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Ahrtal Adventures: Wine, History, and Hikes Galore

Walporzheim Germany Sunset
Sunset in Walporzheim.

“Where are we?” I said to Melanie. “How have I not heard about this place before?”

We were in Walporzheim, walking through the village center—a convergence of two quiet streets with a couple of restaurants and a bus stop—during a sunset that looked like it was painted with acrylics. The orange-violet sky shrouded the valley in darkness, amplifying the quiet of this place we’d never heard of until about a week earlier. We’d only had a glimpse, but I could already tell that the scenery would be something spectacular as soon as we got onto the trails in the hillsides the next morning.

Walporzheim is just one of a collection of villages and towns that sit along the Ahr River, a tributary of the much larger Rhine that runs westward to the half-timbered village of Blankenheim. I selected it for this holiday weekend getaway because the Internet told me it’d be easy to get to by train and it was along yet another one of Germany’s multi-day hiking trails, the AhrSteig. But what’s appealing about the Ahrtal (Ahr Valley) on paper is greatly exceeded by seeing it in person.

Holiday Home in Walporzheim

When I first started researching this impromptu trip, I was looking at Ahrweiler and Bad Neunahr for a hotel, but any hotel we’d feasibly want to stay in was either sold out or exceeded our modest budget. Germany very much rewards prior planning in all aspects of life and our late planning did not bode well for getting a decent hotel in one of the main towns.

That’s when I turned to VRBO for the first time, spotting a holiday home in Walporzheim that had everything we were looking for. That is, a quiet spot with easy access to the train and nearby trails. As advertised, trails connecting to the AhrSteig ran right behind the building. And while I initially thought we’d want to be in town, even on what was supposed to be a quiet weekend getaway, the historic Ahrweiler Markt was a short walk away or we could hop on the train for free. (Well, free-ish. You have to pay a small tax for each night you stay in the region, which funds the train.)

Our host met us outside just as we arrived, walked us up the three-floor building, and didn’t leave until we knew everything we could about the area. There was the Rotweinwanderweg trail on the northern side of the river, the AhrSteig behind the building, all kinds of wineries in the region, and a wine festival was just getting underway (hence the full hotels). If there was anything else we needed, we could text or call her, she said. I tried to joke, “I can’t imagine what we could possibly need,” after she covered every base and did another lap, but I’ve found that such light humor is often lost in German.

“You never know,” she said.

Hiking The AhrSteig

View of Ahrtal from the AhrSteig
View of the Ahrtal from the AhrSteig

The AhrSteig covers approximately 100 kilometers (60 miles) of trail running alongside the Ahr River from Blankenheim to Sinzig, a stone’s throw from the Rhine where you could keep moving and pick up the Rheinsteig. Ending up in Walporzheim for the trip put us at the beginning/end of one of the toughest stages in the hike: the 17.2-kilometer fifth stage from Kreuzberg (not the hipster haven neighborhood in Berlin) to Walporzheim.

Like the Rheinsteig, Moselsteig, Eifelsteig––all the ‘Steigs’ of the Rhineland––the worst you’ll deal with are hills. Some can be challenging and steep, but you’re not ascending an alpine mountain like you might be in the country’s southern border. The trail runs similarly, too. You start in a town in the valley, hike the trail up along the ridgeline of the hills, and stay up there pretty much the entire time until the end of the stage. It makes for some meditative hiking, an easy wander through quiet forests with the kind of postcard views of hillside vineyards that bring tourists to wine country. Above all, it’s gorgeous with so many overwhelming vistas that I had to force myself to stop taking pictures.

Saffenberg Castle

View of Ahrtal from Saffenberg Castle
Panorama view of Ahrtal from Saffenberg.

About 10 kilometers into the hike, we took a short detour up to Saffenberg Castle in Mayschoß, a typical castle of the Roman era in the Eifel region of modern-day Germany. The castle was founded in the 11th Century by Graf Adolf von Nörvenich and Albert von Saffenburt with its first mention showing up in records in 1081, giving it the contemporary distinction of the oldest castle in the Ahrtal.

Then, European history happened. That means various occupations by foreign powers over the centuries, but the one we’ll skip to is in 1704 when the German Hanoverians feared that the French would occupy the castle again. Apparently, that was too dismal of an outcome to bear, so they destroyed the castle with artillery before moving onward toward Bavaria. Meanwhile, a local winemaker used stone from the ruins to build vineyard walls around the area. The castle itself sat in disrepair until restoration efforts began in 2004.

Today, like most any castle in Germany, you can hike up to it, admire the views, maybe take a moment to ponder the senseless back-and-forth occupation and continue onward.

