Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Kektura - a thruhike of Hungary

My hiking season has not ended yet - I'll be on another trip in October. And it will be a rather exotic destination: Hungary which is usually not really on the European hiking agenda. But Hungary boasts of one the oldest European long-distance hiking trails, the Blue Trail or Kektura as it is called in Hungary. In roughly 1000 km it traverses the entire country from East to West. Although very few Western European hikers know about it this trail is extremely popular in Hungary itself. And fall is one of the best seasons to hike there! I am extremely curious what is waiting for me there!

Sunday, 25 September 2016

E1: Denmark to Gothenburg

I have hiked this 380 kilometre long stretch in summer 2015 together with a friend for whom it was his first long hiking trip. After an overnight bus trip from Berlin we started at a windy morning in Gothenburg centre. I had been here the year before at the end of my paddling trip and could therefore lead us directly into the only cheap and vegetarian restaurant in the city centre for a last decent buffet meal before setting off. The first day was on the very comfortable Bohusleden passing fantastic swimming lakes - and hordes of vacationing Swedes.

We were hiking South and soon reached the relatively unknown Hallandsleden which soon turned out to be relatively unmaintained as well! Clear cuts had often destroyed the trail and waymarking was generally very poor. We even ended up in a swamp area when looking for a shelter. To sum it up: Hallandsleden is not a highlight of Swedish hiking culture and I was happy to soon reach Varberg. I splurged for an AirBnB accommodation because my 48th birthday was coming up. But with Swedish prices I was celebrating with supermarket food and not in a restaurant ...

We took the evening ferry from Varberg to Grena in Denmark which meant that we arrived after dark - and finding a stealth campsite turned out to be difficult. There was a small forest within walking distance from the ferry landing - and it was crisscrossed by endless trails. Eventually I thought I had found a hidden campsite - only to realise in the morning that I was camping right next to a jogger path. We left pretty quickly and were greeted friendly by some curious joggers when we packed up. The E1 now follows some unknown trails: First Molsruten and then the Silkeborg-Arhus-Trail. Both trails were rather unspectacular and even the sea did not invite me to go swimming.

Last but not least we reached the Haervejen, an old but revived pilgrimage trail. In typical "Camino"-tradition there are "albergues" along the way which were beyond our budget due to Danish prices. But you could even buy soft drinks and snacks along the way ... At least the waymarking was great there were some free camp sites along the way as well complete with fire rings and grates, shelters and dry toilets. One morning we had already packed up and were eating breakfast when a very furious man approached our wild camping site and told us to leave immediately. It turned out that he was the advance party of a big hunting group - luckily we were not shot ...

To sum it up: This stretch has not been the most exciting hiking! It has been a pleasant experience and it was a great hike for beginners but I would not particulary recommend it to anyone. But on every long-distance hike there are connecting bits - and this was one of them.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

E1 through Germany: Conclusion

Now let me answer the usual two questions at the end of each trip: Did I like this trip? Yes, I did! For me, after major surgery and a 6 week reconvalescence this trip has been ideal. The terrain was easy. No steep ascents or descents. I came across a supermarket almost every day which meant a very low pack weight. Navigation was relatively straight forward. Only where the E1 is not part of a another major trail the trail marking was less than perfect. Also I had enjoyed the most perfect summer weather!

But would I recommend it to a friend? Probably not! Why not? The biggest drawback is the high percentage of walking on pavement. The part from Koblenz to Hamburg was still tolerable, but after that the route was more than 50% on concrete. The North of Germany is much more suitable for biking than for hiking. Also the scenery is nothing to write home about. It is flat. All you see most of the time is fields. In bad weather this must be miserable! Although parts of the trail like the Rothaarsteig and the Heidschnuckenweg were really nice, on average this trail was rather an average trail. There is much better long-distance hiking in Germany.

