Thursday, June 5, 2014

Via Regia August 2014

Via Regia Selection

Well, I was off again! This time the VIA REGIA an old trade, military and pilgrims route. This approx 470 km section of the Way of St. James runs through the German states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia following the course of the historic trade route, the Via Regia from Görlitz via Bautzen, Kamenz, Großenhain, Wurzen, Leipzig, Merseburg, Naumburg (Saale), Erfurt, Gotha, Eisenach to Vacha. The section along the historic "Via Regia" is also called the Ecumenical Pilgrims' Way (Ökumenischer Pilgerweg. It is unusual as it is not just based on catholic traditions, here all denominations have worked together to provide an excellent pilgrim infrastructure offering simple and plentiful accommodations along the route. It is historically fascinating as it leads primarily through the former German Democratic Republic, relatively low in population density, through promisingly beautiful Unesco Heritage landscapes and towns. This time I had lots of company, my pilgrim friend Fabienne, we met on the Geneva Route in 2010 met me at the start of the walk, then Jenny my NZ friend, who has joined me for sections of the Le Puy Route in 2009 and the Via Jacobi in 2013 joined us, then just me for a few days and Traudl another pilgrim I met on the Swiss Route last year walked with me for a few days. The last 3 days I had to myself. If you speak German, here are a couple of great links


9/8 Pukeko a cheaky little New Zealand bird is on his first trip to Germany He liked the flight because we were on a brand new plane and the movies were good He thought the train was better.because there was.more to see. He even made some new friends. First night and day in Goerlitz, German's eastern most town. Poland is across the river. In the morning Vogel spent a long time in the Christmas shop and then we listened to beautiful spanish music played by a jewish man from New York who travels the world with his wooden Xylophone to promote human understanding and peace. My friend Fabienne arrived and a pilgrim contact Uwe who is the head of the fire brigade gave us a personalized tour of this beautiful Unesco Heritage town Only one building was destroyed in the war and since rebuilt. The old buildings survived years of Russian occupation because the local authorities looked after the roof structures so that the buildings survived. This was once a very wealthy town on the Via Regia Trade Route. Vogel was rather speechless listening to tales of the goings on in ancient times. Some gruesome stuff not suited to the ears of small birds.

10.8. Well Vogel's first walking day was a success. He was quite nervous to start with but very chuffed when he had crossed the Koenigshainer Berge Germany' s smallest mountain range at 405 metres above sea level. Not bad for a little fellow. Lunch of a polish pasta dish with potato and quarg stuffing and a creamy leek sauce quickly restored our energy. The gentle landscape of fields and oak forests dotted with dramatic granite rocks was wonderful in the summer sun. Vogel loves the accommodation in Arnsdorf, an atmospheric barn complex which houses the village cinema.

11.8 Our second day. Arnsdorf to Kumschuetz 23 km, 5 km more than yesterday.Vogel found the heat too much and we had huge trouble convincing him that the Trabant was no longer roadworthy. Eventually we lured him on with the promise of a traditional Weissenberg Pfefferkuchen, but sadly the bakery was closed. Small disappointments aside we love the gentle and peaceful saxonian landscape and idyllic dreamy little villages. Great night in a private home where the hosts welcome you for a donation. About 5 per cent of the population are Sorbes hence the bi lingual sign posts. Vogel liked dinner at the Sorbes Restaurant Wjelbic in Bautzen. He blushed a little and squeaked with joy when a little girl asked him to pose for a pic.

12.8. Short day 3. Kumschuetz to Bautzen 8 km.. A jewel of a town, the restoration 96 % complete since the Wende in 1989. Vogel is quite incredulous, although he was more interested in the cake and mustard than the guided tour. The pic below shows before and after 1989 facades. All of Bautzen looked like the place on the right and worse. I did not tell Vogel as he is too young, but we passed a prison complex known as the Gelbe Elend, yellow misery. It is built for 700 inmates, but during Russian occupation more than 5000 so called enemies of the state were incarcerated here at any one time, some executed, but more than 3000 died of disease and starvation

13.8  Day 4 Bautzen to Duerrwitz and back to Crostwitz 30 km. After next to no sleep in the hot and stuffy and very road noisy youth hostel we set off. Fortunately a heavy thunderstorm had cleared the air. Vogel had time to smell the roses, but was confused whether one of the villages was inhabited by storks or pigs. In the afternoon we reached the convent Marienstern. Beautifully restored apart from the pilgrims lodgings. My cough and sore throat had resurfaced and Vogel was adamant that the moldy environment would not be good. So Vogel and I set off in search of non existent dry lodgings further on. Long story, but after many kms we ended up in a place we had passed through at lunchtime. We had a wonderful evening and comfortable night provided by our Sorb host Monica, a pilgrim herself. She dropped us back where we turned back yesterday and we were happily re united with Fabienne.

