A winter’s hike along the German-French Castle Trail

A winter’s hike along the German-French Castle Trail

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

When the German weather forecast serves up nothing but rain, rain and more rain for days on end, a would-be hiker is faced with a choice: wait for the skies to clear or pull out the appropriate gear and brave the elements?

With a pair of friends forced by their respective employers to take mandatory leave in the week between Christmas and the New Year, finding a couple days’ time for a moderately challenging winter hike was not an issue. The greater concern was finding the kind of simple overnight accommodation sought by hikers on a budget: rustic, cheap and cheery.

Once we had the two days we wished to spend hiking nailed down, our next item of business was to find a trail that could be reached without too much driving time. The Alps and Black Forest were quickly ruled out as too far from our home bases in Rheinland-Pfalz. While hiking along the Mosel had initially appealed, the winning combination of challenging trail and cheap beds for the night failed to materialize in our initial online searches.

Then I recalled a trail I’ve had on my radar ever since reading about it several months back. The Deutsch-Französisch Burgenweg, or German-French Castle Trail, appealed to me on several levels. Its distance of 33 km, or 20 miles, seemed about perfect for a two-day hike in the dead of winter. It ran through an appealing landscape of sandstone formations. It had enough gains and falls in elevation to make it challenging, yet not overwhelming. The route passed by the ruins of eight ancient castles. Most intriguingly, much of its route hugged the border between Germany and France.

We were able to determine that a town roughly midway along the route offered a few possibilities for overnight stays. A call to a hotel there confirmed the availability of accommodation for the night in question. And thus the deal was sealed.

On the morning of our departure, the weather forecast proved entirely accurate. While the constant drizzle was hardly optimal, temperatures hovering in the low 50s meant we shouldn’t freeze along the way. Slightly less than two hours of driving time brought us to our starting point, the German town of Schönau. A parking place close to the center of this speck of a town in Südwestpfalz meant we needn’t worry about leaving the car in a dark and remote place overnight.

Easily finding our trail marker, a black castle against a white background, our path soon veered upward and into a dense forest. The thick carpet of dark russet leaves blanketing the ground was wet but still negotiable, and I was thankful that temperatures were well above freezing, as such terrain would no doubt be treacherous when covered with a patina of ice.

Within an hour or so of walking, our first castle ruin appeared. We admired how a natural sandstone formation had been integrated into the base of a castle, a building style that was to prove common to all the castle ruins along the trail.

Over the next few hours, we encountered few people and little sign of civilization. Gray skies and constant drizzle, with the occasional plume of fog rising up from the pine-covered hills, created a brooding atmosphere in perfect keeping with the demolished relics of long-past times.

Tucking ourselves away from the elements beneath the sandstone overhang of castle number two, we paused for lunch. Without the constant movement, I was amazed at how quickly my body temperature dropped. By the time the water we heated up for tea beneath a gas canister had come to a boil, I was thoroughly chilled, another reminder of the care that must be exercised when engaging in winter adventures.

From here, our path veered sharply downward and we reached our destination, the village of Obersteinau in France, well before darkness fell. Our roof for the night proved to be a simple, two-story wooden chalet with sleeping space for up to six guests, along with a well-equipped kitchen and dining table. The large electric heater did an admirable job of drying mud-splattered jeans and thoroughly soaked outer gear.

Upon check-in, our host had asked us if we’d care to eat dinner on-site, to which we’d answered yes. This proved to be a wise decision. The set menu, an Alsatian dish known as Baeckeoffe, was a thick stew of pork, lamb and chicken, served with salad, cheese and cake for dessert. Not only was this hearty dish, served in a clay pot the size of a small trough, a delicious take on regional cuisine, an evening stroll through town confirmed my suspicions that this was the only option going on this sleepy winter night.

The next day dawned no brighter, but dry and with bellies still full from the night before, we set off into the hills with our spirits high. The next castle impressed with views into the village we’d overnighted in, but for me, the morning’s highlight was the next castle to come, a towering remote beauty whose silhouette rose high and faintly visible against the leaden sky. The late 13th-century Château du Wasigenstein proved to be two castles perched cheek-to-cheek, surrounded in part by a moat and with an impressive cistern.

For the next few miles, our trail ran along a series of small white stone markers delineating the border between France and Germany. Moss-covered rocks added bursts of green to the otherwise washed-out landscape. With its commanding position overlooking a broad valley, the Château de Frœnsbourg was perhaps the most impressive of all the castles we’d passed thus far.

It was at this juncture that one of our trio said his knee was playing up too much to allow him to carry further along the trail, which was once again about to rise sharply. He proposed he cut along the nearby highway back to the town where our car was parked and wait for us there. With hours of movement, fresh air and new sights under our belts already, we agreed to stick together as we shortened the route. An hour’s walk along a cycling path brought us back to the car, tired and hungry, yet exhilarated by the little adventure we’d managed to sneak in just before the start of a new year. When spring comes and brings with it longer hours of daylight, we’ve vowed to return and complete those last few miles, preferably in the company of our families and friends. That’s already one adventure to look forward to in the year to come.

Hiking notes: I found the Deutsch-Französischer-Burgenweg, while often steep in places, not too technically challenging for my intermediate hiking ability. Precipitous drops from its sides, however, would make nighttime hiking much too treacherous to contemplate. Temperatures close to or below freezing would immediately render this trail a no-go. With no restaurants, shops or even gas stations along its remote route, packing food and drink is essential. We shortened the trail considerably by leaving the trail in the French town of Lembach and tracing the route of the D925 highway via Hirschtal back to Schönau. On the German side of the border, the D925 becomes the L488 highway. The distance between Schönau and Kaiserslautern is 45 miles, and it’s just over an hour’s drive.

Simple accommodation at the Alsace Village cost a total of 79 euros for all three guests; the fixed menu was an additional 26 euros per person. Breakfast was available at the hotel. As the town has no shops, packing enough provisions for two days on the trail is advisable.

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