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.