14.8 Day 5 Duerrwitznick to Koenigsbrueck 27 km. Vogel and I had very sore feet from walking on concrete paths and cobblestones and a nasty little blister on our small toes made each step a challenge. We finally reached our destination at 5.30 pm. The last hour through a beautiful forest along a meandering river. Kamenz the main town en route tempted us with raspberry ice cream Sundays, Vogel's theory was that the cream slowed us down. We slept in the former poor house, which doubles up as pilgrim accommodation 1850 style. Strawbeds, no running water, no electricity, long drop toilet. My friend Jenny arrived from Auckland much to Vogel's excitement. We managed to shower at the local swimming pool, free for pilgrims. The evening developed into a lively social occasion with the 3 saxonian women we met last year calling in with huge supplies of delicious food for our dinner. Salads, meatballs, beer, wine, chocolates, cheeses, quarg with garlic, beer and wine. The volunteer hospitaleros Werner and Sigma joined in. Interesting night on Strawbeds.

15.8 Day 6. Koenigsbrueck to Schloss Schoenfeld. From poor house to castle in 17 easy kms. Vogel was pleased to have the protection of now 4 strong women as the old servant quarters in this huge partially restored uninhabited castle were rather spooky and basic too. Martin Luther granted the proprietor special permission for polygamy and the chap sired 19 children with 2 wives. One of the sons made 2 attempts to kill Napoleon, but failed. Gert one of my pilgrim forum contacts who works for the police in Leipzig dropped by and what promised to be a dull and long afternoon turned into a pleasant interlude over coffee and cake. Dinner at the Gasthof, simple peasant fare and an early night. 2 not so pleasant chain smoking women we had encountered on the trail on a couple of occasions also stayed, but left at the crack of dawn without paying their 5 Euro fee. Not a good thing to abuse the pilgrim infra structure in this way Vogel thought. I'm am pleased that he is developing such a good sense of ethics and he was rewarded with a large scallop she'll pilgrim biscuit.

16.8. Day 7 from Schloss Schoenfeld to Grossenhain 15 km. Vogel and are struggling with concrete under foot. It is very hard going. We reached our destination just after 1 pm. A wonderful vibrant and attractive little town Dinner at an amazing sicilian restaurant and a comfortable pilgrims abode. Happyness all round in spite of sore feet.

16.8 Day 8 Grossenhain to Strehla 27 km. Wow this was tough. Mainly asphalt and some of it on the road verge with trucks speeding past. Not nice. The last part of the walk along the river Elbe and the ferry crossing were lovely. We are all footsore as he'll, but the wonderful hostel with hot clean showers attached to the church with washing machine and dryer cheered us up no end. Pristine again we had dinner at a fantastic local restaurant. Vogel continues to prove himself as an excellent travel companion and made a friend today.

17.8 Day 9. Strehla to Dahlen 17 km. Wonderful natural paths today. Just how it should be. Dodged the rain at a quaint cafe in a moat surrounded castle.

18.8 Day 10 Dahlen to Wurzen 21 km. Goodbye comfortable Linden Pension. Lovely walk on mainly natural paths for a change. We had a royal reception at Die Kraeuterfee. Christine the owner runs an organic foodstore and herbalist practice and has pilgrim lodgings upstairs. She had been looking forward to New Zealand guests for months having just traveled through Aotearoa earlier this year. We were greeted with organic cheese cake, a guided tour of Wurzen by a very nice young police officer, a pilgrim himself and a wonderful vegetable pie. There were foot soaks and oils to ease sore feet. The strong headwind had made us very tired, so an early night was in order.

