Hiking Northern Bavaria
“Mensch! Where’s your jacket?!”
I stuttered, momentarily panicked by the scolding of a German grandmother standing on the road at the edge of the village, her shorter sidekick friend giggling. She had a maternal reason for shouting. The weather was bleak with late February overcast, winds and the looming threat of rain.
“I’m fine,” I replied with a grin. “I have a jacket in my backpack in case I get cold.” It’s also true that hiking was keeping me warm enough.
“Take a candy,” she said as I got closer, handing out two Werther’s Original candies wrapped in gold paper. “Where are you from? England? America?”
“The U.S.,” I responded, prompting her to try and sprinkle some English vocabulary.
“Wo ist Ihre girl?” she asked. “Where’s your girl?”
“My wife is in Düsseldorf,” I said, and they smiled before heading back indoors as the mist turned to rain.
“You should really wear a jacket. Your mother would thank me.”
This is hardly a rare exchange when hiking in Germany. My wife, Melanie, has long theorized that, in general, hikers and walkers are among the most pleasant lot in the world – and I tend to agree after three years of living in Germany, hiking every chance I get. They greet you in passing, they engage in pleasant small talk, and older folks especially dole out the sweetest smiles with the heartiest Guten Morgen! They even laugh at my dog Moses’ bright yellow winter jacket that looks like he’s about to hit an underground techno club.
When hiking for 20 miles along the 13-Brauereien-Weg outside of Bamberg in northern Bavaria, you’re going to run into a number of characters along the way.
Dorfs and Beer Trucks
As the arguable beer capital of Germany, it makes sense for Bamberg to blend the German passion for Wandern (hiking) with beer – commonly known as the reward for hiking long distances around these parts. The aptly-named 13-Brauereien-Weg (literally, “13 breweries trail”) starts with a short bus ride outside of town in Memmelsdorf – the first Dorf (village) of many that sound made up by an Anglophone having fun with the German language. After Memmelsdorf, you've got Weichendorf, Merkendorf, Drosendorf, Meedensdorf and Schammelsdorf. Finally, you come across something different about 12 miles into the hike – Tiefenellern. But fear not – Lohndorf is just a mile or so hike away, and then it's a straight shot to the end in Strullendorf.
Sometimes when people think of villages, they imagine a society that hasn’t quite caught up with the sophistication and advances of the nearest city. That’s not necessarily the case here, where breweries send trucks to pick up your empty beer bottles. I saw it with my own eyes somewhere outside of Merkendorf. A blue Brauerei Wagner truck was starting and stopping along the road, like USPS mail delivery, picking up crates of empty beer bottles left on the curb.
There’s no hiding the obvious fact that hiking most anywhere in February is going to be visually bleaker than the summer months when photographers set out to snap their sunny photos for the tourist pamphlets. Overcast clouds covered the sky like a bulletproof blanket as naked winter trees were deprived of even a drop of sunshine. That’s not to say there’s no pleasant scenery in the entire hike. On the contrary, with the great privilege of living and regularly hiking in Germany, I could easily swipe an Instagram filter across my mind’s eye and imagine the rolling Franconian hills shining under a sweltering summer sun. I could fill out the now-empty beer gardens with benches full of locals and tourists alike, chattering over half-liters of the local brew.
I saw enough to know that I’d love to return, but certainly in the summer and more likely with a cross bike, because very little of the trail was exclusive to hikers. In fact, a good deal of the 13-Brauereien-Weg is on sidewalk or pavement, which makes sense in retrospect. It’s the 21st century, and towns don’t generally appear off of a forested trail these days.
Though doing anything on foot opens you up to conversation with passersby, and had I been whizzing by on a bike, I wouldn’t have been stopped by the woman walking her horse, as one does, so she could show me her favorite tree roots.
“Good afternoon,” I said in passing to the older woman dressed in a bright red jacket with a gray beanie covering her short brown hair. She responded in kind before taking note of the camera hanging at the side of my hip.
“What do you want to photograph?” she asked, nodding at my camera.
“Oh, nothing particularly,” I said. “The scenery and some of the breweries along the trail.”
The woman looked up at me excitedly and started talking about some roots I would’ve just passed by.
“They’re so beautiful. I have a picture of them back home. Do you want to see them?”
I was just about 12 miles into the hike and my first brewery stop and schnitzel were in my near future, so backtracking for a look at some roots wasn’t exactly what I had in mind at the moment. But what if these truly were magnificent roots, a work of living art? The fear of missing out was too much to handle, and I agreed to backtrack with her and her blissfully unaware horse.
