather forecast usually predicted good weather for the next day, but then procrastinated the sunshine for yet another day. I was tired of it!

But then, without warning, on April 28th summer began! The night before had been so cold again that I had slept with three sweaters and long johns on. But the morning started bright and clear and soon the thermometer rose to 20 Celsius and higher. Already at noon I was hiking in shorts and a T-shirt! Spring had been skipped and I had landed smack bang in summer! My body reacted with a hard core attack of chafing.. I sweated a lot and rubbed my skin raw. The pain was so intense that I could hardly walk any more - but at least it was summer now! It was so nice to sit in my tent in the evening in just a T-shirt and just read without shivering... Oh God, I had missed the sun so much.

Still I had to deal with the Westerwaldsteig, a trail that needs to 240 km to cover a distance of 60 km as the crow flies. The trail is anything but direct and there are several long loops that would be scenic but take forever. Right from the start I had planned to take some short cuts here - as long as my steps would connect. But there were several attractions along the route and I had to decide which ones I wanted to see and which ones I could miss. The first attraction was quite an unexpected one. I had not realised that there was an army base close the trail and was quite surprised when one morning I was passed by 50 recruits on a training march.


The next event was a more planned one: I visited the Stoeffelpark, a former stone quarry and home of the famous Stoeffelmaus, an extinct mouse that could fly. Its fossils had been found in the Stoeffelpark. But I was more interested in the old  machinery of the quarry. There were hardly any other visitors and the lady in the info centre took great pride in showing me a video about the quarry and answering all my questions. I must have looked rather dirty because she especially recommened their handicapped toilet to "freshen myself up". I took her up her word and even managed to wash my hair in the sink. Sightseeing is so much more pleasant when you are clean.

Next on the list were several monasteries and pilgrimage churches, all dedicated to St. Mary: Marienstatt und Marienthal. I managed to see Marienstatt at the hour of the evening prayer -but could not stay long to watch the monks as I had to find a campsite. Marienthal surprised me with a "pilgrimage toilet" which I could use very well "to freshen myself up" again. I wonder what they do to prevent non-pilgrims from using this toilet. Marienthal also boosted a "hiking boot washing station" in front of a hotel, which I found very good for getting drinking water, but otherwise utterly useless.

I read in the online news that only a week ago a wolf had been shot in the Westerwald. Wolves are thought to be extinct in Germany and the last wolves were shot way back in the 19th century. So when sightings of a wolf occured this was a big sensation - until the wolf was shot by a 71 year old hunter who mistook it for a dog. I was very much surprised by that news as the Westerwald is a rather populated area of Germany. By the way: The trail builders tried very much to create a "wilderness" feeling and short stretches of trail actually only recommended for the sure footed. This stretch for example is built into the steep slopes of a river valley and was rather awkward to walk through.

Lahn-Dill-Berglandpfad


This trail is only 84 km long and served as a connector. After I had taken the train back from Gerald to the place where I left the Elisabethpfad I spent the better part of the day finishing the Elisabethpfad and spending a lot of time in lovely Marburg. Of course, it rained and the weather was so wet that I even decided to treat myself to a restaurant meal. But at 4 pm I needed to leave the haven of civilisation called Marburg to find myself a stealth camp site on the Lahn-Dill-Berglandpfad.

This trail being so short nothing spectacular happened. The weather remained cold, but at least there was no more snow. And my visit with Gerald had given me a lot of inspiration. I was inspecting the forest with new eyes and found a lot of the fabulous "Knoblauchsrauke", and edible plant. It takes a little bit getting used to but after a while I loved the taste and wondered why it is not more used in normal cuisine.

The Lahn-Dill-Berglandpfad is a typical German hiking trail of the "new generation". Next to the main trail there are several short loop trails ideal for tourist who want a short hike and have a base in the area. The trail skirts various minor attractions like lovely river valleys, old stone works and a lot of view points. Of course the trail marking was impeccable. The trail is pleasant and nice, but nothing I would go far out of my way for. But its two termini are Marburg and Herborn which are both historical towns with a lovely and pittoresque town centre.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Rest days with Gerald


Gerald
 I had met Gerald aka Wildniswanderer on a German outdoor internet forum. He had found my blog and contacted me via email when he realised that I was in Germany earlier this year. And after a couple of phone calls and a lot of help from his side to prepare my route I was very eager to meet him - especially since he is living very close to my hiking route. Gerald has done a lot of wilderness trekking and rafting trips to rain forests all over the world. And he is working as a forrester. We would have a lot of topics to talk about!

