A monstrous, dirty white telecommunications tower poked through the naked winter forest. It looked like a space ship, the kind you might find in cheesy sci-fi films from the 70s, had been stabbed by a pike. (An ominous warning to future spaceships, perhaps?) We crunched our way up the frosted, leaf-covered trail to have a closer look. A sign promised that the tower — the Fernmeldeturm Hünenburg — was open, but it looked as quiet as a Sunday morning in a German village.
I was hiking the sixth stage of Hermannshöhen — a 226-kilometer trail through Teutoburger Wald (Forest) in northwestern Germany. My wife and dog, Moses, came along for the weekend excursion, yearning for an opportunity to stretch our legs for the first time in the new year and to breathe the kind of fresh air only the woods can provide. With the bigger-than-you-think city of Bielefeld serving as our base, we bundled up and headed out to take our first glimpse of January sunshine.
In the 19th Century, what little is known of Arminius’ story was turned into Hermann der Cherusker as a building block of German mythology. A statue built in honor of the fictional character was erected in 1875, the light green character standing atop an ornate pedestal with its right arm hoisting a blade toward the sky as if it were the warrior kin of the Statue of Liberty.
The statue sits about four kilometers south of Detmold, a town I’ve long wanted to visit and seems to always escape me. There was some thought of taking the train in the morning to Detmold to do a later stage of the trail and hike back toward Bielefeld, but the Eurobahn line quickly connecting the two towns was down due to construction.
Though Detmold would once again elude me,
Hermannshöhen in Haller Herz
We took the 61 bus right outside of our hotel and the main train station — impressive in its maintained, pre-World War II, smalltown European appearance. Following our little blue dot on the Mein TEUTO app, I called our stop just outside of a historic marker on the map for Haller Herz — the heart of the town of Halle. I had noticed the marker on Google Maps as well. Clicking it brought up a selection of nice photos showcasing those black and white half-timbered homes so associated with smalltown Germany. Part of me felt lame for curating a day trip in such a way, but given the day’s sharp cold, I didn’t mind skipping the extra kilometer or so walk from the Halle main station.
The collection of well-maintained historic homes forms an oval around a church like so many town centers in the country. Some appeared to be homes, others were shops that were still closed given the relatively early hour in village life. We took a short lap around the area, snapping a couple of photos while the dog peed on those priceless, charming heirlooms of the town’s history.
Hermannshöhen picks up around here with Halle serving as the break between stages five and six. Fellow morning hikers across the street from Haller Herz pointed out the path up to the green of Knüll/Storkenberg. The ascent gave a comfortable feeling back to my fingers as the compact, flattened dirt path led us through a series of additional Bergs — literally mountains, but referring to hills in this context. Gartnischberg, Großer Berg/Hellberg, and Jakobsberg came one after the other before finally dumping us into the eastern Teutoburger Forest.
Like so much of the German trail system, Hermannshöhen intersects with countless other local trails. Early on it shares trail with the Geschichtspfad or History Trail. I know this only because of the series of stones piled together as an apparent monument for the poet Walther von der Vogelweide. Walther was, according to a green sign next to the stones, one of the most important German-speaking poets of the Middle Ages. The informational placard finished with an autobiographical stanza from his “Denkerprose” or “A Thinker’s Prose.”
“I sat upon a rock
and crossed my legs
and propped my elbow on my knee,
and cradled chin and cheek
inside my hand…”
I guess that explains the pile of rocks.
Logging was apparent through much of the trail. Big-wheeled tire tracks were left on the edges of the trail, their frozen,
I’ve always wanted to follow up with the city or local tourist board to ask whether or not these felled trees are being replaced. It was hardly the first time I noticed significant logging on a German trail. An especially messy section of trail on the German-Belgian border near Eifel National Park comes to mind. Refertilization appeared to be less obvious, though there was one section toward the end of the day’s hike where a small field of baby trees
The trail itself was wonderfully formulaic, easy to march along without having to worry about food, time, or whether we missed a turn a couple kilometers ago. It ran west to east without much deviation, lifting up and down on repeat like a gentle sound wave. This is what I wanted, a relatively mindless jaunt through the woods with crisp winter air filling my lungs.
Fernmeldeturm Hünenburg came toward the end of the hike and proved to be the highlight of the trail (unless we would’ve included Sparrenburg Castle in the day’s route). That’s not saying a ton, though. Unlike stages of the Rheinsteig, Neckarsteig, Moselsteig, or the hills of Siebengebirge, there wasn’t much in the way of forested restaurants, cafes, or viewpoints.
There were ragged chainlink fences surrounding parts of the property and barbed wire left dangling on the side of a staircase where the signs instructed guests to follow. It looked like the kind of passageway you’d avoid in a subway
Inside, a small group of bundled-up hikers were silently slurping on cups of Glühwein. An older man with a stubble over his face peeked his head out of the kiosk stand and gave us a quick glance. The space was tight, big enough just for the five or so who were inside. We hovered, warming ourselves while we decided our next move. A couple of hikers finished their drink, bid farewell, and headed out. One woman, sitting on one of four cushions placed on the wooden platform for sitting, maintained her stoic pose, casually taking a gulp every now and again.
