Germany’s Oldest Hiking Trail
Rennsteig: 169 km along the ridge of the Thuringian Forest, from Hörschel in the North to Blankenstein in the South.
TheRennsteig is the oldest of all German hiking trails. There is apparently a document from 1330 which mentions a Thuringian rynnestig, which, as anybody must admit, is indeed near enough.
Until the 19th century, the Rennsteig was the fastest connection between the various towns and villages that are scattered along its course.
It was used by farmers, travelling folk and itinerant traders, which means that the route of the Rennsteig, unlike some hiking trails of more recent vintage was not created to satisfy the needs and requirements of the modern hiker.
The people who laid out the trail were not interested in scenic views and picturesque detours. All they wanted was to get from A to B as quickly as possible. This also explains why much of the Rennsteig appears to shadow a near-by road. The Rennsteig was there first, and the road – following the same logic – was added much later.
Still, I must admit that we found the close proximity of the B4 Federal Road – even though traffic was anything but heavy – a bit annoying. You do not walk a lot on asphalt at the Rennsteig, but you can often see and, particularly, hear the cars vroom past.
On the other hand, this proximity has also one big advantage: where the road is near, you can join the trail almost anywhere by bus, and leave almost anywhere, too.
There are frequent bus stops (buy yourself a map that shows where these bus stops are located) and the buses take you, directly or indirectly (through a system of hubs and sub-hubs), generally within one hour to a town from where you can reach the next major city by train.
What we did
We walked from Oberhof, East Germany’s foremost skiing resort and the home of many of her Olympic champions, to Neustadt, a distance of 25 km (stage 4 and the first part of stage 5 from the 8-stage version), for which we had allocated two days. It turned out that this was a somewhat easy hike even by easy hiking standards.
What we liked
Three times, we made the right decision: Firstly, we took the bus from Oberhof station (which is 4 km away from Oberhof town and 2 km from the Rennsteig) to a stop called “Rondell” to join the trail, although we had to wait for 20 minutes (our train was late, and the buses from the station are synchronized with the arrival of the trains).
I don’t know how easy it would have been to find a footpath to the trail – the Rennsteig itself is excellently marked, but I am less sure about the feeder system – and the road the bus took would have been extremely unpleasant to hike.
Secondly, we took the alternative route over the top of the Großer Finsterberg mountain (marked with a blue “R”) near kilometre 13 of stage 4.
This was the most challenging part and the highlight of our day, with a long and – in the end – fairly steep ascent, rounded off with a magnificent view from the top.
And finally, we took another bus for the last 2 km of the day to get to our stage-post of Schmiedefeld, even though it was still fairly early in the afternoon, sparing us the trouble of having to walk down what turned out to be a very unattractive and dangerous highway.
Generally, we found it surprisingly easy to get around and find a hotel. The Thuringian Forest may be remote and somewhat isolated, but winter sports appear to be very big here, and one can imagine that the place will be buzzing with the arrival of the first snow.
Schmiedefeld, for example, a village with under 2,000 inhabitants, has more than half a dozen hotels, and the tourism office is the biggest and shiniest building in town.
The flip side of this is that neither hotels nor meals are exactly cheap. We paid more for our meal in Schmiedefeld than we had paid a few days earlier at a restaurant right next to Erfurt Cathedral, in the heart of the state capital.
It is always interesting to visit the old East Germany, if only to spot the differences with the West of which surprisingly many still exist, more than twenty years after reunification.
Bear in mind that Germany was only divided for twice the length of that period.
Even supermarkets appear to have different sortiments. (In Erfurt, they had no idea what we wanted when we asked for chorizo.)
One difference, however, seems to have vanished: even in Schmiedefeld, you can nowadays get a real espresso coffee.
What we liked less
The section of the Rennsteig we had selected turned out to be largely flat and a trifle uneventful. It would also have been nice if it had been just a little more athletically challenging. (Although the alternative route took care of that, up to a point.)
The Rennsteig itself is fairly wide for most of its course and covered in gravel. Passages with narrow paths through the forest and steep mountain slopes are relatively rare.
If I had to lead a large group on a hike – schoolchildren, say – or guide hikers past the first flush of youth, the Rennsteig would certainly be near the top of my list.
Towns to explore
The only major town directly on the Rennsteig is Eisenach at the top of the trail.
Take a fifteen minute bus ride from Eisenach Central Station to visit Wartburg Castle where Martin Luther, hiding away from his enemies under the protection of the Elector of Saxony, threw an ink pot at the devil (and missed), translated (in less than three months) the New Testament into a rather robust free-style German, much of which he made up on the fly, and more or less invented Protestantism.
The Wider Scene
Erfurt and Weimar, Thuringia’s two main tourist towns, are just a short train ride (between one and two hours) away. Weimar was the place where the two most famous German poets and playwrights, Goethe and Schiller, established first their friendship and then, together, the “Classicist” movement (in the late 18th / early 19th century).
Later, the constitution of Germany’s ill-fated “Weimarer Republik” was drafted there.
The localBauhaus school became one of its internationally most celebrated flagships when it developed the intellectual foundations for modern design and architecture.
Weimar’s historical buildings have always been well kept and preserved, even under the Communist government, while the rest of East Germany fell into a state of disrepair and dilapidation.
This “rest of East Germany” also included the Old Town of Erfurt, which was in a sorry state when the Communist regime was overthrown, but has since been lovingly restored – to the point where Erfurt has become one of the most attractive towns in the whole of Germany.
And if that scene is not wide enough for you, you may want to know that Blankenstein, the southernmost point of the trail and its final destination, is only a short 1-hour bus ride away from Hof in Northern Bavaria.
From here, you can either explore the rest of the Bavarian Free State (count 3 hrs by train to Munich) or take a short hop across the near-by border into the Czech Republic.
Trains take about one hour to the medieval town of Cheb and a little over two hours to the even more picturesque spa town of Karlovy Vary, the former Carlsbad.
How to get there
High-speed trains from many German cities go to Eisenach, Erfurt and Weimar. Trains from Erfurt to Oberhof take just over 1 hour (departures roughly every two hours).
Other stage-posts on the Rennsteig can be reached by bus through network hubs such as the towns of Ilmenau and Saalfeld.
There is a small regional airport in Erfurt, but it is not regularly served by any major airline.
If you are coming from overseas, best use the airport Leipzig/Halle and board the regional train to Leipzig Central Station (two departures every hour). From there, high-speed trains to Erfurt take app. one hour.
A brief introduction on the Rennsteig hiking trail.
Another brief intro, this time courtesy of the German tourism board.