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In Europe/ Outdoors

A Sauerland Jaunt: Hiking Two Stages of Germany’s Rothaarsteig

Hiking in Germany Rothaarsteig

Germany is home to lots of Steigs. I should know, I’ve now hiked portions of four or five. The latest addition to my Steig-repertoire is the Rothaarsteig — a 97-mile (156-kilometer) trail running south from Brilon in the Sauerland region. I had hiked in Sauerland before, a loop along the Drei-Türme-Weg out of Hagen, which is more or less the gate into the Sauerland region coming from the west. The hike left me with fond memories of dense forests and actual elevation, a gift not to be forsaken coming from rather flat Düsseldorf. Needless to say, it left me longing for a return to the region and I was pleased to find yet another multi-stage trail in the Rothaarsteig.

With an upcoming empty weekend, I reached out to the folks who manage the trail, asking for a stage with the best connection to public transport but still a challenging hike. They recommended starting from the beginning in Brilon, hiking 20-plus kilometers to Willingen and another 20-plus to Winterberg the following day. Indeed, these were excellent choices in terms of public transport, with both Brilon and Winterberg within two-and-a-half hours of Düsseldorf and just one transfer in Dortmund.

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In Europe/ Outdoors

Robin Hood of the Alps: Hiking in the Footsteps of Jewish Refugees

Disclaimer: Vorarlberg and Montafon Tourimus partly supported this visit.

Gargellen, Austria. A village on the foot of the Alps in the Montafon region of Vorarlberg sandwiched between the Swiss and German borders.

Snow-dusted mountain peaks towering of green countryside, picturesque Medieval towns, and quiet streams rumbling by along hiking footpaths. These are the views one might expect of such a place. But as you might imagine, this was not a place you’d want to be 80 years ago. If you were Jewish, you wanted to be in neutral Switzerland. That’s where the Juen family came in. Friedrich Juen, a Gargellen local and storyteller, explains.

“My grandfather and great uncle were poachers before smugglers. At first, they took advantage of the bad times to transport goods. Then in the Second World War, they smuggled people. Refugees, well-known Jewish writers and actors who would dare to say anything were prosecuted.”

Today, Friedrich leads what he calls ’theatrical hikes’ around the Austrian Alps using routes his family took to smuggle refugees, telling stories along the way. But in order to smuggle refugees, they needed the right conditions.

“Not with this weather, nice weather, but rather truly terrible weather with fog in the night. Perhaps even rain. You needed bad enough weather so customs would get fed up and decide that nobody would come that day and leave the customs station. The worse the weather, the better it was for smuggling.”

Of course, taking on such a task put Friedrich’s great-uncle, Meinrad Juen, in danger himself.

“He was arrested but managed to escape and hide in St. Gallenkirch for two-and-a-half-years. He hid among neighbors, but not somewhere in the Alps in a cave or in a forest. He hid in the middle of the village where nobody would’ve expected.”

Friedrich first learned about his family’s smuggling tradition from his father, but the story is well-known around Gargellen.

“You could go to almost every house in St. Gallenkirch and find someone who could say something about Meinrad. He was something of a legend. A rebel. A Robin Hood of the Alps, one could say.”

Given his family’s connection to helping refugees, it’s important for Friedrich not only to reflect on what his family did but to connect the stories from those times with the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

“Some people get brought to tears. They’re touched because they might have had a refugee story in their family.”

When visitors are able to reflect on their own history as refugees or meet someone with that experience, it makes it easier to empathize with the millions fleeing violence and persecution today.

“And of course this topic is incredibly relevant because there are flows of refugees across Europe. It’s not just a story from the past. It’s today’s story as well. There are people persecuting people. In the Second World War, Jews were the ones being persecuted. Today they’re from somewhere like Pakistan or Iraq. When someone’s being persecuted, they have to flee and find a new home.”

In Europe/ Outdoors

Mittenwald, Germany: A Little Something For Everyone

A summer rain in Mittenwald, a small town on the edge of Bavaria, the Alps somewhere behind the impenetrable fog.

No hiking today.

So what to do to kill the time? A stop at the Geigenbaumuseum detailing Mittenwald’s centuries-long tradition of violin building. Lifelong Mittenwalder Petra Summer explains.