19.8 Day 11 Wurzen to Leipzig East 25 km then tram to City Centre. Staying at the Sleepy Lion Hostel, great place in the Centre. Exhausting and Vogel hid in my bag to hide from the wind. Dinner at the Auerbach Keller, Goethe's old haunt. This is where Faust was conceived I think, too busy being a pilgrim to get to the bottom of the story and besides my feet are still killing me. Farewell to Fabienne tonight.

20.8 Day 12 Leipzig to Kleinliebenau 16 km. We explored the old city Centre of Leipzig and came across a young Kiwi Barista from Onehunga who made our coffees. He likes it here as it is a cultured and quiet town. We visited the St Thomas church where Baths remains are entombed and there was an organ practice in process. The St Nicolas church though was closed. This is where the movement started to bring the wall down. Apparently Monday morning prayers were started all over eastern Germany. People risked incarceration but eventually the movement gained sufficient momentum to bring the wall down. Vogel could not believe that within 5 mins of the old city Centre you walked through nature all the way to Kleinliebenau. Wonderful paths along a river which last year flooded most of this region. Tonight we are sleeping on a platform adjacent to a little church. Rain is falling. We were surprised by a visit from Gert Kleinsteuber my pilgrim forum contact and his wife Andrea with apple crumble cake, coffee and a bottle of Rioja wine. What a wonderful day yet again.

21.8 Day 13 Kleinliebenau to Schloss Frankleben 26 km. A very weird day. Lovely walking along lakes formed by past coal mining activities, now nature has taken over again. We reached Merseburg on the river Saale after an interesting segment where we actually set foot on the original Via Regia Trade Route, all cobblestones. Vogel decided to sit down to get the feel of it. The Merseburg Nikolai church was overwhelming. The art work of tormented carved figures was deeply moving. They were hidden behind a folding painting which showed each of the tormented bodies whole and restored to dignity. The sun/eye symbolizing hope. The artwork was created after the 1989 to appeal to humanity to stop atrocities. On the way out of Merseburg we got hopelessly lost in a forest, the path obviously dug up by wild pigs, scary. After an hour of going round in circles we ended up on a busy road and a little van pulled over onto the footpath. Out hopped an older man and companion, both dressed in op shop clothes asking whether we were on our way to stay with them. It turned out that the driver aged 70 a jolly warm hearted man has set up a domicile for the homeless and offers beds to pilgrims too. We were a little embarrassed to tell him that we had booked into the castle. As we still had some distance to walk after our confusion in the forest we gladly accepted a ride in his van for the last few km. We parted like friends and we checked into the most eccentric castle emerging from an extremely neglected state. The restoration began 7 years ago and there are years of work ahead yet. We found that Anke had checked in too and we rounded off the evening in a superb Vietnamese restaurant in the middle of nowhere opposite some allotments. The place was busy and the food devine and ridiculously cheap. What a strange day.

22.8 Day 14 Schloss Frankleben to Freyburg 20 km. Breakfast was served by the workmen at the castle. Very quirky. The weather had warmed and the nasty wind had finally dropped. The paths through fields and forests were wonderful and we reached this little town on the Unstrut river in good time. Jenny ' s last day and we are celebrating our successful walk so far. The town is delightful, surrounded by vineyards. The german equivalent to Lindauer called Rotkaeppchen is made here. We are staying in the Hotel Unstrut and are having a gourmet dinner for a fraction of the price you would pay in NZ or elsewhere in Germany. Vogel is reveling in the luxury of it all tonight.

23.8 Day 15 Freyburg to Rossbach via Naumburg 14 km. Short day. Jenny left for NZ today and Traudl and I not forgetting Vogel of course set off in beautiful summer weather. An interesting walk along cliffs that had been carved into a biblical story book, a ferry crossing and a fascinating stroll around medieval Naumburg. The statues in the cathedral have the most life like emotional facial expressions I have ever seen. Vogel commented how there was next to no tourism and how people seemed to lead a very relaxed pace of life. We are staying in a Catholic Centre in a little village surrounded by vineyards and after a simple dinner of potato rest and salad we are off to bed.

