Thursday, 28 November 2019

Europe Diagonal: Baden-Württemberg

When I entered Baden-Württemberg mid September supermarkets were already selling Christmas sweets whereas I was enjoying warm and sunny hiking day. The little village of Keltern is surrounded by vineyards but unfortunately the local museum was already closed that late in the season. As I was now skirting the Black Forest I was very keen on eating a real Black Forest cake - but none of the bakeries I passed offered it. What a bummer! 

Cloister at Bebenhausen
First highlight was Naturpark Schönbuch, a huge forest area with perfect wild camping spaces - until I realized that Stuttgart airport entry lane must be directly above it ... Planes were starting and landing until 11 pm and the noise resumed at 6 am. The night was quiet though except for a wild boar that was rummaging around next to my tent. Next was a cultural highlight: former monastery Bebenhausen. I was so delighted that I spent too much time sightseeing and ended up night hiking. I was now approaching Schwäbische Alb and it was difficult to find a flat hidden spot. But I was not the only one around. I probably scared a mountain biker who was running down a steep slope and had not expected anyone on the trail that late at night. Up on the plateau I followed a well known trail for a while: I had hiked the Albsteig several years before and had truly enjoyed it.

Up on the Schwäbische Alp
The climate up here is relatively harsh compared to the lower lying agricultural areas. There are no fields but plenty of open meadows where sheep and goats are grazing. I was now hiking the HW 5 but during the few kilometers that this coincides with the Albsteig I came across two highlights: Nebelhöhle, a huge flowstone cave where the temperature is only 10 degrees year round and the fairy tale castle Lichtenstein which was built after a novel written by Wilhelm Hauff. The views from the plateau were wonderful and I was sad to leave the Albsteig so soon.

Lauter valley
But the HW 5 had other highlights for me: In the small town of Indelhausen snails were cultivated until the 1950s - a small snail garden and a monument reminded of that unexpected fact. The trail then followed the little river Lauter (the second river Lauter of this trip!) and the views down into the Lauter valley were incredible despite the slightly bad weather. I was now crossing the river Danube at Obermarchthal. Because of the bad weather there was no traffic on the Danube bike path which a hiked for a short distance before arriving at huge monastery where I had booked a bed for the night. There are no more nuns there and the big complex is now used as a conference centre. I had a big room inside the old convent and arrived just in time to have a glimpse inside the Baroque church - and to join the daily AYCE-buffet. I was the only hiker amidst a dozens of software developpers. This was one of the nicest (and cheapest) accommodations of the whole trip. Had known this beforehand I would have spent a rest day here.

Sunrise at Wurznacher Rieß
But I had to press on despite the rain because I had to leave the trail at Biberach an der Riß and attend a festival in Switzerland. I resumed my hike one week later in the same town. Next I hiked through Wurnacher Rieß, a huge swamp, which was crossed by an old railway line because peat had been collected here in former times. This was unfortunately when the weather turned really bad. Luckily I had brought an umbrella for htis stretch which came in very handy!

I have experienced a lot of detours during my hiking career but the next one had an unusual reason: Explosives Ordnance Disposal! The trail was closed off with warning signs but no detour was signposted. Because it was a Sunday I decided to ignore the signs and hike on. This decision was soon confirmed by a mountain biker who was cycling towards me. There was indeed a big excavation area in the forest but as was to be expected no one was working there. It was difficult to find a hidden campspot that night but luckily refrained from camping close to the forest road.

Alpsee at Immenstadt
Because at 4.30 am a truck came thundering along and loaded trees. I suspect this might have been wood thieves ... At least this way I woke up early and arrived at a huge observation tower (where I could have slept in ...) right at sunrise and had a first glimpse of the Alps. The weather continued to be horrible. When I arrived at Immenstadt the view across the Alpsee was basically zero due to fog and rain. I rented a room and deliberated what to do. I was now joining the Maximiliansweg which would take me up high into the moutains but the forecast for the entire week was cold and rain ... And therefore after sleeping one night over the idea I decided to call it quits for this year and took the train back home.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Europe Diagonal: Rheinland-Pfalz

I was now on the Saar-Rhein-Weg, another completely unknown German hiking trail. Although the area and the route was quite nice, I was unfortunately passing through on a week-end - and parallel to the trail was a little stream and a narrow winding road where dozens of loud motorbikes were cruising along ... When I approached a village I heard hunting horns and stumbled upon a village fair. The local horn group was playing, I rewarded myself with Blackforest cake and even chatted with some other tourists who admitted of having heard from me on TV ...

