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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
I’m hiking through villages and parks, alongside roads and trails that most Germans have never heard of let alone travelers like myself. We’re kicking off this dreary, windy January morning with the 10th stage of the Neanderlandsteig in the Neandertal Valley. The name comes from the original discovery of Neanderthal remains in this region in the 19th century. “Neander” itself was named in honor of Joachim Neander, a 17th-century German pastor and hymn writer who found inspiration in the valley for his poetry. Plus, “Neander” is the Greek translation of “new man” as well as Joachim’s original, German family name of “Neumann.” His grandfather made the switch to the Greek “Neander” following an apparent fashion of the time.
A red sign with a cursive, white “N” notes the trailhead on the side of the road at Grevenmühle and Metzkausener Straße just outside of Homberg in North Rhine Westphalia. (Like I said, all strange, unfamiliar names out here.) The sign is actually less of a trailhead and more of a marker or Wayfinder for hikers shaped just like a typical street sign. Erkrath, our goal for the day, is 17.1 kilometers ahead with stops at Stinderbachtal and Metzkausen along the way or there’s Ratingen back the other direction.
The Neanderlandsteig does not have the pomp or wonderous views of Europe’s most celebrated hiking trails or even those in the same corner of the country, like the Rheinsteig. Stages don’t always end conveniently in town or at the doorstep of a hotel. Public transportation can take a bit longer, connecting various buses with the train.
Rather, the Neanderlandsteig is an excellent, vivid representation of how seriously the Germans take hiking and how easily available they believe it should be. This is a no-frills hike through German backyards — and that’s okay. Like life, not every moment, or indeed in this case, not every hike needs to be a glorious adventure. If that were the case, I sense that we’d be constantly overwhelmed and disappointed that the next moment or the next hike didn’t beat the last. Current events are exasperating enough as is without adding such expectations to the mix.
This 17.1-kilometer hike and I suspect the remaining 200-plus kilometers around the Neanderthal region, is ideal for clearing your head and getting a bit of fresh air without much preparation. Pack some snacks, look up the transportation, and go.
What you can expect are the staples of a local hike, both good and bad. You’ll hike, albeit briefly in the grand scheme of the day, in muddy goop next to high-speed vehicular traffic. But more often than not, especially in the second half of the hike, you’ll spend your time weaving between trees in wooded, dirt trails with occasional jaunts alongside picturesque farmscapes that seem like they’re from another, simpler era.
While the Neanderlandsteig might be better equipped for local hikers rather than faraway travelers, you still get the occasional restaurant conveniently perched on or quite near the trail. This particular stage came with stops by Stindermühle and Gut Jägerhof. We stopped at the latter, whose location right off a major thoroughfare on the edge of Erkrath was suited for the general public as opposed to primarily hikers. I suspect Stindermühle would’ve been a more typical hiker hangout given its isolated location.
From the restaurant, it was a mere four kilometers meandering around more farmhouses and a couple of small lakes before reaching the Erkrath train station where in an almost comical nod to German efficiency, the train arrived just as we purchased our tickets. With that, I was happy to have made a new, German friend — the Neanderlandsteig. Again, perhaps not the grandest of neighbors I could ever ask for, but a reliable escape to the great outdoors I look forward to visiting again soon.
Read more about the Neanderlandsteig and plan a trip here.
Cute. Charming. Canals.
Cute. Charming Canals.
Repeat all of the above.
That’s Provence in a nutshell. Many of the towns dotting the famous French countryside can be characterized by their collection of narrow, charmingly weathered buildings lining pedestrian boulevards that cross the occasional canal. Part of me feels like I’m in Italy, but there’s a palatable ambiance that screams France. The black railings on the bridges swirl like a drawing of a rose petal. No corner of a town center in Provence has been left without thought to the aesthetics of the design. This is, after all, where the antique market and food stalls will be once or twice a week. And yes, there are street musicians passing the day with an accordion-laced melody.
