Rothenburg Pilgrimage

Journey into the Heart of the German Countryside – Part I

In the US we take great pride in our freedoms, often falsely thinking that they don’t exist in other lands. Or, not realizing that some freedoms may be greater in other countries. So it goes with freedom of mobility on foot. Try walking a 100 mile stretch in the US not located in some kind of state or federal park or preserve. It would mean walking the shoulder of a road, slave to the yellow line, in order to avoid trespassing. In Germany roads and tracks dissect field and forest and are all public access. This opens the geography to the hiker in such a way as to provide for dozens of potential routes to choose from between towns. Combine this with meticulously made German hiking maps and the possibilities for walking become endless.

Typical German hiking map. Green, red, black and white lines are all hiking tracks.

I had planned a 120 mile trek beginning in the town of Wiesloch on the western edge of the Kraichgau and ending at the medieval city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. For weeks my dining room table was off-and-on covered with four hiking maps that spanned this stretch. With the aid of Google Earth I was able to plot a six day route with stays at taverns at the end of each day. At the end of my planning I discovered that my exact route was actually an ancient pilgrimage route – the Jakobsweg – between Rothenburg and the city of Speyer on the Rhine plain. The feet of ancient pilgrims had upstaged my clever cartographical analysis of the land.

I would join the Jakobsweg at Wiesloch, just north of Malsch on the map.

This route is part of a vast web of pilgrimage trails that converge on the grave of the apostle Jacob in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Since the Middle Ages the shell has been the symbol of the traveller on these trails and can been found showing the way on trees, walls, and fenceposts. The grooves on the shell represent the convergence of all trails in Spain.

The many feeder routes leading to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.


My trek east was straightforward. The first third would take me across the rolling hill country of the Kraichgau. After crossing the Neckar River and climbing out of its deep  valley I would traverse a small stretch of the relatively flat Bauland before dropping into the Jagst River Valley. After several days of meandering upstream alongside the Jagst I would emerge onto the Hohenlohe Plain for the final push to Rothenburg, situated above the Tauber Valley.


Day 1- April 28: Arrival

Driving away from the Frankfurt airport in a rental car after a transatlantic flight has its challenges. After negotiating the improbably narrow (at least by US standards) and twisting bowels of the rental car garage one is disgorged directly into fast-moving German traffic, necessitating instant decision making in order to get on the correct Autobahn. For much of the way south the Autobahn is entrenched in the sands of the Rhine Valley, hiding from view the castle-crowned hills of the Odenwald to the east. This is the same stretch of interstate where in 1938 race car driver Rudolph Caracciola broke the world speed record, reaching 432 km/hr in a Mercedes.

Rudolph Caracciola’s record-setting Mercedes.

Those expecting to race at unlimited speed in this part Germany will be disappointed. Accelerate. Construction zone. Accelerate. “Stau” (bumper-to-bumper traffic). Stau. Stau. This is what happens when you have 81 million people living in a country smaller than the state of Montana.

Pure stands of pale-trunked Scotch Pine give way to corrugated farm fields of white asparagus. Unlike its green cousin, white asparagus develops completely underground in long, heaped rows of soil. The lack of sunlight prevents the growing stalks from photosynthesizing and turning green. The delicate stalks must be harvested by hand with a special knife just as they begin to emerge from the soil. This part of the Rhine valley is the epicenter of white asparagus cultivation. The vegetable is served as a side dish with butter, with hollandaise sauce, is sometimes fried, and often found on pizza.

White asparagus.

I was ready for lunch. In the town of Wiesloch I stopped at my aunt and uncle’s house for a visit and lunch of white asparagus, ham, potatoes and hollandaise sauce. I risked a second glass of Mueller-Thurgau wine, hoping it would break my jet lag. Mueller-Thurgau is the second-most planted white grape in Germany after Riesling. A genetic cross between Riesling and Madeleine Royale grapes, it is perhaps the most misunderstood and under-appreciated wine on the planet.

Mueller-Thurgau (center). A favorite of Germans and of my students.

Germans appreciate its ability to grow in substandard soil and its 4 – 6 Euro/bottle price tag. It was the consistent favorite of my students during long, parching hikes through the countryside.

