Hiking the “Rennsteig”

Forest in Thuringia in Germany

Holiday!

A free month of May, so I decide to go hiking in Thuringia. It is not the most famous area of Germany, which is quite nice in the sense that I knew I was going to be on my own most of the time. The Thuringian forest was one of the main spots for holiday making in the time of good old GDR. And before all of that it was an area of so many cultured things such as Luther’s translation of the bible, Johann Sebastian Bach, Thuringian sausage and (dearest to me) lots of forest on hills. Those forests are still there and that’s where iI was heading to for the next six days. Hooray! The whole thing is called the „Rennsteig“ and it is the oldest hiking path in Germany. 170 kilometres or 110 miles of green and lots of bird song. It starts in Hörschel, which officially belongs to Eisenach and ends in Blankenstein. Hörschel is by the river Werra, Blankenstein by the rivers Selbitz and Saale. You take a little stone from one river and carry it to the latter one. That’s the idea.

Beginning of the Rennsteig
Beginning of the Rennsteig

Day 1

At the beginning I had quite a bit of water coming down on me: I had “Dauerregen” for most of the day, which into British English translates as normal weather – and it’s only when the Brits are in a horrible mood that they use the old-fashioned term “raining cats and dogs”. But then, life is what you make of it, right? The forest was still beautiful, and very mystic that day since everything was covered in lots of fog. I held many conversations with myself, which I utterly enjoyed.

I passed by a few “Dreiherrensteine”, landmarks that used to show where in the old days three governmental entities would touch (and in the old old Germany we had a variety of them, kingdoms and principalities and whatever). And I also passed by the traces of some gall midges’ larvae as they infuse in leafs a different growth and thus create their own little home …

View of Thuringia
View of Thuringia
Companion on the way.
Companion on the way.
Gall gnats.
Gall gnats.

Day 2

On day two I thought I was going to die. Due to an event that takes place once a year (something involving a marathon), most huts had been booked for this night, so I had to leave my trail a bit and get a sleeping opportunity on Thuringia’s highest mountain, the so-called „Schneekopf.“ It also however that I ended up hiking for some 40 kilometers, that’s 25 miles. Personally speaking I had never ever in my life before hiked such a long distance. I ended up walking pretty straight (*haha*) for about ten hours. From about six hours on my mood started to deteriorate considerably and from about eight hours my feet and my hips were in such pain that I thought I was not going to make it. But there you go, I’m a “Kämpfernatur” (look it up, it’s a strange German concept :)).

The day itself, on the other hand, was pretty awesome. Sun, fog and then sun for most of it. I crossed some medieval roads that were used in such times in order to travel in relatively dry conditions, when most lower lands were basically marshy ground. One of those roads had been used by Luther during all his travels he had to do in order to justify his views and publications back in the 16th century (the Rennsteig will present you with various little sculptures of Luther and Thuringia now also has a Luther hiking trail – eat that!). And again, I passed various old demarcation stones of countries that have today disappeared. All very inspiring had it not been four my aching feet … even my soul was weighing me down, as my mother liked to say.

Day 3

Day three of my incredible adventures in Thuringia had bright sky, birds singing along and somehow I managed to get my feet back into those hiking boots (by now several blisters and I don’t know what).

Looking back at Neue Gehlberger Hütte, where I had spent the night.
Looking back at Neue Gehlberger Hütte, where I had spent the night.

The closer I got to the marathon stretch, the louder the music got. Unlike the past days, when I would see six people max during a day, I should be in for a different game … Hundreds and thousands of runners passing by. It felt like being on a highway, but was interesting at the same time. I kept asking myself why on earth one would like to run the same stretch that I had been hiking for the past days – but then again: Some people would not understand why I “wasted” my holidays with taking a walk in the forest. Whatever. I get to Neustadt at about four in the afternoon, ready to take a nap …

People like to do things in groups.
People like to do things in groups.

Day 4

Day four. I had a funky evening yesterday in Neustadt. Whenever I’m there, I eat at “Gasthof Hubertus.” Practically the only restaurant in Neustadt (and good!) it was chock-a-block with marathonists. I ended up sharing a table with a group of three that would loudly comment on the day’s events as well as on many past runs (and boast lively stories about the past GDR). How jolly!

The morning was quite different then. After some cultured conversation over breakfast (remember the opening scene of “Room with a view” – it’s the dinner there) I left behind a regenerating Neustadt (Sunday!) and headed four Limbach.

Since it was Sunday, I saw a few families on their way. Prim and proper is what most of them looked like. We saluted each other and on we continued. During the day I also met various times two ladies, who had been in the same pension in Neustadt. The stayed behing however as they were running on a slightly more relaxed schedule.