“There was a man named Matthias Klotz who at the age of 12, as far as I know, went to Italy to study violin building,” says Petra. “He then came back and made violin building popular, spreading it across Mittenwald.”

Indeed, to own a Mittenwald violin is akin to rocking out on a Fender Stratocaster, built especially for your calloused fingers. (Even the art features characters playing the violin.)

Speaking of art, Mittenwald carries on the Bavarian tradition of painted homes featuring a mix of scenes from everyday life and Biblical characters. In fact, you really can’t escape crucified Jesus in these parts.

But enough intellectual culture. What about the culture I can eat?

Blaumantel Lieblingsschnitzel Römerschanz Mittenwald

“In my opinion, Bavarian culture is definitely about good Bavarian food. Schweinsbraten (roast pork), Knödel (dumplings), Sauerkraut,” she says. Typical for Bavaria. Just good, hearty Bavarian cuisine which, of course, doesn’t quite keep you slim. But it tastes very good, and in moderation, everything is okay.”

I take that as permission to demolish a Blaumantel Lieblingsschnitzel at the Römerschanz. Schnitzel with baked cheese and blueberries. It’s the kind of gleefully gluttonous meal that forces you to take deep breaths through the meat sweats. Stopping isn’t an option. It’s too damn good.

But dear God, I need to walk this caloric monstrosity off.


Up to the Kranzberg in Mittenwald

Kranzberg Mittenwald

The rain drifts away by the next morning. The trails are clear and the sun is fighting its way through the clouds. Finally, my itchy fee can get moving up to the Kranzberg.

One can take the chairlift up, but me, I like to earn my views. So I happily take on the three-and-a-half-kilometer climb, the path sometimes as steep as nearly 30 percent grade. But it’s worth the screaming muscles for that moment I get to the top, the cold wind smacking me in the face, and I sit back to enjoy my reward.

“Ah, fuck, the clouds are back,” I think to myself as I look out over the viewpoint.

Oh, well. Instead, I show off my version of Instagram beach feet and assume nobody will be the wiser.

Though the clouds continue to hug the peaks, down by the lakes, it’s another story. This right here is why people come to Bavaria.

“As kids, we’d take bikes and cycle out to Lauter Lake and Ferchen Lake to go swimming,” Petra recalls. “Anyone who swims in such a mountain lake will never want to swim in another lake.”

I appreciate the sentiment, but it ain’t that warm outside, so I opt to stay lakeside and watch as a man does a bit of aquatic weeding in the nearby lilypads.


Admiring Border-Free Europe

Panoramabrücke Geisterklamm Austria

Still fueled by the previous day’s restlessness, I hike further, right to the Austrian border. And there it is, a glorified block in the dirt marking the border. Nothing makes a faux European such as myself appreciate border-free 21st century Europe like the ease of hiking into another country.

But the sentimental feelings wash away when I come to the Gleisterklamm — a series of steel walkways and bridges covering 970 meters over the Leutasch Gorge. And in case you weren’t feeling uncertain enough about the whole endeavor, the trail mascot is an eerie, cartoon ghost complete with a long round nose, three circles that I can only imagine are ghost warts, a creepy grin, mustache, and a seemingly disconnected hand coming out of its beard, pointing to the entrance. The gutter in the mind imagines someone drawing a cartoon caricature using the aftermath of a porn shoot as inspiration.

(Hey, if I have to suffer through the nightmares, so do you.)

As it turns out, the short trek is perfectly safe. I guess a 1.4 million euro investment will make sure of that. Plus, as is the case throughout Mittenwald, the views are not ugly.

“[Mittenwald] is a place that has something to offer for everyone. You can simply go for a stroll around town. You can just sit and enjoy the quiet,” says Petra. “Whether you’re young or old, it’s whatever you want it to be. Mittenwald really offers a little bit of everything for travelers.”


Disclaimer: This trip was supported by Alpenwelt Karwendel. As always, all opinions are my own.

Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guideGerman language tips, and how to ride the German train system.