Haervejen in Denmark

View onto the Flensburg Fjord
In Flensburg I crossed over into Denmark - on a tiny little path through the woods. To my utter surprise this border crossing point was staffed: Two Danish policemen were controlling it - despite the Schengen contract. I guess this is the result of the European refugee crisis. I asked the police guy if he wanted to see my passport. "Yes, please!", he answered. "Although you don't look like you'd be carrying an illegal Afghan refugee in your backpack!" Once on the Danish side I detoured a bit from the E1 that is called Haervejen here because I wanted to stay at one of the designated free Danish campsites. And what a great campsite it was: Right from my tent door I had a great view over the Flensburg Fjord. I left my tent door open at night and watched the moon rising over the Fjord and listened to the soft waves of the Baltic Sea - it was a great night!

With Sven Lewerentz
Next day brought a nice surprise: At midday I saw three hikers sitting directly on the trail. Since I had not seen any hikers for many days I stopped to chat. And then it turned out that I had stumbled across Sven Lewerentz who runs a website about the E1! Sven was accompanied by his girlfriend and his mother. His 76 year old mother had started to section hike the E1 already 30 years ago and she has passed on her passion for the trail onto her son.

We chatted so much that it was almost dark when I finally got to my planned campsite - one of the luxury picnic shelters of the Haervejen. The Haervejen offers a lot of hiker ammenities: Lots of shelters, great waymarking and because it is a pilgrimage trail most churches along the way are open during the day. Plus Danish cemeteries all have water taps and mostly even toilets! I was a very clean hiker on this stretch of trail....

Trail magic in Jegerup
I even received trail magic on Saturday: In the village of Jegerup I decided to have my lunch break. I headed over to a nice picnic pavillion in the village centre when an older lady stopped me to tell me something in Danish. I don't understand much Danish but "gratis frokost" seemed to mean "free food" and so I immediately followed her invitiation into the parish hall. There I was told the whole story: Today was the yearly village festival where everyone in the village contributed something to a big brunch. And of course I was invited! Unfortunately I was a bit late but there was still enough left for a hungry hiker. So today was smoerebroed instead of packaged noodle soup!

Neil, Alfred and Anna
On September 19th I finished my hike on the E1 for this year in Egtved. I had already hiked the E1 from Gothenburg in Sweden to here the year before - so this was the perfect finish place for me. Now I only have to hike 3000 km more and I will have finished my European South-West traverse from Tarifa to the North Cape! But before I took the train back to Berlin I visited two old friends: Neil and Anna, who live close to Himmelbjerget, the highest mountain in Denmark. This was my third visit to them: the first time I had come on bike on my bike trip around the Baltic Sea and the second time when I had hiked from Gothenburg to Egtved. Only now they are three: their son Alfred is now nearly one year old....

The E1 in Schleswig-Holstein

The Elbe in Hamburg
On September 4th I was back in Hamburg and crossed the river Elbe on a ferry from Cranz to Blankenese. In Hamburg the E1 splits: the main route heads East and continues up to Schleswig along the Baltic Sea Coast. But there is also a shorter Western variant which I took due to time restraints which is called Schlei-Eider-Elbe-Weg. Therefore I now walked East around Hamburg. I was really worried about this stretch because I was still very close to a big city and could not get all the way around it in one day of hiking. I had carefully studied the map and had found a little forest that looked suitable for free camping but it was still awfully close to civilisation. Two hours before sunset I was still in the outskirts of Hamburg where I found a little Asian take away restaurant. I decided to have dinner there before I headed out again to find a stealth campsite. All turned out very well in the end. Although there were still plenty of dog walkers and joggers out there I found a great hidden place in my little forest and slept very well.

Josef und Ute
Two nights later I slept under a roof again. Ute and Josef, two "fans" of my book had invited me to their place close to Itzehoe. They are planning to hike the AT next year and had plenty of questions for me. We spent a pleasant evening with lots of trail and gear talk - and great food. They made a fantastic barbecue for me and Josef prepared the world's best fried potatoes for me! They became trail angels before they turn into thruhikers and gave me some very nice trail magic!

