Journey into the Heart of the German Countryside – Part 4 (continued from previous post)
Day 5 – May 2: Shadows of the Past
By most measures the Jagst is a small river. Along its 126 mile length one can throw a rock across it in most places. But it is an old river, having carved its valley deeply down into the limestone of the Hohenlohe Plateau for hundreds of thousands of years. It witnessed the coming and going of ice ages, had mammoths and bison drink from its waters, and buried with its sediment Neanderthals, Celtic swords, Roman oil lamps, medieval ironmongery, and Wehrmacht weapons. Some relics endure as impressive structures, such as the pilgrimage church of St. Gangolph’s that was built in the 13th Century on the northern side of the Jagst River valley. Other relics come to light by chance or through archaeological excavation.
I leave the tavern early in the morning and round a corner in downtown Jagsthausen, passing a block where the remains of a Roman military compound have been excavated. This 2nd Century compound was one of several placed at intervals along the Limes, the fortified boundary of the Roman empire at that time. The Limes ran across the Jagst valley here, extending up and over a ridge into the neighboring valley of the Kocher River. The compound also contained a bath complex of several rooms, so that the bather could move first from a cold water bath (frigidarium room) to a warm water bath (tepidarium room) and finally to a hot water bath (caldarium room). This bath complex was adorned with two statues of Fortuna, the goddess of good fortune.
In the clear morning I cross the Jagst via a small bridge. Looking back at Jagsthausen I can now see the impressive medieval castle that belonged to the legendary Imperial Knight Goetz von Berlichingen (1480 – 1562).
Goetz owned several fortresses along both the Jagst and Neckar Rivers and was involved in several military engagements (feuds, sieges, and mercenary actions) including the Peasants’ Revolt in 1525. During a battle in 1504 a cannonball struck his sword, which swiveled and cut off his right arm. He survived the injury and was famous for using an iron prosthetic arm from that time on. Hence his familiar title “Goetz with the iron hand.” The poet Goethe wrote a play about Goetz’s life. In the third scene Goetz is under siege by the Imperial Army in his castle at Jagsthausen when a messenger of the army asks him if he will surrender. From a castle window Goetz gives his famous answer: “Tell your captain he can lick my arse.”
Around a meander bend of the Jagst I pass through the town of Berlichingen, another former residence of Goetz, and another bend brings me in sight of the spectacular Baroque Schoental Abbey. The structure began as a Cistercian monastery in the 12th Century, but was rebuilt as a Baroque structure after extensive damage and decay during the Peasant’s Revolt and Reformation. This is Goetz von Berlichingen’s burial place. I tried to find his grave, but there was a wedding in progress in the abbey church and each of my footfalls seemed to reverberate through the entire interior.
I closed the immense church door as quietly as possible and snuck down the front steps. Back on the Jagst floodplain my path paralleled an abandoned narrow gauge railway. Many of the passenger wagons seem to have just been left on the tracks, now covered with vines and grown through with saplings. This 39 km-long railway was built around 1900 to transport people and freight along the river. After a slow decline in use the system was relegated to the transport of sugar beets up until 1988, when the entire line was abandoned. Recent attempts to resurrect a part of the line were shot down by voters in the area, who noted the very high costs associated with the project (over 500,000 Euros).
Over the next several kilometers I notice a peculiar pain in my left upper shin. It feels as if a tendon is acting up. I periodically massage it and find myself taking more frequent rests, sitting on benches and rock walls. Suddenly something seems to snap, as if a tendon has detached and rolled up like a window shade (but from the upper shin down). There is a strange, tender lump at the base of my shin. Miraculously I can carry on, as long as I don’t move my ankle and keep my foot straight. Up hill is better than down. This style of locomotion works, but gives me a distinctive limp. I would find out later from my sports orthopedist that I actually had a stress fracture.
At Altkrautheim (Old Cabbage Home) the trail leaves the Jagst floodplain and rises up the valley flank to the edge of the forest. There is a small memorial marker to three German soldiers killed during the last few days of World War II. It is only a few days away from the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe (May 8, 1945). During those last desperate days for the Wehrmacht U.S. forces pursued the Germans eastward across the Jagst River. The Germans destroyed the Jagst bridges to slow the progress of the Allied forces and in the maelstrom of war atrocities were committed on both sides. These usually involved the execution of prisoners. During battles along the Jagst, 41 members of the 17th SS Mechanized Infantry “Goetz von Berlichingen” were murdered after their capture by U.S. troops.
In the woods alongside the trail accumulations of flowstone cover the slopes. Here acidic rainwater has entered cracks in the limestone of the Muschelkalk, dissolving it and re-precipitating it as wave-like, layered rock on the slopes of the valley. A bit further upstream I pass the largest mass of flowstone along the entire river, which forms an impressive 10 meter high wall. The pilgrimage chapel St. Wendel zum Stein was erected in the early 16th Century in honor of Saint Wendelin, patron saint of shepherds. It is the third chapel built here, the first having been built in the 6th Century A.D. above the present chapel. The legend of the place is that a shepherd discovered a treasure here and as thanks to God erected the first chapel. Its traces are still visible. In 1936 a cave was discovered here that contained skeletons, tools, coins and amber beads from Celtic tribes of the Hallstatt Culture (8th to 6th Centuries B.C.).
The trail takes me through the woods above the cliffs of St. Wendel zum Stein. I can hear a brass band playing in the distance and I encounter more and more people (mostly families) along the way. Clearly a festival of some sort is taking place in the woods. Suddenly I’m at an opening in the trees filled with throngs of people and huge tents selling wine, beer and bratwurst from the grill. This is a welcome sight. I drink a glass of Riesling and watch children attempt to climb a 30 foot high wooden pole to get at prizes suspended from the top. The whole endeavor looks dangerous. No safety net, ropes, or cushions at the base of the pole. Not even parents spotting their own children as they attempt the climb. It seems as if there’s not much to worry about, as no child makes it higher than head-height or so. Suddenly an athletic (clearly a gymnast) girl of about 8 years makes her way surely and skillfully up the pole. At the top she reaches out far with one arm to dislodge a toy that she wants. It falls to the ground and she slides back down the pole. I breathe a sigh of relief. Feeling rejuvenated from the wine I move on. My goal of Ailringen is only about 2 km away, but I can barely make it. I sit on a bench with the town just across the river. My wife calls. I’m too spent and in too much pain to talk. Finally I cross a bridge to the hotel. The Altes Amtshaus in Ailringen is luxurious. After a dinner of lamb and red wine I rest on my bed in my bathrobe, contemplating my legs and feet – then drift off to sleep.
Distance hiked: 21 miles. Towns hiked through: Jagsthausen, Berlichingen, Kloster Schoental, Bieringen, Westernhausen, Winzenhofen, Marlach, Altkrautheim, Klepsau, Doerzbach, Hohebach, Ailringen.