But this was going to be a long day ... When I came closer to my planned camping area I passed this lovely village pond. It was already so late that no other swimmers were around. Despite the road right next to the beach I stripped down and skinny dipped. Some locals watched me from afar but I was just happy to be clean again which cannot be said about the beach which was full of goose shit ... The closer I came to my camping forest the louder I heard music in the distance. I already started panicking because it would be hard to fall asleep with an open air concert nearby. But the music source turned out to be tractor and a trailer full of kids who were celebrating  God knows what. And they were moving - slowly but steadily away from me and the nice flat spot in the forest where I finally settled down.

The Pfälzer Wald was a nice area but alas without any cell phone reception at all. I decided to make a short detour into France again and went shopping in Wissembourg. Next I had to overcome a big obstacle: the river Rhine which was problematic, because there are not too many bridges crossing it. I followed the Rhine bike trail to the Rhine ferry where I was passed by hundreds of cyclists who shot me pitiful looks. I hiked more than 40 km that day because walking on flat bike paths was dead easy and the ferry ride did take less than 10 minutes! I could already see the Black forest looming on the horizon once I had crossed the river!

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Europe Diagonal: Saarland

My trip through Germany started at Perl where I had already passed through on my previous European traverse. But this time all the supermarkets were closed ... Next morning brought me to the famous Saar Bow, a 180 degree turn in the river - a spectacular view and therefore incredibly crowded with tourists. But as soon as I hiked on I was almost alone again in the forest - at least until arriving in Mettlach with the famous porcelain factory of Villeroy & Boch. I could not resist and visited the museum and showroom. Being an ultralight hiker I was at least not tempted to buy anything ...

Camping turned into a bit of a problem that night
because the only small forest was located on a hill too steep for camping. And right on top were there was supposed to be a look out tower according to my map there was now cell phone tower with fences around the whole area. Luckily I found a flat spot right before sunset which was fairly quiet - until I realised that I was camped just a couple of hundred metres away from the church tower with the clock striking every quarter hour until 10 pm. And of course I was woken up in the morning with church bells as well. But the day took a very nice turn because my next rest day was coming up and I had been invited to stay with a fan of my books in Dillingen.

Getting there took me to Litermont mountain with a wonderful view. I could even see the smoke stacks of the steel works in the distance. Dillingen was not directly on my route and therefore I took the bus to get to my host. As she was working in the afternoon I used the spare time to visit an old steel work in Völklingen which had been turned into a UNESCO world heritage site. The area was huge and I could have spent an entire day there taking pictures, learning about steel making and seeing all the art and photography exhibitions. My host even picked me up by car. I did not see much of Dillingen because I was so happy to just lie in bed the entire day and use the internet!

Hiking on I realised that this was not exactly the most scenic part of Saarland. The trail was ok but I was always close to civilisation and continously trying to find a campsite that was out of earshot of the various motorways. One evening I was so happy to find a spot out of sight that it took my a while to figure out that I was trying to camp on top of an old bunker! It was impossible to get my tent pegs in because underneath a very thin layer of earth I hit concrete. It felt a bit bizarre to camp so close to a WW II site but I had no other choice - and I slept well.The Saar-Mosel-Weg even took me right through a university campus where I used the change to charge up my cell phone.

I must say that Saarland was a bit of a disappointment although I had probably just chosen the wrong trail that led my through a very populated area.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Europe Diagonal: Luxembourg

Luxembourg is kind of a hikers' paradise with wonderful trail - but unfortunately these are all in the North of this small country. My route was leading me through the heavily industrialized South. Up to only decades ago mining was predominant in this area which was documented by a memorial for all the miners that had lost their lives in work accidents. It was interesting to see that the number of accidents significantly decreased over the years! Right nex to this impressive memorial is a much smaller one, a little chapel with the Madonna of Leiffrächen - a very popular pilgrimage site not only for miners.