Day 5

Day five then started with animal observation. While I was having breakfast, overlooking the valley of Limbach, a squirrel chased birds out of their feeding spot and stuffed it’s face with all the bird’s food it could get. I packed the remains of my breakfast and left for my next destination.

The evening – by the way – had been interesting again. I had dinner with a fellow hiker and later on a couple tuned in. They were on a holiday with their bikes and had absolutely no fantasy to imagine how one could walk so far and furthermore how one could live without a car or bike altogether. Inevitably it came to the usual question: “How do you do your grocery shopping?” Funny enough, it must be an incomprehensible mystery for a car person to think about the survival of a carless inhabitant of the planet. Maybe we get everything delivered …???

Later on during my walk I passed the only hiking club of the week. “Vereine” are an institution in Germany and practically influence a lot of the life of many people. Germans love to do just about everything in a “Verein”. This one was a serious one too, carrying a “Wimpel” at the beginning of their procession. “Wimpel” is hard to translate, but let’s say is a little flag that has the name and – very important – the year of the club’s inauguration printed on it. All of the members gave me a hearty “Gut Runst!”, which is the official salutation for this specific hiking trail and it was the first time I heard it being used. Oh Germany, I just so adore you!

And then, all of a sudden, I was in Bavaria. I crossed the spot where a border had divided the two Germanies from 1949 until 1989. For about 40 years the Rennsteig hike used to be shorter due to the fact that it would have had to cross Bavaria – absolutely impossible in the time of the Cold War. In those days I would have been done today (apart from the fact that in those days I would probably not have been able to do the hike at all due to my passport).

Former border, now in the middle of the forest.
Former border, now in the middle of the forest.
Me and the old border post.
Me and the old border post.

Obviously the Bavarian forest should be all the same, but the feel was somewhat different. Surely a projection of my mind, playing around with my old images of the former kingdom …

Talking about former kingdoms: on the last stretch to Steinbach, the original Rennsteig has evolved into one of the main roads of the area, which makes it less of a pleasurable walk. For that reason they have introduced an alternative tour through the forest – which is considerably longer. While trotting along this path and asking myself, when the heck Steinbach is to appear, a truck came by and two lumberjacks asked me if I wanted a hitch. Gladly I accepted. The following conversation was wonderful. I had to keep asking them to repeat due to their strong accent. One of their most urgent questions was where I was from. I say Berlin. The answer: “A Preiss!” … “A Prussian!”. In Bavaria, to come from Prussia, the other major kingdom of past times that forced them into combat against the French in 1870, is still quite a thing and one is seen little short of an extraterrestrial. But gladly we had something to laugh about, which is what we did, when they said goodbye after bringing me to the doorstep of my hotel. Alas.

The evening still had another highly inspiring dinner for me. I sat down with an elderly couple that I had briefly met during the day while hiking. He was a retired professor of mathematics and his wife had been active in theology. A wonderful, lively, educated and learned conversation about basically everything. How I love such evenings.

Day 6

The morning then offered a nasty stretch along the road, before finally disappearing in the woods again. All of a sudden then I was back in Thuringia. Hardly anything is left of the former border. Although it’s not only the border itself that was so obvious. There is the little village of Brennersgrün, for instance. From 1952 until 1989, the village stood inside the so-called “Grenzgebiet”. That meant that it was on the side of the GDR, but that close to the border, that it was kind of restricted and nobody would have thought about investing into it. It has thus kept most of its traditional look, with literally every house clad in slate.

That's where the slate comes from, by the way.
That’s where the slate comes from, by the way.

In Rodabrünn, later on, I passed by a Linden tree. Apparently Napoleon on his way either to or back from Russia planted the tree. In Germany, especially in the east, it’s either Napoleon or Luther who, at some point in the past, passed by a spot, founded something there, went to the loo … whatever. You name it. Today be sure it will have a plate indicating it.

The last part getting to Blankenstein was less inspiring. It is also true that all you want is just to bloody get there in the end. The countdown seems endless and every sign is so exciting. Finally I got to Blankenstein, its river Selbitz, and there went the stone that I took in Hörschel out of the river Werra, at the very beginning of the Rennsteig, following the old tradition.

The river Selbitz.
The river Selbitz. Somewhere in there is my stone.
The king of the hike!
The king of the hike!

In six days I walked 170 kilometers, 110 miles. I saw innumerable gall gnats, many butterflies, beautiful meadows and pines, pines, pines. I met interesting people, produced some blisters and ate less chocolate than what I had expected.

And all of this I have to thank for my incredible feet. A big hand four my feet! I love you!

An image of my feet after hiking on the Rennsteig.
An image of my feet after hiking on the Rennsteig.