Marburg castle
By coincidence I ended up in the Marburg area on a weekend and Gerald picked me up from the trail. With his help my resupply shopping in Marburg was so easy and I collected all the repair stuff for the parts I had broken in the previous weeks. He event treated me to a great Chinese AYCE buffet in Marburg. We then drove to his place which is a real forrester house. This was going to be my first real rest day in three weeks and I was really looking forward to it. And I had warned Gerald that I did not intend to do much walking on my precious rest day....

Knoblauchsrauke
With Gerald being a forrester I had a lot of questions about our German forest. We made little trips into his forest and he explained very patiently what all those signs on the trees really meant. What had looked like Kabbala signs to me before all made sense now. I learned in which way trees are marked for felling or for special preservation treatment. I learned about the different trees and animals in the forest and Gerald pointed out a lot of rare birds and plants. We even saw a huge eagle owl and a black woodpecker! Most surprising for me was to find out why some trees have dirt and mud at the bottom of their trunk: When wild pigs are bathing in nearby mudpools they scrub their skin against the trees afterwards and leave those marks. ("Was kuemmert es eine deutsche Eiche wenn eine Sau sich an ihr kratzt....") And the little depressions in the forest floor without leave cover are sleeping places for deer. I must have asked about 5 million questions and Gerald gave me a crash course in forrestry. And my one rest day turned into two rest days which I had desperately needed.

But today I left refreshed without any aching feet or knees and will tackle the next part of my long trek across Western Europe.

Elisabethpfad

View of the Wartburg in Eisenach
The Rennsteig terminates in Hoerschel which is a tiny suburb of Eisenach, where the Elisabethpfad starts. I was cold and tired after the Rennsteig and decided to start my pilgrimage on the Elisabethpfad with a stay in a pilgrim’s hostel in Eisenach. This was the first pilgrimage trail I have ever hiked and I had no clue about what to expect. There is an accommodation list for the Elisabethpfad and I just called the number for one of the hostels where a sister took down my reservation and told me to arrive before 6 pm. I hurried, made it to Hoerschel in time and took a bus which took me to Eisenach centre in 17 minutes. My hostel was smack bang in the historical centre of town and at 10 to 6 pm I rang the bell there.

My first pilgrimage hostel
A lovely old sister answered and took me in. I could not believe my eyes when she showed me the pilgrim’s quarters: An incredibly nice and clean room with several beds, but only me staying there! The whole place had just recently been renovated and was sparkling clean. There was a nice kitchen and a fantastic bathroom with one of the best showers I had had in a long time. I was even asked whether I wanted to have breakfast, too! I could not believe me luck – this place was great. And I was so tired that I nearly collapsed in my bed after taking a shower. Next morning the sisters gave me breakfast and when I attended their morning prayers I was blessed and even given a small present. I wondered whether I would have to pay for all those luxuries, but the price was very moderate. When I checked out the sister asked me for a donation of 10 EUR, and I happily donated 15 EUR. This place had been paradise for a tired hiker.

After buying a new gas canister and some food I took the train back to Hoerschel and my start of the Elisabethpfad. Normally I would have had a rest day in Eisenach, but in 5 days I could stay with an internet hiker friend and therefore I decided to hike on and rest there.

Art on "Ars Natura"
The Elisabethpfad and pilgrimage trail turned out to be a mixed bag. As expected it involved a lot of road walking. On a pilgrimage trail you want to easily get from A to B involving a lot of churches, whereas on a hiking trail the emphasis is more on nice trail and nature scenery. Still, the trail was not too bad. The Elisabethpfad and a Camino are parallel for most of the time using a lot of bike paths and road walks, but occasionally the two split up and then I followed the Elisabethpfad which usually took a route through the forest. For half a day it even follows “Ars natura”, a hiking trail adorned with art objects in the forest. Although both trails are usually close to civilization stealth camping was not too difficult. I was thinking of staying in another pilgrim’s hostel, but felt more flexible with stealth camping. And although it was still unusually cold, the altitude was hardly above 500 m and there was no snow whatsoever.