This is true in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, and Saint-Didier. The sizes vary, but the ingredients remain the same. Depending on your interest (or tolerance), you might find yourself saying, “I’m cute town-ed out,” as my wife’s uncle did, at the end of a trip in Provence, preferring to instead go for a hike in the woods. This is also possible, but the region is much drier than you might imagine. Wildfires are an issue here, as a government employee with an orange vest on told me during a break in a bike ride. After which, he gave me a wide smile and wished me a bon voyage in Provence.
Allons en Provence: L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
Provence started for me as most trips do in Europe — with the train. After spending a day in Marseille, my wife and I took the Trains Express Régionaux (regional train) up to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue — an easy 80-minute ride. Much like in Italy, the regional trains don’t receive half the love the impressive high-speed trains do. Windows were smudged and dirty, making it difficult to see outside to enjoy the view. Nonetheless, the ride was still pleasant enough and easily the most agreeable way to make the trip.
It’s difficult not to feel pleased from the moment you arrive in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The town is surrounded by something of a moat, so it retains its historic aesthetic as a pedestrian-friendly haven where the weekend market can flourish. It was easy to imagine myself in one of those old flats with the typically fanciful French railings outside the patio window. Plus this being Provence, finding a good meal was never an ordeal, like at Le Jardin du Quai near the train station with its garden for outdoor eating and a welcoming ambiance inside for chilly evenings.
Provence and its towns are, simply put, pleasant. They won’t blow you away like the Cologne Cathedral outside the main station, but you’ll be hard-pressed not to enjoy yourself. While the awe of Europe’s main sights will wither over time, Provence will always be perfectly pleasant.
The train was my preferred method of arrival, but a road bike was the best way to explore the hilly countryside. This, too, is something the region promotes the most in terms of seeing the outdoors with maps around the area identifying primary cycle routes. (D57 between L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and Saint-Didier ended up being my primary route.) Hiking, however, was much more of a makeshift endeavor. Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon is nearby, but I found it much more difficult to come across an intuitive map online than in Germany where you have the exact opposite problem — too much information.
Hiking Provence to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse
Finding trails was an experiment. Some were merely footpaths to nothing presumably created by other wanderers in search of a hike. The most interesting thing we found was a handful of bories — stone huts first created by French farmers in the 18th Century to be used seasonally. My wife, however, stumbled upon something that appeared to be created on purpose during a run. We returned and ended up hiking along the Canal de Carpentras over crushed gravel trail. All evidence suggested that this was a marked trail. Others were wandering by, too, clicking away on their cameras when they weren’t wiping the sweat off their forehead from the beaming sun.
The evidence proved faulty once we came to a viaduct. There were no signs forbidding us from crossing, though it seemed unlikely that we were meant to. Still, there was a railing on the right-hand side that made us feel safe enough to cross and even pause for a few unique photos. Then once we hopped off on the other side, there was clearly a sign in French noting that such a crossing is a big no-no. (Legality aside, they really should make that a crossing. Some gorgeous views up there.)
Just as quickly as the hike became illegal, it returned to something of a marked trail. Even as we neared Fontaine-de-Vaucluse there were actual pedestrian signs noting the distance to different towns and landmarks.
Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, like L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, is cute, charming, and all the other familiar adjectives, but on a smaller scale. Nonetheless, cycling tourists and tour groups traveling by bus find their way here to take more photos of the cute and charming buildings and the bridges crossing the water with floral arrangements lining the railings.
A distinctly French characteristic is the limited dining hours. Good luck finding lunch after 2 p.m. or dinner before 5 or 6 p.m. in the evening. So a sign of tourism being present is a restaurant that caters to the ignorant by offering meals outside of typical Franco hours. In Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, it’s La Vanne Marel with outdoor seating right on the river with a perfect vantage point for people watching along the bridge. The view is pure Provence.
