“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.
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.
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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?