Despite the high percentage of walking on pavement of all sorts the Elisabethpfad had a lot of positive aspects: Due to its nature as a pilgrimage trail it visits all the churches along the route. Almost all those churches are open during the day. They are all very pretty and some of them real gems. A lot of the churches cater for hikers and offer refreshments! Not only were the churches pretty, but also the little villages and towns. Leaving the former GDR and entering the state of Hesse on the Elisabethpfad was like entering a new world. All of a sudden the settlements were all so pretty. Even tiny little hamlets had newly restored houses and towns like Spangenberg, Homberg or Treysa were real gems. And of course they all had supermarkets….

The locals all knew about the Elisabethpfad. I was stopped several times every day and people told me how much they admired the pilgrims and how much they wanted to hike it, too. I was totally surprised how popular the trail is not only with locals, but with hikers. I met several other pilgrims and judging by the entries in church guest books there were even more pilgrims around. It is absolutely amazing how much pilgrimages are booming! Still, if you are more after hiking than doing a pilgrimage I would not overly recommend the Elisabethpfad. But if you like nice villages and towns and want to a roof over your head at night the Elisabethpfad is a nice alternative. There is a little guidebook with overview maps and lots of historical explanations. On the internet you can download an accommodation list including cheap pilgrimage hostels and normal accommodation plus a town service overview. You will need a pilgrimage "passport" to stay at the pilgrimage hostels. All is available from the Elisabethverein.

Rennsteig

At Blankenstein several long-distance hiking trails meet: Frankenweg, Fraenkischer Gebirgsweg, Rennsteig and Kammweg. Here I changed from the Kammweg to the Rennsteig. I changed trails, but the weather stayed the same: cold, cold, cold. Even the snow remained in the higher regions. I was starting to wonder whether we would ever have something like spring this year. I had hiked the Rennsteig before which is the oldest and one of the most famous hiking trails in Germany. Back in the 19th century it connected several little kingdoms, dukedoms and what not. This is the main reason why mark stones abound along the Rennsteig. They are everywhere and date from all centuries. To my big surprise some had little metal signposts next to them with a telephone number. Call the number with your mobile and get a guided tour. I like interactive sightseeing, but cell phone guided tours on hiking trails is a bit too much for my taste. But at least there was cell phone reception.

Mark the "R" for Rennsteig
The Rennsteig is a very popular trail. I had hardly met any other hikers on the Kammweg, but here on the Rennsteig I saw 30 and more hikers every day – and this was not even high season. The advantage of this popularity is that there are fantastic and huge shelters all along the Rennsteig. I loved them for cooking, but did not dare to camp in them. It is incredibly well marked with an “R” for Rennsteig. There are “R”s on almost every other tree! The disadvantage of this popularity is the amount of toilet paper along the trail. German forest can hardly be called pristine, but I have never seen so much toilet paper in the woods. In one shelter someone had even taken a poo inside the shelter and just covered the mess with toilet paper – how disgusting.

Again, everything above 800 m was still snow covered. Sometimes it was amazing to see that the forest floor was completely snow free, but the trail still had 20 cm and more of ice and snow on it. Most of the hiking trails double as cross country skiing trails in winter and because the snow gets compacted by skiing it takes longer to melt. Through bad planning I tended to always end up in the highest and most snow covered areas for camping.

The container
On the Rennsteig I also had the scariest experience in a German forest. Again one night I ended up at high altitude at the Inselsberg. As usual it was cold, damp and foggy when I came down the mountain and started to look for a decent snow free stealth camp site. To my big surprise I saw a huge white cubical container right in the middle of the forest! It was almost all glass and had tables and chairs in it. What could that be? I was more curious than anything else and inspected it when to my big surprise I found the door unlocked. It turned out that this container had been used by referees for ski races – therefore the tables and chairs. It was very clean and much warmer than outside….and I started to wonder whether I could sleep in here. The big disadvantage was that the whole front side was glass and you could easily look inside. But as it was quickly getting dark I decided to risk it and spread out my sleeping bag. At 10 pm I was almost asleep when I saw someone with a flashlight passing the container. I was a bit worried but I thought it must have been just a late hiker. But half an hour later two flashlights were coming the other way going back into the forest. I was getting more and more worried but still tried to explain this with people on a night hike. But nobody had discovered me and eventually I fell asleep.