Container ship on the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal
Next event was the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal, a very busy canal that connects the North Sea with the Baltic Sea. I hiked 13 km along the canal with huge container ships at my side which saved me more than 50 km on the E1. But time saving was not my main reason for this shortcut. I really love canal paths. They provide easy and quick hiking - and love ship viewing.  The sun was burning down relentlessly this morning but I chose the shady side of the canal and therefore spent a cool morning.

Campground in Tellingstedt
In the little town of Tellingstedt I struck gold again. I had just wanted to fill up with water again here but then I discovered a campsite on my map. I hardly ever stay at campsites but I thought that maybe I could pay for a shower there and then hike on. When I got there a sign announced that the campground was still open but not a single camper was to be seen. Only in one corner of the huge place two locals were enjoying a barbecue. They told me that the place was indeed officially open but hardly any campers ever came here because the town council was hardly promoting the place. The last permament campers had left the site some days ago. I asked them where to pay the camping fees and they just laughed. So I stayed at this perfect place with nice hot showers and an immaculate lawn for free. There was even an Aldi close by where I bought an opulent dinner before I bedded down in this huge place.

 Shopping at Aldi's these days was bit bizarre. Outside temperatures still reached more than 30 degrees everyday but at Ald's they were already stocking Christmas sweets. I also discovered that Aldi and Lidl stores are air-conditioned - a great relief from the heat. Hiking became more and more tedious because the landscape was completely flat now, hardly any forest and the trail consisted mainly of bike paths. Schleswig-Holstein is definitely more suitable for biking than for hiking.

Idstedter See
From the town of Schleswig I took the train to visit a friend in Rendsburg and have a rest day. In Schleswig the two E1 variants come together again and now follow the Ochsenweg which is also a pilgrimage trail. It is called Ochsenweg or Cattle Trail in German because this is the route on which cattle was driven from all over Denmark to the big cattle market in Hamburg. I liked it best for its two lakes that made great swimming! The weather was still unbelievable good - I have had only best summer weather for four weeks now. Summer weather does not get any better than that in Germany!

Still I must say that the part through Schleswig-Holstein was my least favourite of this hike. More than 50% of the route were on pavement, mostly on bike path. All I saw was endless fields that smelled horribly of liquid manure. And stealth camping was a huge problem because there is hardly any forest. There are much better places in Germany for hiking!

Hansaweg and Heidschnuckenwg

After another short bit on the E1 I got onto the little known Hansaweg in the lovely town of Hameln that every German knows from the tale of the Pied Piper. The landscape now becomes flatter and flatter and soon I reached and crossed the Mittellandkanal on the E1 again. Unfortunately, the trail is now routed more and more on asphalt, mainly on bike trails. I did more and more km every day but at night me feet were hurting again from pounding asphalt. Still, there were some nice suprises along the trail like this gem of a romanic church in Idensen.

Sigwardskirche in Idensen
The E1 coincides here with a pilgrimage trail, the Sigwardsweg. I had never heard of this 170 km long trail but it had all the amenities of a pilgrimage trail. The church was looked but you could retrieve the key from a box nearby. And I enjoyed sitting in the cool church  (and recharging my phone meanwhile) a lot. But there was more: notes invited the pilgrims to use the rest rooms in a nearby kindergarten which gave me the chance to clean up again. And there was even a little has containing a free library and book exchange nearby - including a sofa for reading! No wonder it took me almost two hours to get out of little Idensen again....

Leslie in the Hotel Atlantik
In 30 degree heat I dragged myself on the my next rest day in Celle which is also the start of the Heidschnuckenweg. I had booked myself a room in the Hotel Atlantik which is a normal rather worn hotel but has a great and eccentric owner. Leslie served for more than 20 years in the British army and was mostly stationed here in Celle. After ending his military career he returned to Britain but decided that he could not live there any more because he had fallen in love with Germany and Celle. So when the opportunity arose he bought the Hotel Atlantic which now shows his other passion: Leslie is an Elvis impersonator and therefore the hotel breakfast room looks like an Elvis museum. Leslie has even been made MBE (Member of the British Empire) by Queen Elisabeth for his Elvis charity shows.

