I recently attended an astrodynamics conference in Germany. The conference just so happened to coincide with my university’s spring break and I spent a few days after the event doing a little exploring of my own before returning to school. Naturally, I spent most of my time outside!
After dropping the rental car off at the airport (I used it to travel from my hotel to the conference venue, 20 km away), I made my way to the underground train station. I wouldn’t really call it a “subway,” because it’s nothing like the subway stations you find in New York or Washington DC. These are full sized trains, complete with solid steel rails and massive railroad ties. Another impressive difference with US trains is how quiet Germany’s locomotives are. They are electric engines, powered by overhead cables, but they are also smooth as can be: no jerky departures from the station, and no deafening rattle as the cars fly through the tunnels. I was thoroughly impressed. However, even more impressive is the main train station, Frankfurt Hauptbanhof. There are over 100 platforms and dozens of trains occupying them at any given time.
I rode one of the regionalbahn lines South to a little town called Zwingenberg. I didn’t have much luggage – just a backpack and a small carry-on suitcase – but I quickly learned why people use backpacks when they go on their European adventures: lugging a suitcase around, even a small one, is a pain in the butt. Since I’m too frugal to spend any money on an international data plan for my phone, I printed out a map so I could navigate from the train station to a hostel where I had a reserved room. What the map didn’t show is that the hostel was several hundred feet up a steep hill… Oh well. I was surprised at how prevalent cobblestone streets are! Perhaps it just isn’t possible to squeeze a cement truck or paving machinery into the narrow streets.
My first experience at a hostel was a good one. The man running the place was friendly and happily showed me to my room. I was on a floor with a crowd of Italian school kids, probably somewhere between 13 and 16 years old. I had a room to myself, but the floor shares a communal bathroom; it took me back to living in the dorms my first few years of college. The place certainly wasn’t fancy, but it was more than adequate. Plus, at €23/night, it cost about 10% as much as the hotel I stayed at in Frankfurt.
A Hike Between Castles
I spent the next day hiking through the hills and forests West of Zwingenberg. My absolute favorite thing about Germany is the sheer number of marked trails and paths there are. Even in the city, you find trail blazes on street lamps and sign posts. The trails leave the cities and follow unpaved roads, and eventually branch into regular old hiking trails through the woods. I met lots of people on these trails walking their dogs, jogging, biking, and just enjoying a stroll like I was. The countryside around Zwingenberg is covered in vineyards, which is a nice allusion to my trip to Napa valley last month. 😀 I caught a few glimpses of my morning destination, Auerbach Schloß, through the grapes:
It took about an hour to walk from the hostel to the castle. The weather was perfect for hiking and I very much enjoyed the walk. I spent an hour exploring the castle; I wish I had been there at sunrise to catch the golden hour light, but I did what I could with the midday sun. I was more or less alone in the castle, which was neat!
I trekked down to a nearby city to have some lunch. I bought a sandwich at a bakery, as well as a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, which was fantastic! After eating, I went to check out a nearby church and wandered around some other trails.
I was getting tired by mid-afternoon and stopped to rest near a bunch of tall pine trees. There was a bit of haze in the air that made the forest feel surreal. A group of people on bicycles passed me while I was walking back toward my hostel – that’s what I should have done, is rented a bike! Next time, I suppose.
I spotted some signs that said there was another castle just a few kilometers down the trail! I figured that it would only take me half an hour to walk there, so I headed that way. It was a long 30 minutes, but I did get there. It wasn’t as impressive as Auerbach Schloß, but it’s not every day that I get the chance to explore ancient castles.
I bought a soda at the castle and sat down to rest my feet and legs while I drank it. There was a British family nearby, and it was sort of refreshing to hear other people speaking English instead of German.
The walk back to the hostel was uneventful; my feet and legs ached, and I was ready to relax for the rest of the day. The view from the hilltops, looking down on Zwingenberg, was particularly memorable and took my mind off my feet and legs: rows and rows of grapes on the rolling slopes. I passed a few people stretched out in the sun on the grass, reading books or just admiring the scenery; this area would be a great place for a picnic. It was just a hop, skip, and a jump from the hills down to the hostel; my knees took quite the beating on the steep downhill path, but I soon reached the gate of the hostel and relaxed for the rest of the day.