I was very lucky to have an invitation in Kayl
where one of my FB friends had invited me to her house. I was not only heavenly fed but could eventually ask all my questions about multilingual Luxembourg: The little country has its own language which is kind of similar to German so that I could halfway understand what is going on. When I tried some newlearnt words on my hosts' dog it even obeyed! And most people here also speak German as a second language plus French as the third official language! Very impressive also the incredible apricot cake I was served for dessert. I liked it so much that I was given the leftovers when I departed next morning!

The rest of my route through Luxembourg was unremarkable. Nothing to write home about, but it was still amazing that  the trail planners found some relatively unspoilt areas where to route the trail through. Sometimes the scenery was really pretty but I could always here a motorway or trainline. Scenic highlight was my arrival at the three country border at Schengen / Perl where I hiked through the vineyards of the river Mosel and couldn not resist to nick some grapes.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Europe Diagonal: Belgium GR 129 Part 2 and conclusion

Local bakery on wheels
In Belgium I encountered several unexpected obstacles - one of them was closures because of hunting. When I was arriving at my camping forest one evening there was a big sign in French announcing hunts - and saying that you should not walk through the forest in the early morning and late evening because of hunting activities. What should I do? I had no choice (and no other accommodation) and therefore I continued on whistling and singing loudly. I hoped that any hunter would this way hear me before seeing and shooting me ... My strategy worked and I set up camp at a sight that could easily be seen by hunters. Luckily I did not see a soul and only heard shooting in a far distance.

View of Dinant
Next day was my lucky day: When I was just dragging myself along in the heat being hungry and
thirsty I spotted a van in a litte village. It turned out to be the local baker on a sales tour. Two expensive but delicious chocolate croissants quickly disappeared into my belly before I continued to the two famous Belgian monasteries Maradret and Maredsou, know for their beer (which I don't drink) and cheese (which was nice).
Dinant was my next resupply stop and it greeted me with a wonderful view down at the river valley at sunrise.

With Mick inside Bertie
It was a short hiking day for me because I had two visitors waiting for me:Gayle and Mick are two British hikers and runners whom I had met in Britain several years ago. We had always been following each other and therefore they knew about my route through Belgium - which they were to cross on their way home. They had been touring around Germany for the summer in their mobile home called Bertie. As I was about the cross the motorway they were heading up on we agreed to meet at a commercial campground. There I could not only enjoy a hot shower but was also very well fed and entertained by my two friends before we both embarked on our respective ways the next morning.

River Semois at sunset
The GR 129 had now finally reached the Ardennes with plenty of forest and the wonderful river Semois which winds its way through it. When I say an old railway line turned into hiking trail I decided to use this detour. It turned out to be very scenic - but with an huge obstacle. Right in the middle of nowhere the old railway led through tunnel which was completely fenced off - but someone had cut a small hole into the mesh fence. Could I dare to go through the tunnel without seeing any light on the other end? I took out my headlamp and risked it - and had no problem whatsoever!

Orval is an active monastery also known for its beer. I had hoped to have a rest day there but unfortunately exactly that week the monks were gone for a retreat. Early morning I was the first visitor waiting to be let in. When I used the bathroom I had a look in the mirror and discovered a tick right on my eyelid! I took out my little Swiss army know and plucked it out with my tweezers - while a full busload of tourists watched my little operation. Back on the trail I met a guy from a Belgian hiking club who was doing trail maintenance and refreshing trail markers. It was very interesting to have a look at his tool box and chat with him. He continued on while I was finishing my lunch. To my big surprise he came towards me after half an hour: The trail ahead of us was closed due to African Swine Fever. And it was seriously closed with a stable metal fence around the whole area and locked gates. What to do now? There was no map of the affected area and also no detour. Even the neighbours had no clue how big the fenced off area was. They just warned us to go in there because inside they were hunting wild boars day and night. I decided to walk around which is difficult not knowing how big the area is ...

I ended up doing a huge detour. Every access trail into the forest was blocked and warning signs were everywhere. I started to worry about were to camp that night! When I reached the forest I had planned to camp in I saw another warning sign and almost despaired. Luckily I took a closer look and discovered that this area had been closed a couple of weeks ago and was now open again. Still, it was already dark when I eventually set up my tent ... The disease has not reached Germany yet and I do hope it stays that way! Also Luxemburg which I was entering now is still free of the disease.

