0 In Europe

Hermanns Highway: A Weekend Getaway to Bielefeld and Teutoburger Wald

Hermannshoehen Hiking Trail in Winter

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.

Teutoburger Forest

Hermannshoehen Hiking Trail

Teutoburger Forest’s place in history was set in the second half of the ninth century when Prince Arminius defeated Roman attempts to create a Germanic province of the Roman Empire stretching from the Rhine to the Elbe. An eight of the Roman Empire’s entire army was annihilated, changing the course of history for the Germanic peoples.

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, Hermannn’s legend stretches plenty throughout the region in the form of Hermannshöhen.

Hermannshöhen in Haller Herz

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

Dog Hiking in Germany

Logging was apparent through much of the trail. Big-wheeled tire tracks were left on the edges of the trail, their frozen, indentend triangle shapes frozen into the dirt. Stacks of neatly-cut, long cylinders were piled together like a giant’s freshly unwrapped stock of Lincoln Logs. There was the occasional, faint buzz of a chain saw echoing in the otherwise quiet forest. Once even a man dressed in an orange construction hat and matching clothing was stomping off-trail, in the thick of it alongside us on the path.

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 were wrapped up by white, plastic stints as if to guide their growth.

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

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 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. Teutoburger Forest Teutoburger Forest's place in history was set in the second half of the ninth century when Prince Arminius defeated Roman attempts to create a Germanic province of the Roman Empire stretching from the Rhine to the Elbe. An eight of the Roman Empire's entire army was annihilated, changing the course of history for the Germanic peoples. 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, Hermannn's legend stretches plenty throughout the region. 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 astonishingly 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 rockand crossed my legsand propped my elbow on my knee,and cradled chin and cheekinside my hand..." I guess that explains the pile of rocks. Logging Logging was apparent through much of the trail. Big-wheeled tire tracks were left on the edges of the trail, their frozen, indentend triangle shapes frozen into the dirt. Stacks of neatly-cut, long cylinders were piled together like a giant's freshly unwrapped stock of Lincoln Logs. There was the occasional, faint buzz of a chain saw echoing in the otherwise quiet forest. Once even a man dressed in an orange construction hat and matching clothing was stomping off-trail, in the thick of it alongside us on the path. 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 were wrapped up by white, plastic stints as if to guide their growth. 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 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 our 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 station, because it's probably going to smell like piss. We marched up the grated steps, following the spin of the stairs, for just about one floor until it connected to an uncovered walkway that led to the tower. However this tower was not the aforementioned television tower. This was another for the sole purpose of giving passing hikers a view of the area, constructed where a tower had been since pre-Germanic times, according to one educational sign inside. The shape of it tried to follow that of a medieval keep but with a layer that screamed 70s sci-fi like the television tower itself. 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. Ravensberger Park 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 Ravensberger Park, a chunk of green space outside of the Altstadt. The anchor here is the Ravensberg Spinning Mill, one of the largest of its kind in 19th-century Europe. Seeing as that industry is, well, no longer here, the site has been repurposed as an event space housing two museums alongside a cinema and a restaurant. 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. Sparrenburg Castle 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 of Bielefeld and Teutoberger Wald. Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, the most important German travel phrases, and how to ride the German train system. Want something more literary? Read chapters from my upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany and finding my roots — There Must Be Order.

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 station, because it’s probably going to smell like piss. We marched up the grated steps, following the spin of the stairs, for just about one floor until it connected to an uncovered walkway that led to the tower. However this tower was not the aforementioned television tower. This was another for the sole purpose of giving passing hikers a view of the area, constructed where a tower had been since pre-Germanic times, according to one educational sign inside. The shape of it tried to follow that of a medieval keep but with a layer that screamed 70s sci-fi like the television tower itself.

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.

Bielefeld: Das 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 have apparently mustered an agreement with authorities, who nowadays refers to the CIA, Mossad or aliens who supposedly use the local university as a disguise for their spacecraft, to construct an illusion of a city.

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 gibt’s doch gar nicht!” roughly translating to “I don’t believe it.” But a literal translation would be “That doens’t exist,” so it could be implied that the friend simply did not believe that Bielefeld existed. This is where Achim’s computer science degree comes into play, because he posted the exchange to a German website and the gag has since stuck with Bielefeld to the point where even Aussies, Brits, Canadians, and Americans on the Internet are gleefully fueling the conspiracy.

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 gibt es doch!” or “Bielefeld does exist!” The city even celebrated the 800th anniversary of Bielefeld with the slogan, “Das gibt’s doch gar nicht!” the original line that started all this wonderful nonsense.

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.

Ravensberger Park

Ravensberger Park Bielefeld

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 Ravensberger Park, a chunk of green space outside of the Altstadt. The anchor here is the Ravensberg Spinning Mill, one of the largest of its kind in 19th-century Europe. Seeing as that industry is, well, no longer here, the site has been repurposed as an event space housing two museums alongside a cinema and a restaurant.

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.

Sparrenburg Castle

Sparrenburg Castle Bielefeld

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.

Bielefeld From Sparrenburg Castle

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

Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, the most important German travel phrases, and how to ride the German train system. Want something more literary? Read chapters from my upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany and finding my roots — There Must Be Order.

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