At midnight I was awoken again. A car came down the forest trail with its front lights seemingly pointing straight at me! My heart nearly stopped beating as the car stopped only 50 m away from my container and several people came out of the car. Torches were shining everywhere and car doors were slammed. I did not dare to move – and apparently nobody seemed to realize that I was there. I could hear muffled voices but could not understand what they were talking about. After 10 minutes the car left – going back into the forest. What was all this about? I wondered whether I should stay or go, but eventually fell asleep again. The same thing happened again at 2 am. By now I was pretty sure that something illegal was going on. Cars are forbidden on forest roads and I could not come up with any decent reason why someone would be driving around on steep snow and ice covered forest roads at 2 am. When the car had left again I decided to check it out. I inspected the area where the car had parked but could not find anything suspicious liked corpses (or more likely illegal garbage dumps). I was still outside when I heard the car coming back. I wondered whether I should hide in the forest, go back into my container and/or call the police. I went back into the container and lay flat on the floor. Again the car stopped, lights flashed….and finally the car left towards the main road. Nobody had discovered me and the car was now probably gone for good at 3 am. I could still only sleep fitfully and left early in the morning.

GDR memorial
Even in broad daylight I could not make out what mysterious car driver had done here at night. Only a couple of days later a friend came up with a possible explanation: Geocaching! Apparently there are specific night geo caches that are marked with fluorescent signs that can only be seen at night with special torches. And probably the cache hunters had not wanted to walk, but driven a car. I still don’t know whether this is the right explanation, but it is the only one that seems to make sense. But I will never camp again in see-through containers!

Shelter on the Rennsteig
Generally the Rennsteig is a pleasant trail to hike: Very well marked, great shelter and fantastic infrastructure. Lots of interesting mark stones and some very nice and untouched nature stuff due to the location on or near the former German border. But on the flop side there are a lot of hikers (this must be hell in summer!) and long stretches along busy roads! There is very little actual road walking, but there is a whole day of walking next to busy roads in the middle of the trail. If it was not for that stretch I would really recommend that Rennsteig, but as it is I think there are nicer trails in Germany.

Kammweg Erzgebirge

Snow right from the start
I knew I would have a cold start, both physically and weather wise. Before my start date I had studied webcams in the Erzgebirge and had watched how the snow was slowly melting. Ski season in the Erzgebirge had only been finished 2 weeks before I started…. I had also studied weather forecasts and realized that spring was still very far away. It would be cold, unusually cold and too cold for my summer gear. I had the choice of either changing gear and carrying a warmer sleeping bag for the beginning of my trip or just layer up with clothes. I wanted to avoid the hassle of mailing gear back and forth and decided to carry the summer gear I had planned and just layer up with warmer old clothes that I could just throw away when the weather got warmer. Unfortunately, already three weeks into my hike the weather has still not gotten much better….

German Czech border
But let me start at the beginning. I took the train to Geising in the Erzgebirge on April 1st and realized already in the train that I had committed a gear mistake. I always carry a waterproof document pouch for valuables and electronics and this time I had taken an old one that I wanted to “use up”. But even for good German Ortlieb gear ten years is too much of a life expectancy – the glue had dried up completely and the velcro closures had come off. The same evening I also discovered that I had taken an old set of Aquamira bottles that would not let any drops out and on day four I broke a tent pole (which I could fix with a repair sleeve). So here I was at the start of a trail with already three gear failures, but luckily a quick phone call to the next outdoor shop en route revealed that I could replace all of those items within 3 weeks.

Start at Zinnwald
I also should have experimented more with my new smartphone and camera because I had a hard time taking pictures of myself at the official start of the trip at the border crossing at Zinnwald – and discovered only afterwards that I had taken black and white photos only! I must have looked rather ridiculous standing there for half an hour in the freezing wind with my camera trying to take auto portraits under a “Federal Republic of Germany” signpost.