In Europe/ Outdoors

Mullerthal, Luxembourg: Hiking the Rock Formations of “Little Switzerland”

Luxembourg Countryside from the Mullerthal Trail

Mullerthal, Luxembourg. They call it “Little Switzerland” with its sweeping landscapes, streams, and towns that will seem familiar to anyone who’s traveled Central Europe. It’s hardly an unknown region. Tourism is popular in the area, especially so with Dutch tourists, and of course, Luxembourgers themselves.

But Americans will find Mullerthal to be refreshingly serene compared to some of the more well-known natural regions of Europe suffering from mass tourism. In fact, considering how remarkably easy it is to connect the already wonderfully unique Luxembourg City to Mullerthal, it seems to only be a question of time before more travelers take a pass on the familiar and plan a trip to Mullerthal.

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In North America/ Outdoors

Backpacking Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A First Timer’s Trek Into The Woods

Backpacking Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Dark, ominous clouds snaked across the sky over 187,000 acres of old growth forest as the threat of a thunderstorm loomed. Ahead of the dense, hardwood forest was 18 miles of backcountry trail to be covered over three days. Yet all I could think of as a first-time backpacker was the sign warning, “You are entering bear country.” Indeed, I was entering the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and was fairly certain a black bear was about to have its way with me.

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In North America/ Outdoors

Legendary: The North Dakota Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Read part one on things to do in Bismarck and the surrounding area.

I’ll admit that my initial interest in Theodore Roosevelt National Park was merely the park’s namesake (and, of course, my general love of hiking and cycling the outdoors). I’ve admired the 26th president of the United States since I read River Of Doubt on his post-presidency adventures through the Amazon River. This led to additional reading of arguably our country’s most badass head of state. Sure, in retrospect he had some pretty wacky beliefs, but on the whole, the guy was pure American steel and had no problem calling out the corporations of the day that were taking advantage of the common man. Plus, he once took a bullet in the chest and finished his speech before getting it looked at. How can you not admire that?

So what does Teddy Roosevelt have to do with North Dakota? Quite a bit, apparently.

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In Outdoors/ Travel

Drei Türme Weg: The Trail of Three Towers in Sauerland, Germany

Hagen Germany outside of the Hauptbahnhof

I’m amazed when my wife and I walk out of the main station of Hagen. There’s the typical pedestrianized square surrounding the station adjacent to a hub for connecting buses. Further across the street, there are signs directing fellow walkers to various museums and the pedestrian shopping street.

But I’m not amazed in the typical way one might be when presented with a panorama of the Alps or some other cherished viewpoint. Rather, I’m amazed both by the size of Hagen and how clearly decimated it had been following the Second World War. Hagen is by no means a large city with a population around 200,000, but it has many of the typical trappings of a German city. To the second point, it feels remarkably similar to the very many cities I’ve visited that were destroyed in the war.

I and any other passerby can easily decipher this by the stock of simple, block-shaped buildings that fill out the city center. Whether it’s Saarbrücken or, indeed, Hagen, I’m reminded of walking central San José, Costa Rica, and I’m sure this aesthetic of hastily-and-simply-constructed buildings is not unique to either region. Rather, it seems to be a sign of post-War construction and smart frugality. With understandably little funds to work with, you build to return some semblance of normality and the inspiring designs that existed before the destruction become too costly to rebuild.

Although quick searches on the Internet can show me that Hagen has its own unique history full of industry and culture, the city itself appears to have followed a familiar post-War script and looks like so many other rebuilt German cities. I can at least appreciate that they’ve preserved the pedestrianized central street, a staple of almost every village and notable city I’ve visited in the country. What does make Hagen unique is its surroundings — Sauerland. This is a region of small mountains (or towering hills, if you prefer) that envelope Hagen and its surrounding towns. The region’s tourism board has taken to calling Hagen the greenest city in Germany.

The Greenest City in Germany?

Hiking in Germany Sauerland

I haven’t been able to determine if this is based on any kind of measurable fact, but I can anecdotally say they’re on to something. In my research for a hike, I was overwhelmed with options in every direction of the city. To simplify things, I went with the trail that first connected me to Hagen — Drei Türme Weg or the Three Towers Trail. I found the trail through the Deutsches Wanderinstitut (German Hiking Institution), which had awarded this trail the distinction of “Premium Trail,” something of a Major Leagues of hiking trails in Germany. The Rheinsteig, which I’ve hiked and mentioned numerous times, is also on that list.

