Border-crossers as time travellers in the culinary Franconian Forest
Saturday morning in Bad Steben – the Franconian Forest presents itself to us as calm and peaceful, yes, even slightly sleepy. The last wafts of mist ascend and the sun greets the day tentatively. We find ourselves in the uppermost part of Bavaria, the so-called green crown. Our trip today leads us along the “Green Belt” – the former border with the GDR between Bavaria and Thuringia. It is like a journey in time through the history of Germany. We are very excited to see all that we will find out and how the impressions gathered will impact on us.
The meeting point is our hire station, the relaxa Hotel, right next to the thermal spring Bad Steben, where we are warmly received by Ottmar Lang, the director of the health resort, with a few words of greeting. Full of anticipation ahead of today’s adventures, we swing into our saddles and off we go on the third trip. After a good four kilometres and the first climb, we reach Lichtenberg, which sits enthroned with its castle ruins on a hill and provides a breathtaking view of the Franconian Forest in all its glory. We receive our first story round today from town guide Reiner Köhle and his associates Hans von Waldenfels, the former lord of the castle in Lichtenberg, and a barbarian.
We go back to the year 815 AD, when the first lords lived here in the castle. The origin of the castle that existed at the time is and remains unknown. In 1337, Lichtenberg was declared a town. While surrounding towns were captured by the Hussites c. 1430, Lichtenberg managed to withstand the onslaught. However, in the Thirty Years’ War, the town had to suffer numerous invasions and plunderings. In 1682, the castle was destroyed by a fire and it was not rebuilt. It was not until 1844 that the town was able to acquire and keep intact the majority of it. In 2003, the castle ruins were renovated and maintained by the Burgfreunde Lichtenberg, who also hold the Mediaeval Festival there.
A rapid ascent takes us into the Höllental (Hell Valley). According to legend, a courageous charcoal burner took on the Devil by night. Angered by his daring, the lord of the underworld stamped his horse foot furiously and the gully of the Hell Valley opened up. However, the Hell Valley revealed itself to us from a completely different side. The cycle path winds its way idyllically along the Selbitz River, which paves its way through the steep rock walls adorned with lush vegetation. But what is that over there? On our way to the Teufels- und Jungfernsteg footbridge, we make a unique acquaintance with the Devil ourselves.
Contrary to the opinion of the Devil, one can indeed say “when little angels travel…”, for in that precise moment the sun now emerges completely from behind the clouds, making the water of the river glisten and our faces shine. Another legend here in the myth-enshrouded Hell Valley is that of the deer jump. Today, a statue of a jumping deer is to provide a reminder of how, at the time, deer driven into a corner are said to have rescued themselves from hunters (or wolves – opinions deviate here) by jumping over the valley. Our path continues further along the Selbitz. We ride past the Hiking Hub in Untereichenstein and also come across the municipality of Blankenstein with its old and new paper factory and cycle along a bit of the old horse tramway, a former connecting path of the two factories. Today, the decommissioned tracks serve as a reminder of that time.
Deep in thoughts about former times, our group makes an abrupt stop. An older gentleman is currently busy painting a signpost that is to serve as a reminder of a former illegal border crossing. We listen with fascination to the stories told by Hans V, a contemporary who was born here in Blankenstein in 1929 and has lived in the area since. With a bucket full of paint and a brush in his hand, he tells us how he has maintained this path, which was converted into a patrol path. We are captivated by all the things he has experienced. We thank Hans for sharing his memories with us and continue cycling. Now the adventurous section of the route begins – slab by slab must be ridden!!!
After a short stop in Eisenbühl with an abstract iron sculpture garden, we continue to the “Meister Bär Hotel” – Frankenwald Saaletal in Rudolphstein. There we are warmly received with coffee and cake, thus being reinforced for the next stage. Via Hirschberg, passing the castle and war memorial there, we continue towards Mödlareuth. We now find ourselves in the middle of the Green Belt area – a strip that rightly received its name due to the variety of types of vegetation. Historically, however, it is more like a red rag. Despite clearing, there are still said to be numerous mines in the area off the paths. After a short time, we reach the small village of Mödlareuth – also better known by the name “Little Berlin”. The village, with approximately 60 inhabitants, received the name due to its 3.3m-high and 700 m-long wall. For more than four decades, this settlement was divided by the inner-German border. Today, the Deutsch-Deutsche Museum serves as a reminder of what were once the border blockage facilities. In the museum and the outdoor facility there, we find out how the border was secured at the time and can only imagine what this must have meant for the people at the time. What injustice took place here and what atrocities occurred. Contemplative, we cycle further via Töpen to the Gasthof Frank inn in Joditz. There, our slightly tired calves and our meditative minds are enlivened with a hearty – genuinely Franconian – snack.
Invigorated, we cycle further through the hilly landscape of the Franconian Forest. Our next stop is in the town of Selbitz at the Gasthof Goldene Krone guesthouse, one of our hire stations. The owner Peter Hagen, a passionate chef, has set the table. He has served many delicacies of Franconian cuisine. We find out a few things from him about the Franconian Forest cuisine. And what is Franconian Forest kid?
Like the goat, we too are gourmets and we choose the best of the best. We try a bit of everything –mmm, delicious! But now, with a full stomach, it is time to cycle on. No problem thanks to our e-bikes – stuffing yourself and cycling go very well together ;-) Our last stop today is in Naila – world-famous thanks to the unique balloon flight over the border from the GDR to West Germany in 1979 by the Strelzyk and Wetzel families (which was made into a Hollywood film in 1981 – Night Crossing).
At the Home Museum, we can see the aforementioned flight balloon up close and read old newspaper cut-outs and reports about it. With an anxious look towards the sky as to whether the rain clouds will hold for the last bit of the route, we cycle back to Bad Steben. And yes, we get caught in the rain after all. The luck with the weather that we had this morning at Hell Valley now leaves us. But what is nicer than taking a hot bath and then being treated to a brilliant dinner at the relexa Hotel after an action-packed day? A good way for any trip to end!