Dining in Saint-Didier
Even cozier is the town (village?) of Saint-Didier with, again, more charming (attractive? delightful? inviting?) shops and restaurants lining Rue le Cours. Taking a break from French cuisine, we opted for Restaurant Côte Cours to split different styles of pizza pies among our large group. Unlike Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, there’s a stronger local vibe here. It seems in Provence that the smaller the town, the more likely tourists will have yet to add it to their maps — logically so. Dining families and friends filled the large, gravel patio space with a bit of a beer garden feel to it, enjoying the warm evening weather and full moon.
A gentleman behind me, probably in his 50s or 60s with a balding hairline, wire-framed glasses, and khaki vest over a plaid tee shirt, was clearly itching for an opportunity to join our conversation. He jumped in, having heard our English and making the reasonable guess that we were visitors to the region as well.
The man was German and had been renting out a holiday flat just down the street with his wife, implying this was a regular outing for them. He confirmed my suspicions that not many tourists make it to Saint-Didier by asking how we found the town. It was, as is often the case when finding places off the beaten path, an accident. My father-in-law rolled through on a bike ride an earlier afternoon.
We were so taken by the town that I returned a couple of days later with my father-in-law on another bike ride, spotting the friendly German again shopping for fruits at the local market. Saint-Didier outdid itself in the daylight where it was easier to see, yes, even more of the charm and attention to detail that likely made this man a regular in the first place.
Au Revoir Provence
I can’t say why, but it seems clear now that my memory of Provence follows the size of the towns I visited rather than necessarily being chronological. Though my time in Provence did come to an end at our smallest stop — Saumane-de-Vaucluse. During a solo bike ride, I pedaled through this one street town and found a bistro with an excellent view of the sunset. My wife and I sat on the patio overlooking the forest we had just hiked with a glass of wine as the sun dipped beneath the trees.
Our family joined us as the fire of a recently-set sun skipped across the cloudless sky. Below, a rare sighting of a family of wild boars. Even the restaurant owner looked over the edge of the patio in childlike delight as they snorted their way around the grass.
The wildlife spectacle gave way to sleepy conversation and dinner. It was another in an endless barrage of delicious meals, capping our visit to Provence surrounded by the relative quiet and calm of the village stones that lined the path back to our holiday apartment.
More photos from Provence
HIKING GERMANY’S RHEINSTEIG TRAIL
Few countries have such an obvious love of hiking – bordering on fetishism — as Germany, and the Rheinsteig trail is one of the many exemplary highlights that prove the point. Three hundred and twenty kilometers of hilly, dirt trail stretch alongside and above the Rhine River from Mainz (near Frankfurt) to its northern terminus in Bonn, the former capital of West Germany and birthplace of Beethoven. Everything from castles to scenic, fairytale vistas await in between and it’s all right off the train.
In planning my first three stages of the Rheinsteig Trail, I wanted to tackle what I had read to be one of, if not the, most difficult stages in the entire trail. Logically I thought to put that hike in the middle of the three stages, so my wife and I started with an early morning train ride from Düsseldorf to Lorch – one of the many Rheinsteig Trail towns you’ve likely never heard of.
A side note for any potential German or European readers: You have no idea how good you have it. I feel I need to socratically have this sidebar every time I talk about public transport with European friends and colleagues, especially Germans who will bemoan the supposedly terrible experiences they’ve had with Deutsche Bahn, the dominant national and international train service, either showing up late or canceling trains altogether. To that I’ve always said, at least you have trains to be late or canceled. These same people then look at me in horror as I describe the rail services of the United States, specifically my hometown of Cleveland with just two intercity options a day – both in the middle of the night. The fact that I now have easy access to fresh air and nature is something of a blessing that I thank the powers that be for each and every day.
Now back to the story.
At a quick glance, Lorch appeared to be on the quieter side of train stops along the Rheinsteig Trail. Gray clouds hovered overhead, a Rheinland norm, with the sun pondering an appearance. From here we opted to follow the little blue dot (Google Maps) to the trailhead as I had marked it from the map on the Gastlandschaft Rheinland-Pflaz app where you can pull up your specific stage — generally leaving you with no excuse for getting lost so long as your phone holds a charge.
