Where to Go in Germany
Altena – Where the Youth Hostel was Born
Looking back on our hiking weekend in the Sauerland, I have just one regret: that we had neither the time nor the energy to explore the town of Altena, our last destination.
I don’t know whether Altena deserves a daytrip in its own right, unless, of course, you have an unnatural interest in wire. In addition to hosting the world’s only Wire Museum, the old manufacturing town varies the wire motive in other, unexpected ways…
…But it is a certainly a good place to wind up a hike. If you do go hiking in the area, make sure you finish one of your stages in Altena.
Top of the list of things to see is Altena Castle, towering mightily above the town, …
… not only because it is a true medieval building (construction started in the 12th century) but also because it is the grandfather of all the Youth Hostels that you have ever seen.
This is where it all began, where the youth hostel was born: sometime before WWI, a local school teacher was caught with his students in a storm while on a school outing, so he requested (and received) temporary shelter from a farmer.
In between haystacks, cow dung and, one may surmise, much panic of the frightened farm animals (one could discuss what’s more terrifying: the thunder and lightning or the fact of being locked up with 30 or 40 excited school kids in a barn), he must have had ample time to reflect on the necessity of a better solution. Perhaps a permanent network of cheap accommodation for groups like his?
Soon afterwards, he began to open up local schools for hiking groups during the summer holidays, but Altena Castle became (in 1914) the first ever permanently operated Youth Hostel in the world.
Today, these first rooms have been preserved in their original state and can be visited as part of the castle museum while an annex is still operated as a modern Hostel.
Altena high street, meanwhile, and its neighbouring lanes offer everything you could need after a day out on the trails of the Sauerland: cafés, restaurants, ice cream parlours – and some nice views of historic old houses, too.
Once a year, however, this sleepy provincial town is jerked up by a jolt of energy when busloads and special trains ferry thousands of people from all over West Germany here for its annual Middle Age Festival. I still cannot quite decide whether we were lucky or unlucky to arrive here on the very same weekend.
For one, on the main street, which runs parallel to the market that stretches along the banks of the river Lenne, you were entertained by the spectacle of maidens in medieval garb or troubadours passing by (on their way to the ice cream parlour, presumably), and all shops and restaurants were open on a Sunday afternoon – not something you would have a right to expect in a town of Altena’s modest size.
On the other hand, we would have liked to stroll or sit by the banks of the river and have a cup of coffee or a sandwich: but this was out of the question since the banks were occupied by the stalls of the market, and the knights who were guarding the entrances would only let us pass for a toll of €8 per head. That would have been a rather expensive stroll.
You may remember that last week, I recommended to check the events calendar of your destinations before setting out for a longer hike. Please allow me to reassert that this is always a good idea. Whether you are interested in things such as town parties and medieval festivals or not, at least you will be prepared and know what to expect.
I thought I had learned my lesson when, on a different occasion, we strolled into a small town on the evening of a regional Schützenfest, and all the town’s hotels were either closed or fully booked.