Category Archives: countryside & nature

The Harz, those little big mountains

When people think of Germany and the mountains, they usually think of the Alps, way down in the South, near the borders to Switzerland and Austria. There is, however, quite a passable lower mountain range much more in the middle of the country, expanding between the Southern part of Lower Saxony, the Western part of Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia, called the Harz. Its highest peak, the Brocken, reaches up to 1141 meters, or 3744 feet, and it is quite possible to go hiking here from spring to autumn, and skiing in the winter, even if it is not comparable to Alpine experiences.

Vegetation mostly consists of coniferous trees, with many regions lying above 500 meters. Mining once was an important source of income, as was and is forestry, but today more than in earlier times it is tourism, including walking and winter-sports. Many of the towns, with their houses with wooden or slate exteriors, expel a slightly musty odour, as do the cafés and restaurants, including their interior and sometimes the food they serve. But those not looking for nightlife, but rather for solitary nature experiences, will find their joy on the many extensive walking trails, among them the Harzer Hexenstieg, partly leading along old water ducts, and on the European long distance path E6.

The large water reservoirs in the Harz, around twenty in all, are used for drinking water as well as for hydro-electricity. They are of very different sizes, but offer some splendid views to the passing traveller, be it by car, by motor-bike or on foot. For a trip for the weekend, the Harz is always a region worth its while.

Water. Trees. Solitude.

Water. Trees. Solitude.

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Walking the Red Wine Hiking Trail, along the river Ahr

The panoramic ‘Rotwein-Wanderweg’ trail spans along the valley of the river Ahr, not far from Bonn, the former capital that lies in the mid-western part of Germany. Many grapes for some good red wines grow along these sun-drenched hills that reach over about 35 kilometers. Roaming here, the view is onto the grape vines ahead, onto the dense woods along the opposite side of the valley, and down onto the wine growing villages reflecting the millennium-old influence of the Romans.

On a sunny day, and it is often sunny here, this is a beautiful walk. It is best to begin in the historic city of Ahrweiler, surrounded by the old town wall and in its centre mostly accessible by pedestrians, a touristic place, but still charming and full of relaxed hotels and lively restaurants. From Ahrweiler, a winding path leads up to a vineyard and thus onto the Red Wine Hiking Trail. Following the red grape symbol, you enjoy steadily changing views and pass some sweet restaurants on the way.

Be sure to take a plentiful supply of drinking water, for you will be walking for five or six hours. And make some stops along the way, sit on a bench and enjoy the landscape, this mixture of nature and culture that seems to have changed little for so many centuries. Rest anywhere but in the last town Altenahr itself, a place that has retained a non-existent charm of a recent past. Instead, take the train back to Ahrweiler, relive the long walk on the way back, and then enjoy a nice evening meal and a cool beer, or, to keep it original, a regional red wine. Either way, you have earned it.

This view onto Mayschoss looks like from another world. The volcanoes have not been active for a very long time.

This view onto Mayschoss looks like from another world. The volcanoes have not been active for a very long time.

Some lakes to see near the sea

Up in the North of Germany, close to the Baltic Sea and spreading over the two federal states of Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, is a green, loosely populated area covered with small and medium-sized lakes. The Germans call them ‘Seen’, which could be slightly confusing for the English-speaking, as a sea is called ‘Meer’.

From West to East, the most well-known lakes are the Plöner See, the Ratzeburger See, the Schaalsee, the Schweriner See and the Müritz. Bordering on these are often large nature reserves and some sweet little cities, though these are maybe not quite as quaint as more southwards in Germany.

As the area along the lakes is mostly flat, going for extensive bike tours is definitely an option. Because even though the people there call it their own ‘Schweiz’, or Switzerland, due to the softly flowing hills, that is a bit on an exaggeration.

Peace and tranquility, unless you are set on doing some heavy paddling

Peace and tranquility, unless you are set on doing some heavy paddling

Roaming the German countryside

One of the nice things in Germany is the almost total accessibility of nature. You can basically go anywhere you like. Take your car along a small road, park it on the curb and start walking along a field or into a hilly wood, for as long as you want.

This is somewhat different from other countries like England, where private property, high walls and fences often stop you from roaming freely and limit you to a few public footpaths and of course to the wonderful coastal path. The coast-line in Germany is nowhere near as long and as pleasant as this, but there still are some nice walks along the Baltic Sea.

And then there are the many lakes, some in the North and some in the far South, most markedly the large Bodensee and the Chiemsee, with the wonderful Alps nearby. Very inviting are the big rivers like Rhein, Main, Mosel and Donau, always with a path close to the bank for a day-long walk or a bicycle tour, often leading you from one historic village to the next.

The only thing to remember is where you parked your car.

This green footpath is near a city. But it looks like in the countryside.

This green footpath is near a city. But it looks like in the countryside.

About the unusually cold and wet German weather

It is above all the English that we Germans would associate with talk about the weather. This year, however, things are a bit different. It seems as if the last five months, somewhere from January right up to now, May 2013, have been filled with cold, wet, cloudy and dreary weather, with the occasional snow at the beginning of the year.

Since then, there have only been a few single sunny days with temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius, and otherwise mostly below 12 degrees. Which is somewhere around the temperature you would be putting away your winter coats and getting out the light jackets. So any jokes we Germans may in the past have made about other nations’ cloudy skies and protective clothing have long since ebbed off. Instead, we are busy talking about this unjustness of nature, and complaining, which we seem quite good at.

What remains is a nation desperately hoping for some good weather to come and stay. Including blue skies, sunny days and warm evenings.

These sheep quickly adapted to the unusually cold weather by growing long fur

These sheep quickly adapted to the unusually cold weather by growing long fur