Later in the afternoon I drove a few kilometers to the neighboring town of Nussloch, which straddles the slope of the eastern Rhine Valley. This is the town where my ancestors on my mother’s side lived for hundreds of years, where I attended grammar school off and on, and where I still posses a couple of small orchards. It is also the German town that lost its soul. With the exception of the small 18th century Lutheran church, there is very little that is old in the town. Nothing that speaks of the past or an identity. All the half-timbered houses are gone and only a very few old barns remain in town, with their red sandstone blocks filling in the spaces between the wooden framework. The last few decades have seen entire old neighborhoods replaced with modern buildings, shops and a retirement home. All towns in this region have a nickname for either the place or its residents. The inhabitants of Nussloch were referred to as the “moon sprayers”. As the story goes, one evening in 1911 the fire department rushed to the scene of a reported forest fire, only to find it was a fiery moon rising on the horizon. The delightful moon fountain, that for years stood at the town center, was replaced by a cold statue of an abstract figure standing in a pool next to what appears to be a pipe.

New fountain.
Former fountain in town center.

In Germany significant natural features such as landmark trees or small patches of forest of special ecological importance are often granted “Naturdenkmal” – natural monument – status. A few months before my arrival controversy surrounded the the town’s cutting down of its only Naturdenkmal tree, a large Linden planted in 1871 to mark the end of the Franco-Prussian war. Many towns have such “Peace Lindens.” It was the halfway point between my grandmother’s house and our family vineyard. My uncle often pulled us children in a wagon to the vineyard, with the familiar routine of “everybody gets out and walks at the Linden tree.” Standing beneath the tree in summer you could hear the faint droning of thousands of bees in the canopy overhead.

Remains of the “Peace Linden.”

Much of the loss of the old buildings was beyond the immediate control of the town’s inhabitants. In early 1945, the town was subject to damaging allied air attacks. When American troops entered the town that spring, they showed their displeasure at one of the streets being named “Adolph Hitler Strasse” by commencing to destroy every other house along it. Only the protestant priest’s pleas stopped this plan from being completely carried out. All told, 59 houses were destroyed. It was on this street that I stayed the night at a tavern, spending the evening packing all the clothing, toiletries, first aid kit and rain gear I would need for the next six days.


Day 2 – April 29: Into the Kraichgau

Every good day in Germany begins with Broetchen, the breakfast rolls made in the early morning hours of each day by the local baker. They are made in an endless variety of size, shape, grain combination, and coating. No wonder that as children, we had to be quiet on our street as our neighborhood baker and his wife napped between 1 and 3 p.m. each day to catch up on their sleep.


Tavern breakfast in Nussloch.

After breakfast in the tavern I drove back to Wiesloch to park the rental car at my aunt’s house, shouldered my pack, said goodbye and headed east up the street that would lead me out of the Rhine Valley and into the rolling hill country of the Kraichgau. The area above Wiesloch is the easiest way to access the Kraichgau, since the Rhine Valley’s edge is less elevated here than to the north or the south.  Soon I was off the asphalt, making my way through the fields and hedgerows along a farm track. The sky was a blue cap above. Behind me on the western horizon I could see the Vosges Forest rising dark behind the silhouette of the cathedral spires of Speyer on the Rhine Plain. To the north the Kaiserstuhl marked the beginning of the higher terrain north of the Kraichgau near the city of Heidelberg. Situated like a lighthouse on a hill to the south was the medieval fortress of the Steinsberg, often referred to as the “compass of the Kraichgau” since one can orient oneself from any point within view of it. The fortress is dominated by a tall stone tower, built atop the ancient remanent of a volcanic plug. It would be my companion for at least the first few days of my hike.

The Steinsberg – compass of the Kraichgau.

I had hit an exceptional bloom time. Apple and pear trees were in full blossom. Buttercups and rapeseed painted the fields yellow. The wheat – and the stinging nettles – were about knee high. Later in the season the nettles would tower over the wheat.

Pear trees bloom alongside rapeseed. My way through the Kraichgau.

The Kraichgau is often referred to as Germany’s Tuscany because of its mild climate and mosaic of agricultural fields, orchards, vineyards, small towns and forests superimposed on a topography of rolling hills. To me it has always been a bit more mysterious, with its deep, shadowed sunken roads marking the path of medieval travelers – a bit more what I imagined the Shire of Tolkien’s works to be like. During my years as a child in Nussloch, my grandmother told tales of a dwarf named Gajemaenndl, who lived in a sunken road in the forest above town. Rarely glimpsed, he secretly helped wood cutters load wood if he deemed them good people, but played mischief with those of lesser moral integrity. My way now takes me through a sunken road towards the town of Zuzenhausen, where ancestors on my father’s side once lived and where an excellent brewery sits on the banks of the Elsenz, the Kraichgau’s largest stream. I’m only about halfway through my hike for the day but can’t resist a good glass of dark beer named Dachsenfranz (“Badger Franz”), named after a shadowy inhabitant of the local forests during the late 19th century until his disappearance during the first world war. He had fled his home country of Italy during the second independence war and made a home in the Kraichgau trapping badgers, martens and foxes. He sometimes worked for farmers and millers, ridding their buildings of mice and rats.

