The heart of nature in Germany
"Eeva Tala (a charming journalist from Finland) cutting her finger open putting on a lifejacket quite possibly confirmed to our instructors that they weren’t dealing with a group of professional canoers."
“2.6 million Europeans visited Germany for a holiday in the great outdoors in 2014,” says Petra Hedorfer, Chief Executive Officer of the German National Tourist Board, “making us one of the world’s most popular destinations for nature-loving European travellers.”
GNTB are capitalising on this, theming their 2016 global campaign as ‘Holidays in the heart of nature in Germany’. “Germany is already an established choice for cultural holidays,” Petra states. “This new campaign aims to boost our country’s image as a destination for holidays in nature.”
To this end, Sam Bennett recently flew from Heathrow to Frankfurt International, then journeying to various destinations and taking in as much of Germany’s nature as time would allow.
“Nobody’s afraid of heights; they’re really afraid of themselves, what they might do,” was the quotation that came to mind while standing on Geierlay, Germany’s longest suspension bridge, situated in Hunsrück. The line delivered by Fitz in Cracker made sense at that moment. It was me who I thought might trip through a gap somewhere and into the river valley 100 metres below; me who I didn’t trust to take a selfie without dropping my phone much further than the distance it’s used to falling; and it was me who I felt at any moment could be gripped by an unexplainable urge to climb over one of the sides and attempt the 1,100 feet crossing from there – just to be “different” to everyone else.
I very much doubt I’m the only person to have been scared at Geierlay. I’m told 300,000 people have visited the site since its opening in October 2015. Linking Sosberg and Mörsdorf, and able to carry 600 people (average weight 80kg) at one time, the bridge took just six months to build – for a cost of about 1.2 million euros. The view from just beneath it, as pointed out by our tour guide, is perhaps better than from on it. Here, fear of yourself doesn’t cloud your appreciation of Geierlay’s magnitude and the sights it overlooks.
Techno and castle ruins
Not far from Geierlay is Kastellaun, given town rights in 1305 and market ones in 1309. Every year it is home to one of Europe's biggest open-air electronic festivals – Nature One. There about a month after the 2016 event, my visit would not involve trance or techno. Instead, our focus was on slate roofs and castle ruins, the former representing the crucial role slate has played in the area’s architecture, and the latter utterly symbolic of Kastellaun as a historic town.
The Kastellaun streets of Zeller Straße, Markstraße, Hasental, and Spesenrother Weg have embedded in their pavements instalments of artist Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine (stumbling stones or blocks), remembering the town’s Jewish residents killed under Nazi rule. Kastellaun’s synagogue was destroyed on 10th November 1938 as part of Kristallnacht. Today the area hosts a monument commemorating the synagogue and Kastellaun’s Jewish citizens murdered during the Night of Broken Glass. The victims’ names are engraved in the stone; frequently the same surname appears more than once, communicating the tragic occurrences of 80 years ago which saw families destroyed.
“Let nature be nature”
This Nature-themed trip appropriately included a visit to the National Park Hunsrück-Hochwald, the motto of which is “let nature be nature”. Guitar shaped at 10,000 hectares large, it opened last year becoming the youngest national park in the country. It will take up to 30 years to become fully natural, as manmade spruce trees are gradually being eradicated to make way for the naturally grown beech trees. Our hike would take us to the ruins of Wildenburg Castle, situated 630 metres above sea level. Perhaps the suspension bridge endeavour the day before served as practice for the dizzy heights we would reach by climbing the castle’s observation tower. While as stomach-churning as Geierlay for me, to not have ascended these steps would have been to deny myself stunning views across Rhineland-Palatinate.
Wildcats are one of the most endangered mammal species. It is predicted that ten or 15 reside in the National Park, each taking up an area of 1,000-1,500 hectares. Our experience of a wild cat came at a ten hectare wildlife enclosure. As the sun shone down on us as it had all day, a member of the enclosure’s team rattled a bucket containing dead chicks to lure the creature to the fence. The cat did partially appear rather swiftly but, shy by nature, would stay largely hidden in the greenery for some time before coming fully into view. There is no blatant difference between the wild cat and the domestic cat; DNA testing is required to be sure a particular cat is a wild one.
From cats to sparklers
It was hard to walk the streets of Idar-Oberstein without being tempted to buy a piece of gemstone themed jewellery from one of the numerous outlets selling it. It's all there, from the pocket change party bag trinket to the extend-the-overdraft (again) rock. It's to be expected in an area possessing a past rich in gemstone cutting. The German Gemstone Museum located in the town celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2009, becoming one of the oldest museums in Rhineland-Palatinate. Here a guided audio tour takes you from floor to floor, detailing the burnished goods to be found on each one, the majority of which are on loan from gem cutter families and dealers from Idar-Oberstein.
On the border with Rhineland-Palatinate and France is the Bliesgau Biosphere Reserve. It was where we drove to ahead of what was described on the itinerary as a boat cruise. This somewhat misleading term evoked for me images of relaxation and champagne, which were shattered as our bus pulled up and a trailer adorned with canoes came into view.
Eeva Tala (a charming journalist from Finland) cutting her finger open as she put on a lifejacket quite possibly confirmed to our instructors that they weren’t dealing with a group of professional canoers. Nevertheless they took us under their wing, training the group on the Talsperre Nonnweiler first and then guiding us along the Blies river with calmness and patience in what was a most suitable conclusion to a German nature trip – even though as we canoed on Blies we were technically in France.
Roughly a third of the land in Germany is woodland, about 71,500 wildlife species are present in the country, and there are between 15,000-30,000 natural lakes with a surface area of over one hectare. There are 9,500 plant species, 14,000 varieties of fungus and 10,477 square kilometres of the country’s land area is taken up by the 16 national parks – ample nature to explore and digest. I’d never have predicted that my first time in Germany would be anything other than a city break, that instead of reliving scenes from Cabaret I’d spend five days outdoors, frequently gripped by a reluctance to stub out cigarette ends in any place other than an ashtray, so as not to spoil my surroundings – which convinced me that GNTB’s plugging of nature holidays in Germany is more than justified.
German National Tourist Board
Where to stay
55481 Kirchberg / Hunsrück
Europas Rosengarten Hotel
The Kloster Marienhöh
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