With some space cleared up, Moses happily jumped up onto one of the cushions and took a break himself. I felt bad for the man having to work this freezing January afternoon at an unremarkable site and had a look at the menu scribbled together with black marker. There were various warm drinks and candy bar snacks. The time had slid just past noon, so I figured it was appropriate to indulge in my second cup of coffee for the day. He handed it to me with a smile as warm as the steam fading off the coffee in the paper cup.
Moses, as he tends to do, caught the attention of the remaining hiker. She smiled at him, made some playful baby sounds, and we made the usual exchange in our now familiar German dog conversation. This time of year comes with the bonus track of commenting on his warm yellow coat, which passersby, rightly so, find to be delightfully ridiculous.
“Schau mal die Jacke an!” and everyone politely chuckles.
Though smalltalk is usually poison to me, I felt compelled to engage her if only to practice my German. “Hiking today as well?” I wanted to ask. But I got into my head. “Germans aren’t a smalltalk people. Why would I ask if she’s hiking today? Of course she is! There are the poles. What a stupid question. She’ll think it’s stupid and will call me out for it.”
There was, of course, no reason for me to assume any of this given my, on the whole, positive experiences with German hikers. Nevertheless, I kept to my coffee until she left and, our stomachs starting to grumble, we decided to journey onward.
Stage six technically ends with a walk around the southwestern end of Bielefeld’s Altstadt and up to Sparrenburg Castle. But led by our hunger, we decided to redirect our route into the city center toward Brauhaus Joh. Albrecht for lunch and beer — the way I prefer to end most any hike. A round of Schnitzel was in order — mine doused in a paprika sauce and Melanie’s in a malty beer sauce. In my mental ranking of Schnitzels, these were in the top five.
gibt’s doch gar nicht!
Now a quick detour to talk about the conspiracy theory that Bielefeld does not exist. Upon announcing my trip, I was met with quizzical messages about how could I possibly visit a city that does not exist. Apparently, a conspiracy theory started in 1993 claims Bielefeld does not exist and is rather “an illusion propagated by various forces.” Those forces are “SIE” or “they” in German. SIE
Unlike some conspiracy theories, this one can be pointed back directly to one Achim Held and to a precise date — May 16, 1993. Held was a computer science student at the University of Kiel when a friend of his met someone from Bielefeld at a student party. The friend, according to the annals of history, is reported to have said, “Das
Even Chancellor Angela Merkel got in on the joke in November 2012 when referring to a town hall she had in Bielefeld, saying “If it exists at all,” but admitting she at least “had the impression I was there.” Bielefeld has tried to make the best of strange circumstances and used the gag to promote the city, once releasing a press statement on April Fools’ Day that “Bielefeld
The joke is said to be particularly popular in Germany because, as historian Alan Lessoff said, “Bielefeld defines nondescript” thanks to its lack of major institutions or other tourist attractions. Harsh. Sure, you won’t find the Louvre here, but I’m not so sure I ever want to go to the Louvre anyhow. What I wanted was an excuse to wander around a different city and hike. For that, Bielefeld (or in whatever Cosmos we were floating around in that weekend) suited us nicely.
We saved our visit to Sparrenburg Castle for Sunday morning knowing we’d have a few hours to kill before catching the train home. In lieu of a proper hike, we opted for a roundabout route to the castle that first took us through
Unsurprisingly, it was quiet on a sunny, Sunday morning in January. There was a family with a couple of kids kicking holes through the frozen pond. The thin layer of ice wobbled like someone shaking a sheet of aluminium with every unsuccessful stomp.
Around the corner, a homeless man sat on some steps outside of the former factory, making kissing sounds at Moses. Homeless or not, this unwelcome interaction with our stranger-hating dog is almost exclusively done by men and I’m not sure what to make of it beyond that. Catcalling is increasingly called out, so they turn to dogs, I suppose.
Onward to Sparrenburg, we cut through the Bielefeld Alter Markt marked by a row of Patrician buildings — a kind of dwelling typically passed down among noble families in the Middle Ages. Travelers in Germany might recognize this style in the various ‘free cities’ of the country, like Bremen.
Continuing past the Gothic Crüwell building, the pedestrianized street led us back to Hermannshöhen for a paved ascent to Sparrenburg Castle. There was the typical small plot of pavement for parking at the end of the ascent, just outside of the bridge crossing into the gate of the castle — a modest arched tunnel made of gray stone. A tower stood tall above it all with a flag waving, I presumed to represent the city or heritage of the castle.
Official tours were closed for the winter season, but it was nonetheless exceptioanlly busy with tourist traffic, content wandering around and taking in the panoramic view of Bielefeld. The city looked much more Medieval than at ground-level with its brown and dirty orange rooftops stretching as far as you could see.
Not a ton is known about this castle, but its age alone appeals to American travelers unaccustomed to buildings older than a few centuries. Sparrenberg was constructed sometime in the mid-13th Century by the Counts of Ravensberg — a name you might recognize from the earlier park. Like most castles, it served as a protectorate of trade coming in and out of Bielefeld.
During the prime travel season, from April to October, you can explore a 300-meter system of underground passageways. Otherwise, the view will have to suffice — and it does on a crisp, sunny winter Sunday.
Click here for high-resolution photos from Bielefeld and Teutoburger Wald
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