Dachsenfranz, circa 1900.
Students at entrance to a sunken road (Hohlweg).

Later in the day I crest a hill and encounter a stone monument recounting the death of two young German aviators during world war 2, who died as their plane experienced “inadvertent contact with the ground.” Just outside of Waibstadt I pass by a large Jewish cemetery and mausoleum. The name of Weil is prominently inscribed across the front of the large structure. Hermann Weil established one of the world’s largest grain exchanges in Buenos Aires in 1889, later settled in Frankfurt before his death and burial here in 1927. His ashes, and those of his pre-deceased wife, were done away with during Kristallnacht in 1938.

Jewish cemetery near Waibstadt. Weil mausoleum at right.

Finally in Neckarbischofsheim I cross the tiny Krebsbach and make my way to the hotel. The first 17 miles of my journey felt good. No blisters or other ailments. Tomorrow I would have the company of two cousins for the day. Towns passed through: Wiesloch-Baiertal-Oberhof-Zuzenhausen-Daisbach-Waibstadt-Neckarbischofsheim. Streams crossed: Leimbach-Elsenz-Krebsbach. To be continued on next post…



Under the Kraichgau Sun


Rambles with students

After nearly a week of daily 15-kilometer hikes, the group has its routine down: We park the vans at the courthouse of the small town of Wiesenbach, divide up the group lunch items, truss up our packs, duct-tape blisters, and head out. Our goal today is to circumnavigate a watershed carved by the Biddersbach, a knee-deep stream just too broad to jump over. Walking upstream, we leave the town and encounter a new earth and rock dam that seems ridiculously large for the stream it is meant to keep in check. It is a detention basin, allowing the water to flow unimpeded through it during normal flow, but backing it up during high water to prevent flooding of the town downstream. This stream, like so many in the Kraichgau, floods during prolonged periods of heavy rain thanks to the relative impermeability of the soil, extensive deforestation for the sake of agriculture, and the proliferation of impermeable roads, sidewalks, and rooftops. Hundreds of such dams in the Kraichgau not only protect nearby towns, but slow the flow of water to the Neckar River, thus easing flooding there and on the Rhine downstream. The students’ college town of Sewanee, TN has a similar issue with its tiny streams, most notably the stream that flows through Abbo’s Alley, due to a watertight sandstone bedrock and ever-increasing man-made surfaces throughout campus. A lesson for Sewanee from German engineering. The path quickly runs uphill through an open forest of tall beeches, oaks, and maples. At 49 degrees north latitude, there are far fewer tree species to learn than in Sewanee — good news for a geologist. We make good time on the immaculately maintained cinder-covered forestry track. Where the sun reaches the ground in small clearings, the path is lined with tall stinging nettles and Tollkirche, a plant in the nightshade family whose fruit was consumed by women in the Middle Ages to dilate their pupils, thereby enhancing their beauty. In higher doses, the plant has a hallucinogenic effect formerly interpreted as madness.

A German Tuscany

No one writes travelogues about Germany or its Kraichgau region in the southwest of the country. A search of the Barnes and Noble travel section reveals no titles like A Year in the Kraichgau or Under the Kraichgau Sun. Yet it was this little, tourist-free corner of Germany that led Mark Twain to state that “Germany, in the summer, is the perfection of the beautiful.” It has often been called “Germany’s Tuscany,” in reference to its relatively warm climate, fertile soils, and rolling hills. About the size of the Smoky Mountains National Park, the Kraichgau is bounded on the west by the Rhine River Valley, a great rift in the Earth that opened due to stretching of the continent caused by the northward thrusting of the Alps some 30 million years ago. On the east and north it is bordered by the Neckar River, which winds it way northward from its southern headwaters before making a great westward loop to its confluence with the Rhine. To the south rise the dark heights of the Black Forest. The geologic construct of the Kraichgau is remarkably similar to that of the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee. A sandstone-capped plateau in the southeast corner gives way to a rolling plain of limestone below that defines most of the region. The plateau top, like Tennessee’s, is forested, never having been extensively farmed due to thin, dry, infertile soils. Beneath this cap the plateau slopes expose layers of shale, which have been cleared of trees to make way for endless rows of grapes. Farther down, the limestone plain is blanketed with a layer of very fertile yellow silt, called loess, which was blown into the area 20,000 years ago during the height of the last ice age. This fertile plain is a mosaic of woods, wheat fields, orchards, and small towns tucked into the folds of the land. For me, the area holds a special significance. Since childhood, I have lived here off and on, going to school, hiking the land, doing geologic research while a student at the nearby University of Heidelberg, and attending gatherings in the family vineyard. Ancestors on both sides of my family are from the Kraichgau and many still live in the region. Now a long-held dream has become reality — that of bringing students from the US to the area to study its watersheds, learn its natural history and to feel the powerful sense of place given to those who spend time walking this land. The character of a stream flowing through a watershed is given to it by a multitude of factors operating in the watershed — climate and rainfall, rock and soil type, human alteration of the land. Cut a forest on a watershed and you increase stream flow. Change a stand of trees from oak and beech to pine and you reduce stream flow. Increase hard surfaces like roads and rooftops and you increase flooding potential.