Belgium is full of reminders of World War I and II
Before embarking on this trip I had hiked in Belgium before and had very much enjoyed it. The GR 129 was a bit disappointing in comparison. The part through Flanders was downright boring. Lots of road walks, difficult camping and just flat land with no particularly exciting views. I have had worse connecting sections on my various hikes but it wasn't a highlight either. Things got better in the South and at least wild camping ceased to be problem. I enjoyed the cultural sights and hiking was better but this was still no highlight I would recommend. There are better trails in Belgium than the GR 129. Still it was fascinating to cross an entire country and see the changes.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Europe Diagonal: Belgium GR 129 Part 1

At the beach near Brugges
When I had started to plan this trip and was searching for a route through the BeNeLux countries, I stumbled upon the GR 129 through Belgium which is so aptly called "Belgique en diagonal". With this title I could not resist and chose this trail which starts in Brugges. Travelling to Brugges from Germany turned out to be much longer than expected because a train broke down in Cologne, could not be "revived" and I had to wait for the next totally overbooked train two hours later. I was utterly exhausted when I finally arrived in Brugges at night. After half a day of sightseeing in this pittoresque tourist town I started my hike right at the coast in wonderful weather. The beach was fantastic but the 20 km walk back to Brugge showed me what was to come in the next days: endless road walk in very flat countryside!

Wild camping turned out to be a big problem because there was hardly any forest or trees to hide in! I had to plan very well in advance to find a suitable spot every evening. The trail itself wasn't too exciting either: More than 50% I was walking on concrete roads or bike paths! Flanders is definitely more bike than hike country. To my big surprise I even met another female hiker who was even wild camping like me. Still there were some highlights on this stretch: an old water castle and the pittoresque town of Oudenarde. From Ath where there was a big festival taking place I took the train to Brussels for my first rest day in Belgium - and to meet a hiker friend!

I had known Fatma only virtually but felt very welcome immediately in her flat in Brussels. She and her partner really pampered me with fantastic food and very interesting talks! I visited the Royal Palace and an art museum and we we sat together in the evening drinking a glass of wine together I could not think of anything that would have made that day more perfect! This was definitely the best rest day on this trip! After breakfast together I boarded the train again that brought me back to Ath and hiking - and the heat. Now in August it was almost unbearably hot and because there is so little forest there is also hardly any shade! These days really dragged on and on and I was very happy to be able to make phone calls and talk to my friends while hiking!

But there were also some highlights: Blackberries were ripe and I had always somehting to snack. And because I was walking along endless fields I could also skip lunch and eat corn cobs. And I passed the Mons which had just recently been Cultural capitol of Europe and was therefore full of interesting museums. There were so many that it was difficult to choose! I visited the War Museum because Mons played an important role in both world wars and the Silex Museum several kilometres away but along the GR 129. Here back in the stone ages flint stone had been mined and the museum  is in fact a huge tent where archaelogists are still excavating the old mine shafts. When I had a break in the shade there I found a lot of stone chips that could well have been created by our human ancestors.

Unfortunately this lovely day ended with a bad surprise: My "camping forest" turned out to be the garden of a castle and was completely fenced in! I ended up camping in a meadow right next to a cell phone tower. At least it was nice to have 4G reception in the evening ...
The trail does hardly get any use here! Some paths are completely overgrown with blackberry bushes and nettles and I have to wear long pants despite the heat. Along the roads there are "mowers" to cut the grass and bushes and when one of these guys saw me coming out of the fiels he was so surprises that he mowed one of the guardrails off ...

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Europe Diagonal: Great Britain Coast to Coast

The European long-distance path E8 continues through Great Britain as the Transpennine Way. When I had a close look at this trail preparing this trip I discovered that this is not a very scenic route. Always close to civilization and mostly on concrete. Therefore I decided to hike Wainwright's Coast to Coast instead which is a bit further north but the exact same length. Right from the start this turned out to be the right decision. After a hearty  English breakfast in a traditional B&B I started with a walk along spectacular coastline - alas in rainy weather. The couple in the picture could not believe that I was camping: "Your backpack is so much smaller than ours and we don't camp!" Well, they had not heard about ultralight backpacking yet.

