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(I've always suspected people can be funny. This post is my most popular in terms of hits, as per Google Analytics. Can you spot why and tell me? It's a genuine mystery to me.)
The Rennsteig along the ridge of the Thuringian Forest in central Germany – in the south of what used to be the German Democratic Republic – prides itself on being the oldest hiking trail in Germany.
It is also the only trail which – as the official literature insists – has its own form of hiking etiquette: while hikers on other trails may greet one another with a friendly “hallo” or “Guten Tag”, the Rennsteigers merrily wish each other a “Gut Runst!” Thankfully, to my son’s and my own great relief, this turned out to be total bunkum.
The Rennsteig is also the only trail in Germany that has its own song. I know what you are thinking now, and yes, there are reasons why the Rennsteiglied never quite made it to the top of the international charts.
While the song is actually no worse than any other piece of (West) German popular music from its time (the early 1980s), the video is clearly a different matter. It shows that, while post-WWII West Germany became a part of the Western world and moved on, East Germany got stuck in a cultural rut. Germany was never more German than in the old GDR, God rest her soul. If you don’t want to take my word for it, click on the picture below to see and hear for yourself and experience an authentic piece of GDR history.
East and West - Ever the twain?
While we are on the subject of the two Germanies: Travelling through the old East Germany is quite an interesting experience, if only to realize that, although the two Germanies have been reunited for more than 20 years (already half the total length of time they were separated), many differences remain.
Just take the little green and red guys that tell pedestrians whether it is safe to cross the street.
East and WestGermany still have their own versions of these, and while one can understand that changing all East German traffic lights was not high on the list of priorities in the immediate aftermath of the reunification, it is strange that, 20 years after, you could still tell on which side of the old frontier you are by looking at the signs of a pedestrian crossing alone.
This is particularly spooky in Berlin, where you can use the shape of the traffic light guys as a – I have been told – reliable means of orientation. There are, apparently, even one or two streets that have both versions: streets that were cut in two by the frontline of the Cold War and still, two decades after the wall has been removed, demonstrate their different histories.
What the Rennsteiglied fails to tell you: No hiker would have been allowed to walk the entire length of the trail under the old East German regime. First of all, the southern section of the Rennsteig frequently crosses the border betweenThuringia and Bavaria, and what is now no more than a line that separates two states of the Federal Republic was at the time the most heavily guarded frontier in Europe, watchtowers, armed borderguards, minefields and all.
But on top of that, certain middle sections of the Rennsteig were also off limits for the general population because they were used by the army or some other branch of the security forces. The summit of the Schneekopf, for example, used to accommodate a large Russian intelligence unit – the Schneekopf is the second highest mountain of the range and was, presumably, close enough to the old German-German frontier to listen to what went on across the Iron Curtain. And a little further down the trail, near Frauenwald and the Waldhotel Rennsteighöhe, you can visit the fallout shelter that was built for the top brass of the GDR’s intelligence services – to ensure they remained fully functionable and could continue to spy on their own people in the event of a nuclear war.
The middle section of the Rennsteigweg is fairly flat, and hikers looking for a challenge are well advised to take the alternative route (blue “R”) over the top of the Großer Finsterberg. The ascent is steep, but the magnificent view makes it all worthwhile.
The Hut of Unrequited Love
Near-by, we found a hut whose interior walls had been decorated – over a period of several years, I assume – with a series of "love letters", scratched into the soft wood by a deserted lover desperate to re-establish contact with his unfaithful mistress, starting with a fairly assertive “Doris, please come back to me” and passing dreamily through “I miss the perfume of your hair”, to the inevitably forlorn “Is there still hope for me?”
Here is my son, telling me that he himself had added a footnote to the unfolding epic on the wall, briefly summarizing an unspeakable act performed on him by said Doris. (He did no such thing, he later confessed to me.)
Murder in Thuringia
This is Mordfleck, literally the “Murder Spot”. When I saw this, I had hoped of being able to enliven my blog with a magnificent Old Thuringia story of rural passion, revenge and betrayal (perhaps involving Doris and her desperate lover?)
Sadly, further research provided no evidence of any bloody crime committed in this spot, and the word Mordfleckappears to come from the way the locals mispronounce the word moor. I am very sorry to disappoint you, but there you are.
All along the Rennsteig, you can find ancient boundary stones, some of them dating from the 16th century.
Venus of Thuringia
The "figurines" formed by the cairns, conversely, of which there is an equal abundance, are obviously of a much more recent vintage, no matter how prehistoric they may look. (Amusing to find cairns in the forest of Thuringia. We've seen these in the deser hiking trails in Utah and Colorado). This one we dubbed the “Venus of Thuringia”, because we felt – having by now spent long enough in Thuringia to pass judgment on this – that her ample proportions rather accurately reflected the locally predominant female form.