The International Writers Magazine: Europe - Germany
Of course, neither the hotel nor the staff member (who turns out to be the barman) is at fault; the blame is all ours. There’s no reason why the barman should have to speak English and every reason why we should have taken the trouble to learn German. For we’re not only in Germany, we’re in a part of Germany that simply doesn’t need any British or Australian or American visitors.
Germany's Other Forest
It’s miming and shadow-play. The hotel staff member (we don’t know yet if he’s the chef, the receptionist, a waiter or the owner) has no English and we have no German. Happily, using non-verbal communication we manage to obtain our key and are shown to our room and we’re soon installed and comfortable.
||This is the Saar-Hunsruck Naturpark in western Germany, between the Moselle and the Rhine. The Naturpark isn’t a National Park exactly, more like one of the clumsier British constructions such as ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ or ‘National Scenic Area’. It’s divided into six sub-regions and we’re in one of more central ones, named for Hermeskeil, its largest town. We’re staying in a small hotel, Le Temple, in the nearby village of Neuhutten.
|The Saar-Hunsruck is an area of rolling high ground. Even the valley floors are mostly around 1500ft/450m above sea level. The area is heavily forested with both plantations and broadleaved woodlands. I sometimes found myself whistling that kitsch 1960s classic A Walk in the Black Forest when I was walking through some deeply-wooded valley there; but this is one of Germany’s other forests.
Its highest summit, the Erbeskopf, only reaches 2800ft/840m and the whole area is best pictured as resembling the Scottish Borders with more villages and greater tree cover. The area is criss-crossed by a wide range of leisure trails designed for walkers, cyclists, horse-riders and Nordic skiers.
The area is high enough and remote enough from the sea to carry a lot of winter snow and so a variety of winter sports are catered for and certain higher hills have ski uplift facilities. The Erbeskopf and Peterberg ski areas extend their seasons by offering summer toboggan runs for the stout of heart. The Peterberg, near the village of Braunshausen, rises only to 584m but the access road involves an exciting series of hairpins. Near the highest point, a beautiful shrine in a tiny chapel, the Peterberg-kapelle, offers a peaceful refuge from the hurly-burly of tobogganing.
||Hermeskeil is a small town with no more than 1500 residents but it has a museum of local history, the Dampflok railway museum attached to a working heritage line (the Hochwaldbahn) and, just outside town, a remarkable aviation museum whose cafe is situated in a preserved Concorde. Be warned, though, this is where Germany comes to play and there are few concessions to English speakers.
Even talking to the staff in the Hermeskeil tourist information centre involved us in using swiftly-invented sign language. This is not the Germany where your fumbling queries in German will be answered in perfect English by your hosts.
The aircraft museum, the Flugausstellung, is a family affair, a labour of love created by the Junior family and it now has around 100 aircraft displayed indoors and out. Perhaps because there are quite a few British-built exhibits (for example, a selection of Westland helicopters, a couple of Hawker Hunters and, I was delighted to see, an Ayrshire-born BAe Jetstream) a few of the captions are repeated in English. But not many. Few guidebooks, leaflets or other visitor amenities anywhere in the Saar-Hunsruck are provided in English. France and Belgium are both just an hour or two away yet there’s not much in French either.
|Half an hour from Hermeskeil is Trier, Germany’s oldest city, rich in Roman and medieval remains, many of them with UNESCO World Heritage Status; you can also visit Karl Marx’s birthplace. Here you’ll find tourist buses and boats, guidebooks, leaflets, museum audioguides and tour guides who’ll give you the story in your own language. But in many ways it’s like every other tourist honeypot with the same open-topped buses, tour groups, milling hordes and the urban European scourge of graffiti even in the historic centre.
In the Saar-Hunsruck you can find peace, quiet beauty and the sense that few other English speakers have bothered to seek it out. But if you crave for a city during your stay, Trier is a short drive away and there’s an hourly bus service from Hermeskeil.
||There are some sites in the park where English speakers are catered for. The Hunnenring (or ‘Kelticring’) is a large defensive site near Neuhutten that probably dates from the Bronze Age and was built by a Celtic people called the Treves (who gave their name, it’s said, to Trier - it’s more convincing when you give the city its French name of ‘Treves’). A trail with interpretive boards tell the story of the site in German, French and English and takes you on a strenuous but bracing 4km walk whose highlight is a crossing of the massive northern stone defences of the ring. Archaeological digs are still taking place here and a pan-Celtic arts project has enhanced the site with around 20 artworks from artists in countries with Celtic heritage.
Two artists from Wales were involved and one from Ireland; the omission of Scotland left us feeling a little miffed.
Having said that, our hotel is not entirely free of Scottish influence. The restaurant has an impressive range of spirits and liqueurs, and among the whiskies available are Glenkinchie, Dalwhinnie and Glengoyne, the last-named being distilled just ten miles from our home. As we drove into Zusch, Neuhutten’s neighbouring village, we passed fields with an eclectic collection of livestock, including some Highland cattle.
Two familiar names you’ll encounter are Villeroy and Boch; scarcely any bathroom china you use during your visit will not bear their name and their date of founding (1748). The company’s early homes were in France and Luxembourg but it moved to nearby Mettlach in 1801 and its headquarters remain there today. The firm is now becoming better-known in the UK. They have a large shop in Trier if you want to take home a really unusual memento.
The weather in the Saar-Hunsruck, far distant from any sea, is often stable and warm in summer (the Zusch Highland cattle were usually found in the shade) but it has the continental tendency towards sudden spectacular thunderstorms. Everything is bright and calm and then some gloomy clouds start to roll in. In minutes it’s as dark as night, blinding blue lightning introduces earth-shattering peals of thunder, trees are bent double as a raging wind tears at them and the rain tumbles as if a giant tap has been turned on. At the height of the storm, the rain turns to hail and the ground is covered with icy hailstones the size of marbles.
The storm passes. Less than an hour later the roads and pavements are already dry and local folk are back mowing their lawns.
Perhaps the great joy of the Saar-Hunsruck is the wide range of trails that enable walkers, cyclists and horse-riders to explore the forests and valleys. Several long, medium and short-distance routes are signposted and leaflets are available (in German). A good walkers’ map of the Naturpark can be bought in the tourist information centre in Trier, though it wasn’t available in the Hermeskeil centre! Beware, though, that with so many tracks serving so many different uses, over-signposting is an issue at some junctions and may be confusing. But it’s worth persevering; even though you’re in well-populated, village-dotted countryside with many big German cities a short drive away, it’s easy to find yourself alone and at peace in places of great charm. Birdsong, tree-surf and tumbling waters are the dominant sounds here.
The Saar-Hunsruck Naturpark isn’t exactly off the beaten track, but few English speakers linger there. So brush up on your German and explore.
© David McVey July 7th 2015
dumgoyne1402 at hotmail.com
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