“They’re always changing,” she continued. “Every season, they look different.”
We arrived, and they were indeed roots. The tree was on the hillside with the roots in question coming out of the tilted ground, patches of green moss covering them. Now I don’t mean to downplay these roots. I could imagine an artist using it as inspiration for a separate work of art or perhaps even a more skillful photographer with the right lens could capture the sight and make an impressive display out of it. I, however, didn’t feel unobservant for having missed them the first time around. Nonetheless, I wanted to show my appreciation for backtracking and dragging her horse along to show me, a stranger, something that was special to her. I feigned great interest like you do when you’re slurping up an unsavory meal to be a good guest.
“You don’t have to take a photo if you don’t want to,” she told me as I inched closer and crouched lower with my camera. “Just if you want.”
“No, no!” I insisted. “It’s very beautiful.” With that, she smiled, wished me a nice day and continued east over the trail with her horse. I snapped a few photos and vowed not to stop again until there was a beer and schnitzel in front of me.
Coming out of the Lohntal Forest Reserve – the longest uninterrupted section of remote, forested hiking on the trail – the red-orange and gray rooftops of Tiefenellern started to rise out of the shallow valley. One rooftop was of particular interest, the one for Brauerei Hönig – my first stop of the day. This was hardly the first brewery I had passed in the day, but the first during what I deemed an appropriate drinking hour.
There was a quiet lunch crowd by the time I trotted in. A group of men shared a large table on one end of the establishment while two separate pairs of presumably retired married couples shared a quiet meal. Brewery interiors almost always have this humble late-19th-century wooden aesthetic, and Brauerei Hönig – like the others on the trail – was no different. But you don’t come for the interior design critique. Most drinkers want this copy/paste experience, the same as I want a rail-thin guy wearing a beanie with what looks like a reservoir tip in the worst of summer heat to serve me my Costa Rican rainforest Aeropress coffee.
Running low on calories, I devoured my schnitzel (my second within 24 hours) and drank a lager faster than what’s medically recommended. In my defense, the beer was just a quarter-liter, something I stipulated in my order rather than the assumed half-liter everyone else was drinking. I still had the trail to hike, so I was being responsible.
But should I just indulge myself? I wondered. I’d hiked more than half the trail at this point, and the route didn’t appear to go through any more forested sections. There was a bus coming soon that would have me back in Bamberg within a half hour, I could take a hot shower, and indulge myself without my looming hiker stench.
No, I thought. I mustn't. Like a great explorer sent by my royal overlords, I determined that I owed it to whoever might read these words to press on for the remainder of the trail and drink more beer. And that’s precisely what I did after a quick coffee to counteract the downers and another chat about my camera with the presumed owner of the establishment, ending with him excitedly handing me a brochure with more information on the trail I’d be hiking with a sunny summer photo of the Franconian landscape on the cover.
Hiking after Tiefenellern, I thought it’d be more of the same, but it actually offered a different visual perspective of the region. Not the kind of magnificent scenery that would’ve compelled 18th-century romantics to write poetry, but it was a pleasant jaunt along the foothills over the crushed gravel trail – the kind a cross bike could easily handle. Turning back occasionally, I could see Tiefenellern from its best angle with an army of wind turbines rising over the hills the further I walked away.
The last brewery I stopped at was in Rossdorf am Forst – Brauerei Sauer. This is one where I could especially imagine the lively summer atmosphere with bicycles parked out front and sun-soaked drinkers crowding the slew of picnic tables outside. Inside was smaller than Brauerei Hönig, with reservations blocking out otherwise empty tables.
Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance
The saving grace of hiking during the wetter months of German weather is the unmistakable aroma of spring after a quick rain shower. It’s a smell I immediately associate with hiking. If I take the dog out on Saturday morning and get a whiff of this laundry detergent-esque odor, my phantom tail starts to wag at the prospect of going out on a hike.
Most of my experiences hiking in western Germany led me to believe that Germans love marking their trails as much as they love hiking them. But for this, I’m glad I followed the adage of “prior planning prevents poor performance” by downloading a GPX route of the trail to follow, because signs are infrequent. Even better, I came to an intersection with both cycling and hiking directions. The trail marker said to turn left for Strullendorf, but the bike sign showed to go right. Both the maps from the tourist board and the GPX said to go right as well. Could you imagine hiking 18-some miles and then taking a wrong turn?
Fortunately, I ignored the trail marker with the 13-Brauereien-Weg logo and turned right for an easy ramble into Strullendorf, where I’d catch the train back to Bamberg.
Written by Joe Baur