Evening light in a modern vineyard.

Villa Rustica

Soon the forest path crests the hill and we find a suitable spot for lunch. Later, we follow a forest path now lined with the occasional carved boundary stone from the 18th century. Each stone shows a carved shepherd’s staff and the letters “CL,” indicating that long ago this land belonged to the cloister at Lobenfeld, the town we are making for. Soon the track becomes ever more deeply incised into the loess, hemming us in with vertical walls of silt three meters in height. These sunken roads are an icon of the region and have their origins in the Middle Ages, when erosion from foot, wheel, and hoof led to ever deeper  incision by rain water. Suddenly we exit the forest through a portal of trees and stand before a sea of yellow rapeseed and wheat fields.

Transition from forest to rapeseed fields.

The path moves up and down over the land and is lined with walnut, cherry, pear, apple, and apricot trees. Finally we see nestled in a fold of the land, like travelers hundreds of years before us, the church spire of the Lobenfeld cloister along with a dozen or so rooftops. We haven’t seen a person since beginning the hike. The forest and fields have been ours alone. Even Lobenfeld seems deserted. The cloister church is locked, but a sign by the door says that the key can be borrowed from the proprietress of a local tavern. I retrieve the key and hand it to a student. In her running shoes and sorority T-shirt, she seems quite out of place under the stone archway above the immense wooden door. Inside it is cool and quiet. The great Romanesque arches form a distant roof over us. On the walls, Gothic frescoes bring color to the uniform red sandstone. A five meter- high St. Christopher looks down at us. Students find a strange attraction to a grotesque version of the 10,000 martyrs, all hanging limp from a tree, impaled by its thorns.

Cloister Lobenfeld’s spire greets us.
Entering the cloister.

For the first time on the hike, we must cross a road and witness one of the more interesting contradictions in German culture. For a country so obsessed with environmentalism, this parade of Mercedes and BMWs going at top speed makes little sense. Several mass transit buses pass, zipping between towns. At this time of day, all are empty. Back in the forest, our way leads along a former Roman road toward the remains of a Villa Rustica, or Roman country estate, which was overrun by Germanic tribes in the third century. The foundations and red roof tiles protrude from a cover of leaves on the forest floor. Romans, and Celtic peoples before them, built their roads high on the edges of watersheds to prevent them from being washed away by stream flooding. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages, when society became heavily agricultural, that people moved their towns and roads to stream areas to be near mills. As I walk behind a student near the end of our hike, I notice that the sore ankle that developed a few days ago has turned into a limp — we still have the Austrian Alps ahead of us. “How’s your ankle, Murphy?” “No problem, Dr. Knoll, I’m expecting it to be back to normal in a day or two.” My main concern on this trip was not injuries or logistics, but whether the students would respond to the Kraichgau the way I do. Was I just in love with the Kraichgau because it is my second home? “What do you think of this place, now that you’ve walked a fair bit of it?” I ask Murphy as we again pass from forest to field. “It’s like walking through a dream,” he says. I am content.

Lunch in the forest.



The Family Vineyard

Think of German wine, and Riesling comes to mind, for good reason. It is Germany’s most commonly grown grape, dominating the slopes of the Mosel River right down through the Rhine Valley into Alsace. The Kraichgau has its share of it, but here is also Germany’s largest red wine producing area. Light- to medium-bodied trademark wines of the area like Trollinger, Lemberger, and Black Riesling are seldom heard of in the United States. Another day takes us on a quest for grapes and terroir on the flanks of the Stromberg at the southeastern margin of the Kraichgau. As a stream’s character is given to it by the nature of its watershed, so, too, a wine’s character is determined by the interplay of myriad tangible and intangible factors collectively referred to as terroir. Some factors, like slope aspect and angle, rainfall, temperature, bedrock, and soil type are easily quantified. More difficult to define, but equally important, is the human element involved in growing grapes. Our small family vineyard in the Kraichgau town of Nussloch produced 600 to 900 liters of wine per year, about as much as the extended family could consume, while my uncle Wolfgang was still alive to work it. The vineyard was our gathering place, the only place where all the aunts, uncles, cousins and the like could be assembled at once. Adults conversed, retold family history, and laughed over glasses of wine late into the night while children ran among the grape vines and fruit trees, and played house in the small vineyard shed. The vineyard, although passed down through the generations, had the distinctive mark of my uncle’s handiwork upon it. From the way the grapes were tied to the trellises to the arrangement of the wine glasses in a cupboard in the shed, it was his creation. The grapes were planted in long rows on the gentle slope of the eastern Rhine Valley, facing southwest toward France. The soil was rich yellow loess. A mere sip of certain wines from this slope immediately transports me back to this vineyard.