Starting the Drei Türme Weg requires a walk through the city from the main train station. Unlike some of the other trail systems in North Rhine Westphalia, there is no app that you can easily follow and the marking isn’t up to par with German standards around other trails. For instance, none of the wayfinding markers in the city itself point to the trailhead. We only found it after following the streets listed on a PDF map. Eventually, we noticed a worn-out sticker with a black “T” and “Drei Türme Weg” written underneath in cursive. The trail itself begins rather anti-climatically on the side of a residential sidewalk across from a playground. A sign warns that only pedestrians are allowed to continue and the concrete turns to dirt. This winding path is the hiker’s version of an elevator. There’s nothing particularly special about it, but it’s a means to get into the thick of the Sauerland.

Hiking in Germany the Drei Tuerme Weg

Once at the top, I finally start to get the sense that this trail will have been worth the effort of coming out from Düsseldorf and we were rewarded rather quickly with our arrival to the first of the three towers — Bismarck Turm. That is to say, the tower of Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian leader who united what we now know as modern Germany.

What I especially love about finding these trails and regions of Germany is the sense of exclusivity I get. These are the types of places you find when you live in another country. You most likely won’t get here on a week-long trip through Germany. Likely because they know few foreign tourists will come here, there’s little to no English, meaning all those German lessons finally start to pay off.

Otto von Bismarck Turm Sauerland Germany

Now my German is hardly to the point where I could fully comprehend the entirety of what was written about the tower at the site. My lessons are more for everyday German and less about understanding the gallantry that usually accompanies such historical markers. That said, my understanding is that these towers, such as the Bismarck Tower, were used for regional security, to spot fires, and eventually became a symbol of German unity. This, I later realized, is a fact I would’ve probably forgotten by the end of the hike if it were in the States and in English. But when you’re learning German, you cherish every victory, no matter how small.

The Hills of Sauerland

Waldgaststaette Kaiser Friedrich Turm

Our arrival to the Bismarck Tower came at just 3.5 kilometers into the hike and that includes about two kilometers within the city, trying to find the trailhead. The next nine kilometers continued in the hills of Sauerland, meaning it was all forested trails from thereon out — my happy place. Our only other considerable stop came at the second tower, Kaiser-Friedrich-Turm because the smell of the aptly-named Waldgaststätte (Forest Restaurant) Kaiser Friedrich Turm across the trail lured us in for lunch. Packed on this January Sunday afternoon, we were lucky to grab a table in the back corner of this cozy, modest establishment and fill up on a bowl of chicken soup (with alphabet noodles!) and Currywurst to fuel the remainder of the hike.

In less than two kilometers, we passed the final tower (Eugen-Richter-Turm) and followed Google Maps directions to the main station, foregoing a small section of the loop in order to make our desired train. While I’m usually a perfectionist in completing trails, I’m actually a bit glad that we ditched down into little Wehringhausen, which I took to be a neighborhood of Hagen. Here we got the sense of what Hagen originally looked like in that the buildings resembled those in the handful of German villages and towns that weren’t destroyed by campaigning bombers. There was an array of colors from bright pink to green splashed across the architecture that reminded me a bit of Baden-Baden in the Black Forest. I spotted some artist workshops and a particularly interesting-looking bookshop that I badly wished thwarted customed and was open on a Sunday. Thankfully, despite German customs, you can always find Küchen on a Sunday and so we picked up a slice of Apfelküchen and Kaseküchen at Cafe Europa to combine one of our favorite aspects of German culture with the other — trains.

Is Hagen truly the greenest city in Germany? I have no idea. Perhaps someone in tourism or the environmental community could enlighten me. Nevertheless, I certainly left impressed with the greenery of the Drei Türme Weg and convinced that it was one of my favorite trails I’ve hiked in Germany. Hagen also proved to be a formidable gateway to the Sauerland region, which if I have my way, I’ll be hiking again sooner rather than later.

Read more about Germany and see more photos