After some sightseeing in Celle i continued on the Heidschnuckenweg, another very popular German long distance trail. Near Celle you skirt a huge military training area. It is not very often that you find "No tanks"-signs on hiking trails.... The Heidschnuckenweg is very sandy and I regretted not having brought gaiters. My shoes were full of sand all the time and my hiking socks were suffering. Still, the Heidschnuckenweg was the last "natural" highlight on this trip.

 The "Heide" was in full bloom now end of August and I even saw several of the "Heidschnucken", the sheep that have given the trail its name. I was making very fast progress now, so when I had reached Hamburg I decided it was time for a longer break. With Hamburg being so close the Berlin I just hopped on a train and spent two rest days at my own place in Berlin before I set off again to continue hiking north.


Sign for the "nice toilet"
 After a short connecting stretch I reached the Eggeweg at Obermarsberg and found a very nice surprise: a very nice and clean public toilet. You might be wondering why I am getting so excited about a public toilet but at that point I had already been hiking for more than a week without a chance to wash myself properly except in rivers and lakes. As you cannot use soap there my hair was in an awful state and my scalp was itchy. But this "nette Toilette" which means "nice toilet" gave me the opportunity to wash my hair - and a was very happy hiker afterwards!

Panorama on the Eggeweg

The Eggeweg turned out to be a pleasant hike, too. You mostly walk along some sort of escarpment - although the escarpment is not very high. The respective Eggegebirge must also be one of the smallest mountain ranges in Germany and rises up only to a maximum of 464 metres....

Trying to filter water through a hand towel
Still, I was hiking on the top of a "mountain range" and this brought with it the usual problem: lack of water! One day I had been too optimistic and had not detoured into a village to get water. The map showed several streams and even a spring at the end of the day. But every single stream was totally dry. But things got even worse. When I reached the spring with only half an hour of daylight left all I found was wet and soggy ground. There was even a marker saying this was the source of the stream "Aa" but there was no flowing water. I ended up scooping water out of a puddle which was milky and grey. Not a very appetizing view and therefore I wanted to filter it before using it for drinking and cooking. No problem, I had thought because I had brought several of the grey hand towels you find in toilets. I put the hand towel over my pot and poured the water in - but nothing happened. I had to find out that these hand towels only absorb water but do not work as a filter. Once the tissue is saturated it is almost water proof and does not let any more water through. I ended up cooking with "dirt"water and eating very sandy pasta that evening.

The Hermann monument in the background
I left the Eggeweg hat Detmold at the huge statue of Hermann, the Cherusker. It was a Sunday and the place was brimming with tourists. And I was to have my first sort of rest day of this trip. As Detmold is the seat of the German Youth hostel federation I thought it suitable to stay at the youth hostel there. The place was nearly deserted and I got myself a pleasant, but expensive single room. I was so tired that I ordered pizza from a pizza service - I did not feel like walking any more. Unfortunately it took 2 hours for the pizza to arrive.....
Altogether the Eggeweg which is later turns into Hermannshöhenweg was a very pleasant hike. Nothing to especially go there to hike it, but when you are in the area I can definitely recommend it. Just plan your water resupply carefully!


First E1 trail marker
From Koblenz I hiked straight up to the trail that I would be more or less following for the next five weeks: the European long-distance trail E1. There are 11 long-distance trails criss-crossing all over Europe. The E1 stretches from the North Cape in Norway to Italy. Theoretically it will go all the way down to Sicily one day but so far it is not finished in Italy yet. But from the Alps northward it is already complete all the way to the North Cape. The German section is already sort of old which means that modern "premium" hiking trails use parts of it but deviate at some points to more scenic alternatives.

