There are many pilgerwege across Germany. Deciding that I wanted the challenge of walking for a year, I had to find a way to negotiate a European winter safely. This meant that at the height of winter I had to avoid the higher altitudes. High altitudes mean deep snow, and less infrastructure, with villages either non-existent or too far apart for a day’s walk.
Snow-covered landscape on the way to Eckartsberga
Thus, with that in mind, I settled on a combination of paths that cross the central part of Germany. The altitude here is roughly 200-450 metres and, though snow was at times inclined to be deep, from my novice point of view, the terrain was negotiable with normal winter hiking gear, without the need for snowshoes or skis neither of which I have the knowledge or skill to use!
The paths I followed began with the Ökumenische Pilgerweg (also known as the Via Regia), which officially begins in Gorlitz, but which I picked up in Leipzig. Following this path to Eisenach, I then followed the ElisabethPfad/Jakobsweg to Marburg.
This path continues on to Vacha, but at Marburg I then followed Jakobsweg to Köln (Cologne), branching off and heading down to Aachen. In actual fact this path to Köln is still called the ElisabethPfad and is signed from Köln to Marburg with the Elisabethpfad signs and in the opposite direction with the blue and gold shell signs so familiar to us all.
Wartburg Castle, Eisenach: my finish point of the Via Regia and the start of the Elisabethpfad.
These pilgerwege go through a number of large historical cities and towns. For the first few weeks it felt like it was a Johann Sebastian Bach pilgrimage as the way went through so many cities important to the life of the composer Leipzig, Erfurt and Eisenach. But heading further west there are the historical cities of Marburg, Siegen, and of course Köln. The ways pass through delightful old market towns and villages with their half-timbered houses, and rural villages with huge barns and farm dwellings.
The colourful buildings in Spangenberg
These paths combine to make a very pleasant and interesting Way. They are not arduous, rarely going above 350m, and the first week after leaving Leipzig is more or less flat. For me there were challenges due to the time of the year I was walking, but in the summer many of those challenges would not be there. There are a plethora of pilgrim paths crossing Germany. In summer, pilgrims have many choices as to which path to take, depending on how arduous and athletic they are.
The paths I chose were predominantly off-road. The planners of these paths seem to have gone out of their way to take pilgrims on a scenic, but comfortable, route. There are many forests to traverse. Walking in winter, I saw them without their leafy dress except for the evergreen stands of pine forest, the leafless trees being thick enough to provide shelter from the often biting wind but allowing plenty of light to filter through. In summer these frequent forests would be leafy havens of cool shade.
Just a little thing a pilgrim rest spot on the outskirts of a village
For the first two weeks of this journey, I was fortunate to have the company of my son. I was particularly glad of his company in the first week as the snow fell, leaving the path through the forests at times difficult to discern. Two sets of eyes made it easier to spot the very small signs, sometimes found in peculiar places. The signs are much smaller than those found in Spain, and can be easily missed, making vigilance necessary!
Even so, there were a number of times when we missed a sign, traipsing off on a tangent. In that first week walking on virgin snow was an indication that we might be on the wrong track. We generally found that a tractor had been along the wide path for which we were very grateful, as it was easy to walk along the tracks it left. Even on these days the dog walkers had been out and so no tractor marks and no footprints, either canine or human, were a clear indica tion that we should check the map!
As the days progressed, I learnt a different style of walking. The snow was still thick on top of the hills and care needed to be taken as it had turned to ice and was very slippery. I would try and walk on snow that hadn’t been trodden on as it was the least likely to be icy. The fresh snow offered no problems as it was soft and powdery, making a crunchy squeak with each footstep. I had ice grips to put on my boots, but only used them for an hour or so before deciding that I preferred to feel the ground beneath my feet, as I found wearing the grips felt like walking on stilts.
After Emrys returned home I continued on alone. Other than residual snow, I have had little snow since then. What has surprised me, especially after my muddy experiences walking the ‘End to End’ in the UK, is how firm the paths have been. Yes there has been a little mud, but nothing like I would have expected from walking in the winter months, and the most mud has been where forestry work has been conducted.
A pilgrim shelter on the flat plains around Tüttleben, near Gotha
I mentioned earlier how these pilgerwege have not been too arduous. In the early weeks the paths mostly followed valleys but, closer to Köln (Cologne) the opposite occurs, and the Way goes across hills descending to the next river valley before climbing up onto the next ridge again. I have found a few nasty little climbs coming out of the valleys, but they are just that little. The paths along this stretch, once on top of the hills, stay there, following the contour lines across the ridges and allowing for sweeping views.
At a road junction, a 100 metres back and with no signs, instinct and map reading told me the yellow splodge on the tree MIGHT be a yellow arrow. It was!
Walking in winter offers different challenges to summer, not least of which is pack weight. I am carrying approximately 13 kilos. Even though I have light weight high tech gear, just the fact that I have to have such things as an insulated jacket and trousers all add extra weight. In summer I expect my pack to weigh between 7-8 kilos.
Though there is much accommodation along the way, a lot of it is inaccessible because the premises are closed for the winter (or fully booked a polite way of saying “we don’t want to open for one pilgrim!”). This also applies to restaurants. There are some pilgrim refuges along the way, though not at the end of every stage, and so it is also necessary to stay in hotels and B&B’s.
Guide books are also a challenge. On some sections they are outdated, with the latest one for the Marburg to Köln leg printed in 2007. Some of the facilities listed no longer exist. I adopted the habit of using both the guidebooks and maps available, but downloading each night the next section on Google maps. I fre quently used both to confirm where I was. Map reading skills are necessary, particularly on this last leg as signs have just disappeared on occasions. Google maps also helped me find accommodation a number of times.
I have kept in contact with home using my android tablet (Nexus 7), using WiFi where available. Again there it is different here to the Camino Francés. Along the Camino Francés it is an exception to not have WiFi in the bars and restaurants along the way, but I have found the opposite here. For that reason I have put a Sim card in it, mainly in case I needed to call the emergency services, but even that has somewhat sparse coverage at times.
The panorama across the field Eisenach
I don’t speak German and so was very glad that my son does. He did much of the negotiations for food and accommodation while he was with me and after that I used Google Translate when I couldn’t make myself understood. The further west I went, the more I found people who spoke a few words of English. People have been consistently friendly, kind and helpful. They seem surprised that I, an Australian, have come to their country to walk Jakobsweg in the winter and alone. I have met no other pilgrims along the way but, as Emrys said, “No self respecting German would be walking in the middle of winter!” At one place I stayed in early March, I was the first pilgrim for the year and the last pilgrim to stay was mid-October last year.
As with all pilgrimages this has had moments of joy and moments of stress. It has had times of great beauty, and times when the views have been mediocre. Apart from the weeks when Emrys was here, it has been a solitary journey with no other pilgrim on the Way. However, I would recommend this Way to any pilgrim looking for a different pilgrimage, one that has beauty and history along with challenges, but is not too difficult physically.