24.8 Day 16 Rossbach to Eckartsberga 18 km. Saturday and we walked through almost totally silent countryside. Sadly the grapevines gave way to root crops and pig farms. Eckartsberga feels dark and grim in a valley, overshadowed by a ruined fortification which served as a stronghold protecting the old trade route. We are staying in a house which is part of the church The solo parent woman pastor has 12 or so communities to look after and is not home. We had to pick up a key in a village we passed through earlier in the day. It is pouring with rain and Traudl and I are pleased to have company as the place has an abandoned feel and apart from one Gasthof everything is closed. Vogel feels a little down at heel and he is refusing to emerge from my waist pouch. To dark and wet and cold. Hopefully dinner in a warm restaurant will cheer him up. Dinner was the closest to a pre 1989 meal to date. A disappointing mix of packaged dumplings, bottled red cabbage and dry meat roll in an instant gravy mix. A far cry from the delicious dinner and joie de vie feel (relativo) of Freyburg.

26.8 Day 17 Eckartsberga to Stedten 26 km. Freezing cold. 7 to 14 degrees C like winter in AUCKLAND, a fierce wind and the odd shower. Breakfast at the same place as the disappointing dinner was great and the owner and waitress were both great people. After several villages with zero facilities we were overjoyed to find an Italian restaurant that was open. A hot plate of pasta warmed us through for a little while and when we arrived at our destination, a converted church tower we were greeted by several pilgrims, one of whom a systemic family therapist turned out to be a friend of David Epstein' s in Auckland. Vogel joined into the conversation quite freely and made friends with a 14 year old girl en route with her mother. She likes horses and now Pukekos too. We had Thueringian sausage with potato salad to mark the fact we are now in Thueringia and no longer in Saxony. The dinner conversation was fascinating as people shared about their childhood experiences growing up behind the Iron Curtain. Tomorrow there is an option to visit the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. I decided to pass as I have already visited one in the Alsace, a very disturbing experience I can do without right now and in any case the visit would be unsuitable for my little friend. I almost forgot to mention that Vogel really wanted to activate the fire engine Siren see pic, naughty bird at times. He is sleeping under a DVA blanket tonight. Stands for Deutsche Volksarmee, a genuine DDR article, probably never been washed. Vogel is most critical of the silk sleeping bag liner rather than a proper sleeping bag for hygiene reasons.

27.8 Day 18 Stedten to Erfurt 27 km including getting very lost. Vogel and I have been cursing the local body election billboards all day as they obscure the way markings and we ended up walking an unnecessary 6.5 km today. The Greens are the worst offenders and we spent all day pushing the boards up the lampposts to reveal the signs for people who were walking behind us. Finally we arrived in Erfurt which is just beautiful. It was a wealthy town as it grew the Woad plant in fields surrounding the city which was used to extract a blue juice from the leaves to die fabric that was transported in huge rolls from the east. This was in the days before Indigo was discovered as a colourings agent. Vogel of course immediately jumped to the conclusion the his origins should be traced back to this region, as the shade of blue resembles his coat. He got a little full of himself as the afternoon went on. Luxurious lodgings in the Augustiner Monastery tonight with sheets and towel. Dinner in one of the oldest buildings in Germany, 12th century, now a very atmospheric student hangout complete with student waiter doing a major in ethics and English.

27.8 Day 19 Erfurt to Gotha 27 km Rain all day. Squelching through mud. Not a single place to have a coffee or rest other than wet and slimy benches in the countryside. We reached Gotha around 4 pm dripping wet, footsore hungry and a bit miserable. Gotha once a progressive and culturally rich town has not managed to shake off the depressed pre 1989 feel. Some areas of the city have been meticulously restored, but significant corners of derelict houses and empty lots remain. The ambience is totally different from Erfurt which is a university town. Gotha reeks of unemployment and social problems. May be I am wrong and the rain got to me. Vogel has been uncommunicative all day and even sneered at the venison stew and dumplings. He does not like the rain. We are staying at the convent in Gotha and our room looks out at a very depressing block of flats. We are very grateful we live where we do Vogel and I. The first few pics are Erfurt this am.
28.8 Day 20 Gotha to Maechterstaedt 18 km. The sun the sun is shining Vogel exclaimed this am and at last summer has returned. Gotha looked much nicer in the sunshine. Traudl ' s last day, we got on famously. Tonight Vogel and I are the only guests in the Bodelschwinghof which is a superb rehab and supported living Centre for people with a wide range of disabilities. The idea of the complex was formed by a returned service man and his family with 5 children see pic of wooden cottage. They were given a plot of barren land and they managed to cultivate it and start the process of what is now a huge complex. We are sitting in the evening sun with a picnic. All our washing done in a machine at last. 3 more days to reach our destination.