Not a happy hiker in a snow storm
As the weather forecast had predicted it was cold which is not a good thing at the start of a trip. I was hopelessly out of shape after four months of sedentary life in Berlin. Usually this is not a big problem: You just take it easy for the first couple of days and get in shape while hiking. But it is difficult to take it easy when the temps hardly rise above freezing even during the day and you freeze your butt off during every little break. I could not take many rests and just had to keep hiking to stay warm. Also getting up early in sub freezing temps in not an easy thing and therefore I started hiking at 8 am or even later. At least my sleeping set up worked better than expected: Although I did not feel exactly cosy at night and was not shivering from cold. My BPL quilt worked extremely well. It helped a lot that the Erzgebirge is a popular region for cross country skiing and therefore lots of shelters had been constructed along the trails. Those were great for resting and occasionally sleeping in at night.

The first couple of days snow had not been an issue and I had not expected snow to be much of a problem. But I was wrong… The Kammweg goes over the Fichtelberg, with 1,200 m the highest mountain in the Erzgebirge and approaching it I realized that everything above 900 m was still completely snow covered. I tried to walk around the Fichtelberg instead of going over it but I still had to hike over 1,000 m and started postholing. To make things worse there was thick fog everywhere and I could hardly see 50 m. Soon any trails disappeared and I had to traverse steep ski slopes. Of course there was no more skiing, but the slopes were still covered with snow and ice. Everything was so compacted that it was impossible to cut steps. I started to wonder whether I could kill myself on a ski slope in the Erzgebirge and when my corpse would be found in that fog! As you can see I survived…., but the amount of snow made progress very difficult.

View out of my tent on Easter
On Easter Saturday I woke up in my tent in a shelter and overnight 10 cm of new powder snow had covered everything. It looked really pretty but made progress even more difficult . I had not expected to be hiking through a snow storm at Easter in Germany! To sum it up: I was a bit fed up with the cold and the snow and decided to treat myself with a night in a youth hostel in Schoeneck. This huge place was more or less empty: Other than I only a family of four was staying there. The warden told me that April is the Erzgebirge “mud” season with very little visitors. Now I know why. The whole place was geared towards school groups and looked like 100 young pioneers would come around the corner any minute. In the communal bathrooms 20 wash basins where next to each other and there was even a “club” room. Almost all the furniture was definitely still made in GDR, but at least the central heating was working. I slept like a rock despite the fact that I could hardly squeeze myself into the tiny bed. Halfway refreshed I tackled the rest of the Kammweg the next morning – after a nice breakfast that was even included in the price.

Old border installations
The route through the Erzgebirge would have been really pleasant if I had not encountered so much cold and snow. Lots of forest and fantastic views plus several sightseeing attractions like the German-German museum at Moedlareuth. Moedlareuth is a tiny village with 70 inhabitants that was called “Little Berlin” because the German-German border went right through it. You can still visit the old border installations and a great exhibition and video about the daily life at the border. A fascinating place and the Kammweg goes right through the place and continues on the “Kolonnenweg” which was used by GDR border patrol to secure the wall. Because this was no man’s land until 1989 nature is still very much intact there and an interesting hiking experience.

Kolonnenweg with "death strip"
But as much as a liked the nature the towns were a bit of a disappointment. Erzgebirge is still the “Wild East” of Germany and if I had to film a remake of “Deliverance” in Germany I would do it here. People were very friendly, but almost all the towns looked pretty desolate. Almost everything was closed and despite all my previous research two supermarkets I wanted to re-supply in were shut. Locals directed me to other grocery stores but most of them looked still original “GDR” – expect for the Western brands. And there were other unpleasant “GDR” symptoms: There were very few churches and those were all closed! Very bad when you count on them for shelter and recharging your smartphone. Of course some of these places were tourist towns like Seiffen, which is a regional centre for wood carving, but beside the tacky tourist stuff the town looked very unwelcoming and maybe I am just pissed because they even charged money for public toilets which I needed for water resupply. Or maybe the places look better in sunshine…. I don’t know.

Correct trail marker
 Navigation was pretty easy expect for the snowy bits in whiteout conditions, but the trail marking can be a bit confusing. The Kammweg is marked with a blue strip on white and the word "Kamm". Unfortunately there are other trails with blue on white without "Kamm" and also a ski cross country trail called "Kamm" in blue on white... Several times I did not pay full attention and ended up on the wrong blue on white. Bottom line: The Kammweg is a nice and interesting hiking trail, but the trail towns are pretty desolate (but interesting for GDR aficionados).