Rothenburg Pilgrimage

Journey into the Heart of the German Countryside – Part 3 (continued from previous post)

Day 4 – May 1: Along the Jagst River

A classic rotten night’s sleep. All night I was haunted by the realization that tomorrow would be the longest leg of the hike (25 miles) that would have to be accomplished with the worst blisters I ever had and the chaffing between my thighs. To make matters worse, I was periodically awakened by the sound of rain on the roof window above my head. Once or twice I heard the voices of passing revelers in the street below on their way home from Walpurgisnacht celebrations in meadows on the hillsides above town. Their spirits were not dampened by the weather. Walpurgisnacht is also known as Hexennacht (Witches’ Night) in German folklore. On this night witches gathered atop the Brocken, the granite-crowned highpoint in the Harz mountains of central Germany, to await the dawn and coming of summer. Today Germans celebrate the night with bonfires, drum circles and drink.

Witches cavorting on the Brocken during Walpurgisnacht. From an 1829 engraving by Johann Heinrich Ramberg.

There is an especially large gathering of torch-bearing celebrants each Walpurgisnacht on a hilltop outside of Heidelberg at the Thingstaette, one of about 45 amphitheaters built by the Nazis for theater presentations and propaganda displays.

Walpurgisnacht celebration at the Thingstaette in Heidelberg. Photo by Andreas Fink.

I knew that on this evening in the largest German cities like Berlin and Hamburg, anarchists would be creating their own bonfires by setting automobiles alight. This tradition, along with breaking storefront windows and battling police, dates back to May 1, 1987 when left-wing radicals rioted against what they called a “bourgeois” celebration of the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin.

Before dawn I get a text from Peter asking if I want coffee or tea. We leave the house before seven, Peter acting as my guide through the town. In the grey dawn the old medieval core of the town is completely deserted and quiet, as if a recurrence of the plague had taken everyone away. After passing through several narrow back alleys we climb out of the Elz valley, a small tributary of the Neckar that has cut a deep notch into the landscape in which Mosbach sits. The path twists upwards past small orchards, finally taking us through a spinney before cresting on the relatively level, open upland above Mosbach. This is the Bauland, an agricultural plain slightly higher and more level than the Kraichgau. It forms a triangle of land between the Neckar River and its tributary that I am now making for, the Jagst.

Map showing section of my hike along the Jagst River (Mosbach-Moeckmuehl- Krautheim-Mulfingen-Rothenburg).

After walking with me for another hour Peter heads back home. Low dark clouds pass quickly above and drop a gentle but steady drizzle throughout the morning. Enough rain to warrant a rain jacket, broad-brimmed hat and pack cover, but not rain pants. The first of May is a national holiday in Germany. A day when people take to the fields and forests on long walks, often pulling a small wagon loaded with beer behind them. There are numerous town festivals with brass bands and cooked Bratwurst beneath Maypoles. I was happy the weather had kept the hordes in their beds and houses today. As I dropped down a fold in the land towards the village of Sulzbach I heard snippets of music from a brass band carried my way on the wind. Anticipating a big town festival I was surprised to see only a small band playing in the light rain, dutifully and uncovered, to no one.

My plan now was to leave the marked trail, thereby cutting off a big loop to the north and saving significant time. This meant walking across fields with faint paths in wet, waist high grass. I was getting hungry and began looking for any dry place to sit for a few minutes. I decided to climb up into a wooden Hochsitz, or deer stand, of the kind that are seen all across the German countryside. This one was completely enclosed, had a carpeted bench, and a long, narrow plexiglass window that could be flipped up for shooting. I was happy to have the lunch Peter insisted I take along, since I had originally planned to eat at one of the nonexistent Mayday festivals. This high seat proved to be an ideal spot until I heard a faint buzzing behind my head. I turned slowly around to see four European hornets making a nest on the wall of the deer stand. As quickly as I could I packed my things and made my escape. These hornets are up to two inches long have a wicked sting. I hadn’t forgotten the time my father was stung on the head and knocked off a ladder by one. They invaded Tennessee several years ago. I suppose that’s only just since we gave Germany the Black Locust tree, a species I have a constant battle with both in my yard in Tennessee and in my orchard in Germany.

The European Hornet – Vespa crabro.

I continued on in the hopes of finding a bratwurst in the next town. The drizzle continued and brought out the depths of color of the tree trunks, Rapeseed and wheat.

Rapeseed in the rain.

Before dropping down into the Jagst Valley I pass by numerous Streuobstwiesen (literally “strewn fruit meadows”). Some translate this term into English with the unromantic phrase “traditionally managed orchards”. These are small orchards of heirloom variety pears, apples, apricots, plums and the like that are strewn across the landscape of the Bauland and the Kraichgau (the name does not derive from the fact that the fruit often lies strewn uncollected beneath the trees, as many falsely believe). Many of the trees have been pruned so that their first branches only appear at shoulder or head height above the ground. The grasses beneath the trees are let to grow tall and are often only cut once per year with a scythe. In recent years there has been an effort to preserve these icons of the German landscape.

My son collecting heirloom apples in a Streuobstwiese.
Cutting grass with a scythe.

By early afternoon I come to the edge of the Bauland where the land drops down sharply into the Jagst River valley. It is still drizzling but the sight of the fortress tower and defensive city wall in Moeckmuehl below draws me on. This is a large town – surely there is a sizable Mayday festival with food there. Soon I was making my way through the newer portions of the town which had crept up onto the sides of the Jagst valley. Two neighbors spoke to each other from their windows: “Aren’t you going walking today? You bought all that beer!”. “Hell no, shit weather”. No sound of any band and no throngs of people in the old town – but, the smell of food cooking outside was promising. I turned a corner and found the source of the good scent. A barbecue hosted by the Turkish – Islamic Friendship Society, which involved about seven or eight young men running in and out of a building tending a grill under the eaves of a roof in the rain. This didn’t look open to the public – especially not Americans. The rainy slog went on through the small town of Ruchsen. The trail took me back up the side of the Jagst Valley and beneath a huge bridge carrying the Autobahn A81 (80 meters high by 880 meters long). Whereas in the US  we tend to let the interstates follow the land contours somewhat, in Germany they love to construct massive bridges right across all valleys. As I approached the bridge I quickened my pace, nervous about being struck by some projectile launched from a passing car above. The complete lack of any litter on the ground was reassuring – this certainly was not Tennessee.

Jagst Valley bridge.

Back down in the Jagst Valley the trail followed the extreme meanders of the river. The rain began to intensify and hit me at an angle from the front. I tilted my head down, the brim of my hat limiting my view to a few feet of ground ahead. Large snails, of the kind eaten by the French, crossed my path (easy to avoid) along with hundreds of small, shell-less types (hard to avoid) that all seemed to be going in the same direction. I was tired and from the waist down a walking display of ailments. The last meander loop between Olnhausen and Jagsthausen, my stopping point for the night, seemed to drag on forever. Finally I arrived at my destination in the center of Jagsthausen, the fine tavern Krone (the Crown). After checking into my room and taking a shower I headed downstairs for an excellent meal and good dark beer. Back in my room I fell asleep instantly, in spite of the sounds of a man snoring in the room next door. Distance hiked: 25 miles. Towns hiked through: Mosbach, Sulzbach, Billigheim, Moeckmuehl, Ruchsen, Widdern, Olnhausen, Jagsthausen. Streams crossed: Elz, Sulzbach, Schefflenz, Seckach, Jagst River, Hergsbach.

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