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Mosel, Germany: Trains and Trails from Burg Eltz to Trier

Moselle River

I’ll admit that I’d been mentally preparing myself to be underwhelmed by Burg Eltz thanks to its Instagram ubiquity. If you follow multiple German Instagram accounts, as I do, you see it rather constantly. There it is, in the fog. There it is from afar, in the fog. There it is, with a woman in a flowing dress standing on the bridge, in the fog.

With that in the back of my mind, I set off hiking from Moselkern, picking up a grassy trail I found on Komoot that eventually led to trail shared between the Traumpfade and the 365-kilometer Moselsteig. It was the first of November with the weather to match; crisp fall air circulating above the orange, brown, red, and yellow leaves covering the trail. And yes, fog. Fortunately, the quick ascent in elevation provided all the warmth I needed.

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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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