This mostly unmarked trail then continued through the Lake District, a real gem! Despite a lot of rain this stretch was a real highlight and I could not take enough pictures. Unfortunately, in on of the most beautiful places I got so soaked in a cloud burst that I could hardly take any pictures any more. The touchscreen of my smartphone was wet and I did not have any dry cloth to clean it. Plus my fingers were so wet and frozen ... It was still a wonderful day despite the fact that I had to put on soaking wet and cold clothes the following morning. I rewarded myself with a breakfast of champions outside the little supermarket in Grasmere and ate an entire package of chocolate trifle.

Idyllic campsite with unexpected visitors
One night I arrived at a spectacular lake with no one else around. Apparantly this was a popular campsite and as wild camping is usually tolerated in this National Park I set up my tent at this fantastic site despite the fact that there was goose shit all around. I soon regretted this: In the middle of the night I heard some crackling noises right outside my tent and I just see some small animal runnig away. Closer inspection revealed that a fox had dragged a bag of nachos and my trash bag out of the front pocket of my backpack! It was too dark to see what had happened to both but in the morning I had to collect empty wrappers and used toilet paper that was lying around. The nachos of course were completely gone ... A British friend told me later that something similar had happened to him at the exact same spot.

After a sort of connecting day I was in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and had reached the Pennines. More spectacular scenery, a lot of sheep and cattle - but unfortunately only chocolate brown drinking water that slightly tasted of iron but looked colorwise like peach ice tea. There were a lot of industrial remnants in this area which was a mining centre in the 18th and 19th  century. What looks almost like wilderness now was a busy industrial area once. Coast to Coast (C2C) is a popular trail and I came across several churches that offered drinks and snacks at cost price for hikers and there was even some trail magic boxes along the way. Very welcome in the rainy weather!

Drinking chocolate brown swamp water
One morning I was shocked to discover that my charging cable was gone with my phone only 20% charged up! A horror scenario for me whose smartphone is my backup navigational device. I found it half an hour later when packing 10 metres away. It had fallen out of my backpack when setting up the tent in the dark. I had my one and only rest day on the C2C in Richmond where I had booked myself into a rather posh B&B. The owner's husband was more than delighted by German native speaker because he had been forced to apply for a German tax number and could not figure out the application form. I ended up spending almost two hours translating and explaining it to him ... He rewarded my with a very substantial discount on the room price ...

Paragliders in the North York Moors
After another connecting day I arrived at North York Moors National Park where paragliders were taking advantage of the nice weather - which unfortunately turned very bad the next day. In fact so bad, that a lady walking her dog told me that even her dog did not want to go outside this day. I desperately tried to find some kind of accommodation for that night but every place I called was already fully booked. I was so distressed that I even went into a pub and ordered a cup of tea and something to eat. I was the first customer of the day and my backback left a huge puddle on the floor. Eventually I managed to find a room, but the landlady asked me: "When does your luggage arrive?" I had visions of my backpack walking on its own, but she just referred to the fact that most hikers have their luggage transported for them by commercial providers.

The place turned out to be a palace but unfortunately a very dusty one. She only rents out rooms occassionally and therefore the room really smelled as old as the house was. At least weather was a bit better on my last day when I reached the coast at Robin Hood's Bay. I had just reached the little village when I saw the bus rounding the corner - and even caught it. Therefore my hike on the C2C ended kind of abruptly ... Before I left Britain I met up with Colin, an old hiking friend of mine who gave me some new hiking ideas - as if I did not have enough of them already .... Then I had to return to Germany for a brief stint as a best woman at my best friend's wedding before resuming my hike.

Coast to Coast was the real highlight of this hike and I can highly recommend it!!!! I had hiked across Britain before from John O'Groats to Land's End and had not liked it a lot. With that experience I did not have high expectations for the Coast to Coast but I was literally overwhelmed by how great it was. One of the big advantages of the C2C is how easy wild camping is!!! It is tolerated in the three national parks and wasn't a problem in the connecting stretches in between. Although C2C is a popular trail I did not meet a lot of other hikers probably due to the fact that I had started on a Monday and mostly camped wheras most hikers stay in town.