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.