Stretching 290km, the Westweg is one of Germany’s classic long-distance trekking routes. Leading through the Black Forest, from Pforzheim in the north to Basel in the far south-west, it provides the perfect setting for a contemplative, getting-away-from-it-all walking holiday.
The unassuming, quiet joys of nature – contemplative, tantalising and often surprising – are the delights of the romantic’s roaming soul, and such delights are amply satisfied on a journey along the Westweg.
Above the clouds on the Westweg
The weather prophets had predicted a period of dry and sunny late autumn weather and I immediately jumped at the chance to walk a stretch of the Westweg, a classic among Germany’s many long-distance walking routes. There was no need for any further arm-twisting! In an instant, I had booked my ticket to Pforzheim and a couple of days later I was off.
Alas, weather prophets are fallible and nowcasting often gives the only reliable results. I glanced at the sky as I stepped out of Pforzheim station into the mayhem, and my mind was cast in a cloud of doubt.
Yes, the sun did make a heroic effort to face off the blanket of cloud that was pushing in from the west, but it was clear from the start that it would be swamped. ‘Oh well,’ I thought, ‘I am here now, and I am not going to be defeated by the weather!’
As I strolled through town, past the jewellery museum, and following the Nagold River towards the trailhead on the edge of town, I felt defiant, even while imagining myself struggling bravely through a freak snowstorm or getting lost in the forest in the thick fog. (Why does the mind play such silly games?) But by the time I reached the forest I no longer cared. It wasn’t raining, so there was no problem.
The forest is a world unto itself: worn stone steps lead up into the hills, and the hum-drum of Pforzheim is quickly forgotten. The eyes grow used to a different kind of light that seeps through the branches of the sombre trees and begin to focus on the little details that are all too often completely overlooked: the texture of barks, the multi-coloured lichen covering the rocks, slugs slithering across the trail, and toadstools standing like visitors from outer space. The magic of the forest enters the soul, while the mind begins to wander.
Before I knew it, I had reached the River Enz. The trail now followed the river to Neuenbürg an der Enz. A few bright dots of colourful autumn leaves still hung in there by a wistful thread, painting a melancholic picture with impressionistic flair.
The ‘neu’ (=new) in Neuenbürg is a bit of an exaggeration. The picturesque castle (=burg) is perched up on the hill and conveniently situated in a rare loop of the river. It dates from the 16th century and is only ‘new’ in relation to an older complex, now ruined, which dates from the 13th/14th century. But there is evidence that the site has been occupied since at least 2000BC. During the 6th and 5th centuries BC the Celts mined this region for iron ore and several smelting ovens dating from that period were found here. Today, the ‘new’ castle houses a museum that is dedicated to a fairy tale, ‘The cold heart’, by Wilhelm Hauff. It is an iconic and moralistic story with a distinctly local flavour that warns against the dangers (greed, corruption and cold-heartedness) of desiring riches and worldly goods deemed inappropriate for those such as the tale’s hero, the lowly charcoal burner Peter Munk.
The walled garden by the castle makes a good place for a rest – at least on sunnier days. But on that grey and increasingly clammy day the ‘Gaststube’ at the hostel just below the castle offered a bit more comfort, as well as hearty fare. However, the castle restaurant no doubt provides a classier option.
Warmed up and fortified for the next leg, I headed down the old cobblestone path to the centre of the sleepy village, crossed the river and headed up on Hafnersteige to the top of the hill on the opposite side of the valley – the steepest incline of the day.
Once the trail returns to the forest, Neuenbürg is quickly left behind and in a few short kilometres the trail reaches Straubenhardt, a small town on the northern rim of the Black Forest, with an elevated panoramic vista that on a clear day stretches from the northern Vosges and Palatinate Forest in the north-west to the Swabian Jura in the north-east.
Symbol of peace
By now the cloud-cover was complete and I barely saw the houses that form the outskirts of the town as I followed the edge of the forest to ‘Schwanner Warte’. This rather ugly observation tower sits right opposite the venerable ‘Friedenslinde’, a memorial tree that was planted in 1871, at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, as a symbol of hope for lasting peace.
Friedenslinde is the first of many such relics that mark the historical significance of the Westweg as a battleground between various warring factions before Germany was united as a country, as Margraves, Dukes, Imperial corps, or the Habsburgian and French armies continuously fought for dominance over these parts. Peace never lasted for long, yet hope, nevertheless, prevailed.
After a pensive rest under the Linden tree the quiet solitude of the forest quickly engulfed me again and my attention was captured once more by brightly coloured mushrooms poking through the saturated softness of mosses cladding the ground, the call of spotted nutcrackers and delicate spiderwebs, made visible by the mist caught in their threads.
Suddenly, a crack appeared in the veil of fog that had thus far swallowed me, and a beam of light glistened through the trees and pierced my flow of dreams. My heart jumped and my steps quickened, even as I climbed up the long, steep slope towards the Dobel plateau. Even after walking 24km I was pulled upwards and onwards for the final kilometres of stage one as threads of golden light twinkled in the branches, highlighting the autumn colours in a dazzling display.
Just before Dobel, the trail passes ‘Völzemer Stein’, an unexpected chaos of bunter sandstone blocks that give the appearance of a lost city, or a castle ruin, long since tumbled down. But apparently this is due to the gnawing effects of erosion, cracking mighty boulders over a period of millions of years.
As I stepped out of the forest at ‘Enges Türle’ and into the open space, the sun was just about to set in the west, flooding the plateau with golden light and warmth! I felt like I’d just passed through heaven’s gate. After walking through the mysteriously shrouded forest for hours, practically alone, I was met with the very opposite effect at the end of the day’s journey. The open fields were swarming with revellers enjoying the last rays of the setting sun. And finally, here, I glimpsed the sweeping views across the cottonwool clouds that filled the valleys below.
For the next couple of days I was walking high above those clouds, basking in glorious sunshine, feeling blessed.