Family members at the grape harvest, 1980’s.

Our path begins by winding back and forth up a steep slope on the flanks of the plateau upon which grapes are still planted in an old, pre-20th-century way. Dozens of eight-foot-high retaining walls of local stone create terraces that hold back a small number of rows of grapes, all planted along the contours of the slope. This hillside seems to be more about rock walls than grapes. Every so often, the retaining walls reveal a narrow, steep set of stone steps that give access to the vineyard above. No motorized equipment can possibly be taken into these orchards. All work is accomplished by hand. Fruit trees are mixed in with the grapes at intervals. The walls are alive with insects, lizards, large snails, poppies, and sedum, all finding shelter in the joints between the rockwork. An arched stone recess in a wall once gave shelter to men whose job it was to drive birds away from the vineyards with a noisy wooden ratchet. As we pass by a church in a small village, we stop before a stone war memorial. Below a statue of a helmeted soldier comforting a fallen comrade are the names of more than 50 men killed in World War II from this village, along with the year they died. It seems that for a village of this size there would hardly be any men left. In the village of Nussloch a few kilometers away, the name of my grandfather is etched on a similar memorial. He crossed the Russian steppes with the 6th Army to disappear in the cauldron of Stalingrad. His detailed letters home show a shift from the details of war early on to the intimacies of family life — and food. He is preoccupied with a Christmas package sent to him that never arrives. Could he at least know what its contents were? In early 1943, his letters stop. Yet there is hope. Some 100,000 German prisoners were taken after the battle of Stalingrad. Surely there is a good chance that he was among them. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, only about 6,000 of these prisoners make it back to Germany. He is not among them. My grandmother, like so many other post-war women in these small towns, is left to raise the children, rebuild, and write the family history.

Visitation Stones

Now we traverse a gentle corner of the plateau and are confronted with the modern way of grape growing. Over the last 100 years, most of the old terraced vineyards were torn away, every rock removed. In their places came endless rows of grapes planted vertically up and down the slopes. Behind us is bird song and the noise of insects, ahead silence, except for the hum of a tractor moving somewhere in the rows. This radical change in grape growing was done to save a wine industry on the brink of collapse. Manual labor was replaced by highly efficient tractors narrow enough to move between rows of grapes, spraying, tying up loose sprigs, and collecting the harvest. The cost of this shift is a decrease in biodiversity, an increase in runoff, and a loss of tradition going back over 1,000 years. We head to the dry forest atop the plateau. On the southern horizon, where things are faint and blue, we see the dark silhouette of the Black Forest. I ask the students to stop and listen to the bird song in the distant tree canopy. None of them has seen this bird before, but they all recognize its call — the European cuckoo. Legend states that if you jingle coins in your pocket when you hear the first cuckoo of the season, you will have money all year. Sadly, fewer cuckoos now complete the spring migration from central Africa to Germany because of increased hunting of the birds in Africa. After descending from the plateau and emerging on the edge of the forest, we come to an unusual sight in Germany — a walled cemetery with gravestones that seem to be quite old. Graves in Germany are usually used for only 20 to 30 years so that room can be made for the recently deceased. The gate is open and we enter. The tall stones are of carved sandstone and heavily inscribed in Hebrew. Small pebbles called visitation stones sit atop many of the gravestones. The graves in this Jewish cemetery are mainly from two centuries ago and give witness again to the maelstrom that engulfed the country during the Third Reich. This cemetery served the Jewish population of the nearby town of Freudental, which numbered almost 400 people in the 1860s. By 1933, only 70 Jews remained, and in 1942, the last 14 were deported to concentration camps. Although it’s peaceful and still here, one feels the heavy burden of history. Set apart from the other stones is a single headstone from 1970. Julius Marx, who fled Freudental in the 1930s and ultimately died in New York, chose to be buried here. A single line from a poem he wrote about the town, and his flight from it, is carved beneath his name: “Oh, my little village.”