29.8 Day 21 Maechterstaedt to Eisenach 19 km. Vogel and I slept well after our picnic, we even had a little sleep in and left our comfortable abode at 9 am. A perfect late summer day, not a cloud in the sky, 20 degrees, no wind. We passed the Frau Holle house. Frau Holle is a fairy tale figure who would ride through the forests in a white gown on a white horse by night and during the day she would shake out her feather duvets vigorously so that snow would fall. We climbed and traversed the Hoerselberge, the largest protected dessidious forest in Germany. Stopped at the Gasthof on top of the mountain for a delicious Soljanka soup before making our way down to Eisenach. Our lodgings are in a huge old villa on top of the town, which reminds me of Wellington on a small scale as it is so steep. The house is used for youth seminars and full of young volunteer trainees from Hungary and Germany. We have a wonderful view from our room. Today provided our first cardiovascular workout with all the ups and downs. Strangely this is the first town which is brimming with people and activity. The street side restaurants, cafes and ice cream parlors are packed. The summer weather helps of course. Vogel and I ventured back down the steep streets and stairs and treated ourselves to a crispy Flammekuche and a Pils. At 7.50 Euros this hardly broke the bank.

30.8 Day 22 Eisenach to Oberellen 17 km with detour. Another mellow summer day. Beautiful walking through the Thueringia forest. Relaxing and solitary Vogel and I climbed up to the Wartburg which served to protect the Via Regia traveller's and merchants from thieves. It is also where Martin Luther was held captive. To avoid depression through incarceration and failing health he undertook and completed translating the entire old testament from Greek into german. The Holy Elisabeth who turned her back on wealth and served the poor also lived here at some stage. Vogel and I are having a forced rest. We got to our pension at 1.30 pm. Oberellen is a tiny village and there are no facilities at all. No shop no restaurant nothing. The owner of the pension brought me some leftover lunch from the family, potato salad and schnitzel and a Thueringia sausage is on the menu for dinner. All of tomorrow is through forest again, no villages on the way. Unexpected solitude in the middle of Germany. Vogel really wanted to go dancing with Petra our host at the local country festival, but it was too late for small birds.

31.8 Day 23 Oberellen to Vacha 31 km including 5 km getting lost. WE MADE IT! 470 or so kms through the former Eastern Germany from the Polish border to the Iron Curtain. Vogel and I decided that a sleepless night, snoozing, deep thinking and being preoccupied with soaking wet feet was a bad mix when it comes to negotiating one's way through a complex labyrinth of forest paths and so while Vogel had an afternoon nap, I tried to distract myself from the discomfort of soaking wet feet by thinking about how I would manage the next day or two and before we knew it I reached a road which I should not have reached. I had not noticed the absence of way markings for more than 2 km as it turned out and there was no option other than to backtrack. In spite of the detour we reached Vacha at 3 pm. Not bad going. Finally we are in the swing of things and it is time to stop walking as we have reached our destination Vacha, a former border town between east and west Germany overshadowed by observation towers. Vacha was also an important stop along the Via Regia. The pilgrims accommodation here is superb. A newly restored attic apartment in an old building. It is fully equipped including a hair dryer. The on call hostel mother welcomed Vogel and myself and later returned with a small bottle of liqueur to celebrate our arrival. Mrs Schott shared aspects of life under russion occupation and the special challenges of living in a restricted border zone. Dinner at the Ratskeller ( DDR style) and tomorrow we leave to visit family. I forgot to mention that the bad sleep was due to Herald our host having a number of the village men over for sausages and beer while his wife was out dancing. It got kind of noisy and finally things calmed down when Petra returned in the early hours of the morning. In case you want to know about the walk, mainly mature forest aside from wet grassy paths and we did not see a single soul all day. I was glad to get out of the forest after 6 hours of walking to be honest. Not sure about the bird, he likes the trees. This was my Via Regia Walk in a nutshell. Via Regia Photos