Saturday, 30 December 2017

Shorter hikes: German pilgrimage trails

The following hikes are relatively short and I would not mention them normally but they are such a great choice for winter hiking that I could not resist including them. To start with I want to state that I am not a great fan of pilgrimage trails in general because they follow "easy" routes that have now been transformed into highways and trainlines. No wonder: in mediaveal times people wanted to get to the pilgrimage sites as quickly and as easy as possible. Natural beauty was not their concern! And I downright disliked Spanish caminos and their commercialization, not to mention the overcrowded albergues.

Marienstern monastery
But in winter time when there is less than 10 hours of daylight and freezing temperatures even I am not too enthusiastic about camping - and then pilgrimage trails with their great logistic are a fantastic option. And as I was to discover soon some of the rather unconventional pilgrim accommodations are a great way of getting in contact with people you would otherwise never meet. I heard some very interesting stories this way! In winter 2015/16 I hiked on three different pilgrimage trails that were easily accessible from Berlin.

Berlin - Wilsnack


In the Middle Ages Wilsnack was a popular pilgrimage destination that fell into oblivion with reformation. Just some 10 years ago German historians re-discovered and waymarked the 120 km long trail from the outskirts of Berlin to Wilsnack. There is a German guidebook and website - but nothing like a "boom" on this trail. I was totally alone when I hiked it in October 2015 which might have been due to the season and the rather "boring" flat landscape. But I really liked the "monotony" because it gave the hike a contemplative character.

But the best apect of this trail is not the landscape but the accommodation and the people. I stayed with an old Protestant "nun" in a parsonage, slept in the belltower of a fortified church and another parsonage whose keeper was also running a local small museum that displayed information of every single house in the village. She gave me a short course in local history and I ended up talking three hours with her!

Churches along the trail are usually locked but from your guidebook or an display at the building you learn where to get the keys. It feels like a blind date when you go to a house and ask a stranger for the keys. Because not much is going on in these villages the key keepers were usually very talkative and accompanied me to their church to give me a little tour. And although these village churches are no architectural wonders I was always delighted to hear the stories and learn about locals history.

To sum it up: If you speak German and are interested in getting to know about local history and people this little trail is a gem! There are several interesting accommodations (including two in belltowers!) along the trail and nice little villages and towns. People are not very outgoing but when you ask them they are usually more than willing to talk to you. The landscape is not spectacular at all but if you like the great wide open you will find it delightful. For me this trail was pilgrimaging at its best without the commercialisation of the Spanish caminos!

Pilgrimage Trail Loccum - Volkenroda


Bursfelde monastery
Because I had liked the Wilsnack Trail so much I decided to try another pilgrimage trail in November 2015: the Protestant trail Loccum - Volkenroda. Both places are old monasteries founded way back in the Middle Ages. The entire trail is around 300 kilometres and I hiked 130 kilometres from Uslar to Mühlhausen. Again I passed many fascinating churches that had mostly been transformed from once Catholic to Prostestant - and that were usually open! Unfortunately not all pilgrimage accommodation was availabe in winter and I had to camp out one night.

Accommodation in Camp Friedland
But on the other two nights I slept under interesting roofs: First in the refugee camp at Friedland which had been founded after WW II for displaced persons but was now overflowing with refugees from the Middle East. The next night I had made reservations to stay in a parsonage. Because it was raining so heavily the pastor's wife came even searching for me in the rain and invited me to share dinner with them! Another "attraction" of this trail is a short walk on the former border strip between East and West Germany.

To sum it up: It was a nice and interesting walk despite the bad weather I encountered in November. Still I would not get out of my way to do this pilgrimage trail: The landscape is nothing special and because most churches are open you do not meet as many people as on other trails where you have to ask for the key. I have not met any other pilgrim on this trail in November and I don't think that is is crowded in any other season either ...

Via Regia or Oecomenical Pilgrimage Trail


Marienstern monastery
The Via Regia has been a trade route and pilgrimage trail for centuries and has now been waymarked between Görlitz and Vacha on 470 kilometres. In December 2015 I hiked around 100 kilometres on it between Görlitz and Königsbrück. As was to be expected weather in December was nothing to write home about and I was very happy about the cheap pilgrimage accommodation like here in the monastery Marienstern where I could even attend mass in the rare Sorbian language (not that I understood a word of it ...)

Stasi prison in Bautzen
Because the Via Regia is an old trade route it passes through a lot of  towns which is tedious because I generally do not like to walk on concrete through endless suburbs. But on the Via Regia you are rewarded with wonderful old cities and fascinating sights like the old and beautifully restored Görlitz or Bautzen where I visited the gruesome former prison of the East German Stasi! Unfortunately many pilgrimage accommodations were not available in winter but I could resort to other cheap places listed in the trail guide.

To sum it up: Landscape wise this trail is nothing special and there is a lot of walking on pavement - but this is not unusual on pilgrimage trails. Still I think it is a better idea to cycle the Via Regia than to hike it - and both ways you will rewarded with wonderful old cities and interesting accommodation. I would not mind finishing the entire trail although I would rather cycle the rest.

1 comment:

Babsi said...

Definitely have to try your routes :) I've read here that 2018 will be an athletic year for me, so ... :) I already tried snowshoeing last week! It is so much fun, you should try it. We were in the middle of nowhere, now foot prints beside our own, so beautiful! I would love to post a picture for you :)