"Hiking furniture" on the Rothaarsteig
The first "premium" hiking trail I along the E1 was the Rothaarsteig, a pleasant trail that I have already hiked many years ago and now it was a pleasure to see it again. The Rothaarsteig is not a spectacular trail - but nothing with this hike was spectacular. There is a lot of forest which was quite nice because it was incredibly hot and I would have burnt in the open. It is very well signposted and what I personally liked best there was a lot of "hiking furniture" like benches, tables and huts. Plus there were a lot of springs along the way which made resupplying water very easy. Therefore I had to carry little weight in my backpack and it was easier to get back in shape. I had hiked almost 30 km per day right from the start and in the first few days I had a muscle ache every night. No wonder - I had been lying in bed for the last 6 weeks. But quickly the aches and pains subsides and I turned into a hiker again.

Gerold after breakfast at six in the morning
The nicest event on the trail was meeting my old hiking friend Gerold. I had met him and his wife many years ago in Western Australia. I had just finished the Bibbulmun Track back then and they were on a bike trip. We had always stayed in contact over the years and I had known that Gerold was planning to hike all across Germany, from Sylt to the Zugspitze. And he, too was using the E1 a lot. We compared routes and found out that we were both on the Rothaarsteig at the same time - just coming from opposite directions. We arranged a meeting point via telephone and met on sunny evening near an observation tower and a picnic area. Gerold had just come out of town and brought plenty of stuff for our celebration: sausages, vegetables and two bottles of champagne. Although I had thought we could not manage we ended up drinking the two bottles in one evening and still had no hangover at breakfast at six! I only had a sore throat from talking so much with a fellow long distance hiker.

At the end of the Rothaarsteig I came through the towns of Winterberg and Willingen. Although rather small they were now in summer brimming with tourists - and most of them were Dutch. I almost felt like in a Dutch colony: Hotel signs boasted Dutch owners, restaurants offered "Schnitzel Oranje" and I saw more Dutch license plates than German.... I guess Dutch people find the closest mountains here in the "Sauerland" ! Altogether I enjoyed the Rothaarsteig a lot: Good waymarking, nice views - and the most mountainous landscape on this trip.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

On my way through Germany

My last hiking plans did not turn out at all as expected - and therefore I was a bit reluctant to publish my next plans, especially since I could not foresee how my body would fare with hiking after 6 week of reconvalescence.

But I am proud to say that I have already hiked 600 km now after my surgery with no problems!

So what is the plan? My doctors recommended easy hiking in Germany -always close to a hospital. And therefore I dug out an old plan: my hike from the Southernmost point in Europe to the Northernmost point, from Tarifa in Spain to the North Cape in Norway. I have already hiked from Germany to Tarifa in the winter 2013/14, but the second half from Germany to Norway was still missing. Of course the rest of the summer is not long enough to walk the whole distance of almost 5,000 km, but I decided to hike the missing part through Germany all the way up to Denmark.

Werner and I and the river Rhine
Like in 2013 when I hiked to Tarifa I started again at my friend Werner's place - but this time I was hiking North. Again I stayed one night with Werner and his wife - and again I was whining how bad everything is. In short: I was suffering from pre-trip depression again. It did not help that the night before my start date temperatures dropped down to 8 degrees Celsius. In the morning of August 11th Werner took me to Koblenz again where we had the obligatory start photo taken at the "Deutsches Eck". Then Werner accompanied me up to the fortress "Ehrenbreitstein". It was a first test for my physical condition - but huffing and puffing I kept up with Werner. After several more photos Werner finally sent me off on my way to Denmark. And I have happily been hiking ever since....

My planned route is about 1,000 km - I don't do anything shorter.... I have to be back in Berlin end of September and right now it looks that these five weeks is plenty of time. I have some speaker appointments in Germany and then I will be off hiking again in October in another place. But this is another post. I will keep you posted!