Tourists

Sitting alongside the Ahr River.
Sitting alongside the Ahr River.

Now here’s the thing that surprised us the most––there were hardly any tourists. No, I didn’t do an impromptu census. That said, I’ve been to towns along the Rhine and ever-popular Mosel and could sense their tourist appeal even if I wasn’t actively swimming through crowds. I could see where the river cruises pulled in and recognize the images I’ve seen time and time again plastered across Instagram.

The Ahrtal proved to be a different story. What tourists crowds they did have seemed to be almost exclusively German (I heard one native English-speaker the entire three-day weekend) and not at all overbearing. I’ve been to similar regions in different countries where the romantic appeal of a medieval town pulls in more tourists that it can stand to handle (looking at you Sintra), but things seemed to be sustainable––at least in this corner of the Ahrtal. I’m quite confident that Ahrweiler Markt’s equivalent along the Mosel or Rhine saw far more tourist foot traffic over the June holiday weekend.

Weingut Kloster Marienthal

Weingut Kloster Marienthal

Lunch and a bottle of rosé at Weingut Kloster Marienthal was the proverbial icing on the cake. Sitting among the ruins of the monastery at our high-top table next to the decorative fountain shooting water to the delight of children, we realized where we’d seen such similar scenery before—Provence. Germany doesn’t often get credit for such objectively beautiful surroundings, but it’s plentiful along the rivers and hills of the wine country. Perhaps that’s why the French invaded and conquered parts of this region on and off over the centuries. Maybe they legitimately thought it was French territory.

“Pierre! Zis is gorgeous! Why are their Germans here? This is obviously notre chère France.”

Kloster Marienthal sits on a hillside above the town of the same name and is best reached by bike or hiking along the Rotweinwanderweg. (The nearest train stations are Dernau or Walporzheim.) Lunch can be a busy time to grab a table, especially during a summer holiday weekend, but it’s worth making the time.

Ahrweiler Markt

Ahrweiler Markt Germany

We first ventured out to Ahrweiler Markt on our second evening in town, post-hike, and following our VRBO host’s recommendation to check out the ongoing wine festival–one of a variety of regional wine festivals throughout the year. Weinmarkt Der Ahr happens annually over the Pfingsten holiday weekend.

The highlight of the festivities is the crowning of the new regional wine queen, “Die Ahrweinkönigin.” Unfortunately, we missed the momentous occasion but saw plenty of signs throughout the region commemorating the year this town or that town had the distinction of being home to the wine queen of the Ahr.

We were, however, able to indulge in the party atmosphere, buying a bottle of wine from Mayschoss Altenahr (a wine we realized we’d bought back home in Düsseldorf, somehow remaining ignorant of the region’s existence), and watch as Germans continued to defy their stoic stereotypes with drunken dancing to live covers of “All Night Long” and other campy American hits.

Ahrweiler Markt Street

On a second visit to Ahrweiler Markt, at the end of a trail run using a mix of the AhrSteig and Rotweinwanderweg, I decided that Ahrweiler Markt was one of the most beautiful towns I’d seen in Europe, certainly in Germany. I couldn’t understand how after nearly three years of living in western Germany, I’d never heard of this town or region. The fact that Germany continues to surprise me, right in my relative backyard, is a blessing.

Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, the most important German travel phrases, and how to ride the German train system. Want something more literary? Read chapters from my upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany — There Must Be Order.

0 In Europe/ Outdoors

Leverkusen Halbmarathon: Running Through City Streets and Forest Paths

Photo by Stefan Brüggemann via EVL-Halbmarathon

I’ve been in a bit of a running kick as of late, so much so that I’ve been signing up for half-marathons left and right––at least one per month since April. (That makes it sound like it’s more than three, but… it’s three.) Looking for one more to do before heading back to the States for a 10-day family visit, I spotted the EVL-Halbmarathon Leverkusen.

After doing the VIVAWEST-Halbmarathon in and around Gelsenkirchen, I decided I was especially digging races in smaller town/cities that I otherwise might not think to visit, following courses that show the best the region has to offer. Leverkusen matched that description to a T.

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In Europe/ Outdoors

Sintra-Cascais Natural Park: Hiking to the End of the World

Sintra to Cabo da Roca Hiking Trail

“Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes in variegated maze of mount and glen.” — Lord Byron, Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage

Sintra is one of those places that comes up when you’re looking for something else to do in Portugal besides the two cities you’ve heard of ––Lisbon and Porto. You’ve wandered the winding, hilly streets of both Lisbon and Porto, avoided the infamous 28 tram and fell in love with the melancholic music of Fado. What now?

Sintra.

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In Europe/ Outdoors

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 Tourismus 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.

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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?

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