Once the trail begins, signified by a blue sticker on sign posts or spray-painted marker on trees with a wavy white Rhine River streaking through, it’s straight up on forested dirt trail. This, as I would learn, is how the Rheinsteig Trail operates. Start a stage along the Rhine, up into the hills, then back down to the next Rhineland town where the following stage begins.
Thus far my time on the Rheinsteig Trail has been five stages broken up into two trips. To my admitted surprise, my second jaunt on the Rheinsteig Trail varied considerably (in terms of sights to see) from my first three stages despite generally having picked up where I left off. The nearly 50 kilometers from Lorch to Kestert with Kaub and Sankt Goarhausen in between were resplendent with frequent vistas of the towns on both sides of the Rhine. It was the picturesque stuff you’d see on a postcard outside of a tourist shop.
To the contrary, there was hardly a break in the forest to see anything but green leaves during the 44 kilometers from Bad Honnef am Rhein to Bonn with an overnight in Petersberg. The only significant view came at the Petersberg and the Steigenberger Hotel where the quaint, Medieval-German style town of Königswinter sits below. (Of course a sunken fog at the time obscured much of the view, though it did show how quickly the German forest can turn from a fairy tale into something of an ominous, nightmarish novella. This being, after all, the culture that brought us the tale of a forested hermit trying to fatten up children for her dinner.)
Most who hike the Rheinsteig Trail likely follow the stages to the letter, as I mostly did during my first trip, deviating only slightly to take a ferry from Goarhausen across to Sankt Goarhausen for the hotel. With a little confidence and research, you can make a trip along the Rheinsteig Trail what you want it to be.
Hiking heroes can challenge themselves to cover two stages in a day, you can find “Feirenwohnungen” (holiday apartments) along the trail outside of the towns, or as I did, you can hop off the Rheinsteig Trail to cut through the Siebengeberger Forest on local trails to skip the descent into Königswinter and head straight to the Steigenberger Hotel on Petersberg. (Granted the latter does mean missing the very cool Drachen Schloss – Dragon Castle! – but it’s something I had already previously visited.)
Hiking the entirety of the Rheinsteig Trail (in segments) has since become a thing I will do. Best of all it’s something that as a resident of the Rheinland I can do with short notice. Pleasant-looking forecast over the weekend? I can throw on my backpack, hop on the train, and cover a new stage.
If you’re considering adding onto a German vacation, I couldn’t recommend it enough. Many Germans themselves don’t know about this trail, so you’ll truly head home with an experience relatively few travelers can say they’ve had.
See more photos here.
Schloss Drachenburg. In English, Dragon Castle — basically the name any five-year-old boy would rightly name their own castle.
Germany is littered with impressive castles, so a number are bound to be a tad less significant in terms of history. That’s Schloss Drachenburg. A man named Stephan Sarter earned a fortune and built the property in the late 19th century as a private villa and mansion. Visually, however, Schloss Drachenburg could fit right into the backdrop on any episode of Game Of Thrones. The surrounding scenery provided by forested Siebengebirge (literally “seven mountain range”) helps Schloss Drachenburg fit nicely into the role.
Geography is not a strong suit among my countrymen and women. Before moving to Costa Rica, some asked if it was an island. Though I may have thumbed my nose at comments like that, I’ll admit I knew little of the geography of Central America before moving there. (But for God’s sake, I knew Costa Rica wasn’t an island.) Now that I’m living in Germany, my geographic skills are once again laughable. Like, did you know Ibiza is an island off the coast of Spain?
I honestly can’t say I knew a thing about Ibiza before someone at work told me I was going there. I suppose I knew it was a place, probably Spanish. That’s about it. Then my memory was jogged to remember having heard of it described as “the Vegas of Europe.”
The bright lights of Vegas aren’t my jam, but bully for you if it is. Needless to say I was a tad disillusioned about this Spanish weekend. I’ve wanted to go to Barcelona, Madrid, Granada, and hike the Camino de Santiago. But, Ibiza?