I always liked being in the mountains more than being at the beach. I was probably heavily influenced by my parents and even though I grew up less than a hundred miles from the Yorkshire coast, I could count the times I have been there on one hand. As a schoolboy I was into fell running, went on school skiing trips and then I got interested in paragliding which meant that there was always a reason for me to go to the mountains. Moving to Germany to live almost in the shadow of the Alps was a natural and welcome move for me back in 1991.
One things that I wasn’t particularly interested in was walking – or as the Americans say “hiking” and in German “Wandern”. If I was in the mountains I wanted to either ski on them or fly down from them. Just walking on them seemed a bit dull. After all, walking was something I could do all day anyway to get around. Maybe it was just the language. In England we had no special word to describe the activity of walking in the hills or mountains. It’s all just walking. In America they at least call it hiking – and I think it deserves its own word. Walking is what I do every morning to pick up my bread rolls, hiking is getting properly geared up and going out just for the pleasure of it. In German they don’t really have a word for normal walking, the just use “gehen” – to go. If it is unclear by which form of transport one is going, then it is qualified by “zu Fuß” – on foot. They do have a word for hiking, though. They call it “wandern”. The older I get, the more I enjoy just plain “wandern”. But wandern in Germany is very different from England – something which became clear to me as I was yomping over the top of a lovely mountain in the Lake District last week. (For the rest of this post I am going to use the work hiking to describe walking in the mountains. Firstly, it saves me having to write wandern in speech marks all the time and secondly I think the Americans unusually a linguistic step ahead of the Brits in this instance).
It is clear that the German word wandern is closely linked to the English word, to wander. But the meaning is different. In English, wandering indicates a sense of aimlessness or even straying from a given path. In German, wandern really means hiking. It means getting geared up and walking a proper route. It can be done on the flat or in the mountains. If you want to really get serious and start roping up on a mountain and doing some climbing then the Germans would call it Bergsteigern. For the rest of this post I am going to use the work hiking to describe walking in the mountains. Firstly, it saves me having to write wandern in speech marks all the time and secondly I think the Americans unusually a linguistic step ahead of the Brits in this instance.
Hiking in the German Alps is not surprisingly a well-organised affair. So many of the mountains have ski-lifts and restaurants on them that need a little business in summer, so there are lots of specially marked and signposted trails to entice you up there. It’s nice to have a place to aim for and enjoy a cold drink and perhaps “Brotzeit” after a strenuous walk up somewhere. If you are not so sporty, there are plenty of places to take a lift up have a short walk around looking at the view and end up sitting on the terrace of a nice alpine restaurant. You can take some pictures of the valley, being careful to have the lifts and cafe umbreallas behind you, and claim you have spent an energetic week hiking in the Alps.
If you want to get off the beaten track and do some proper hiking, this is also possible of course. There are plenty of unspoilt mountain tops waiting for you to get up there. Having said that, you will still be more or less restricted to established paths. It’s not so easy to just go freestyle and start yomping over hilltops. There are a couple of good reasons for this. Firstly, until you get to about 1700m (which is nearly the top of most German mountains) you are below the treeline. So a lot of your walk (from the valley floor about a 1000m lower down) will be in the heavily forested slopes. Losing the path here is time-consuming and ultimately pointless. You just end up trying to clamber through a densely planted homogenic pine forest with no sun to be seen. I know, I’ve taken many a failed short cut and ended up cursing myself. Secondly, when you get above the treeline there can be some quite serious rocks, cliffs and escarpments about so it makes sense to have a path to follow. So in late summer it is not so easy to find somewhere to avoid the crowds. There are lots of people on the mountains and you will probably have company at least if you want to walk up one of the prominent peaks. The nice thing is that there are probably going to be lots of signs (difficult to get lost) which also have a time estimate on them. In short, it’s all well-organised, well-maintained and well-trodden. It’s lovely, but it’s not really wild. It’s definitely not “wandering” in the English sense of the word.
Last week I went up one of the Lake District’s most famous mountains, Blencathra, during one of the busiest weeks of the year. Admittedly Ariane and I set off quite late in the afternoon and the weather wasn’t great (still, by no means bad) but we only saw one other person on the mountain all day. The hike up was spectacularly beautiful and the strong wind added to the sense of wildness and exposure. When you get to the top – there’s nothing there apart from the view and a little ring set into the ground. Because there are no trees on the mountain, anywhere, you are constantly rewarded with impressive sweeping views in every direction. On the top it was extremely windy and the sky looked a bit menacing. So we took a few pictures, and I ate the chocolate I had saved as a reward for making it to the summit. Then we strolled along the top and came down the gentler grassy slopes of Blease Fell with just a few sheep for company. Eventually we dropped down below the heather and onto a path through deep bracken before the final bit over a wooden bridge and alongside a pretty stream back to the car. After that we were keen to get back to the kids, so didn’t have the customary post-walk pint in the pub at the bottom. But seeing other walkers there – socks rolled down, boots open – enjoying a pint outside after a bracing day out “on the fell” was a heartwarming sight.
So, German wandern and British walking are quite different. Hopefully I can stay fit enough to enjoy them both for many years to come. At the moment I am looking forward to my next visit to the Lake District in December and hopefully a few late summer weekends in the Allgäu.