It is a crisp cold day and the sun is glistening off fields blanketed with fallen snow. About an hour’s drive from Weimar, and after a sodden winter in the UK, it is magical traveling under piercing blue skies with stinging, fresh air hurting my lungs. This pain is good.
We are on our way to an ancient Thüringen forest in Central Germany – between Mühlhausen, Bad Langensalza and the Wartburg city of Eisenach. It was a Soviet military base in the not so distant past. After WWII, Stalin’s Red Army gained control of Eastern Germany which became the German Democratic Republic. This enormous beech tree forest, and its peripheries, were used for military exercises with barracks and administrative buildings scattered around its perimeter.
It was a ‘no-go zone’ for anyone other than the Russian army.
This 7,500 hectare forest is now the Hainich Nature Park. It is probably as near to primeval forest as you can find in Europe and, when it became a nature park in 1996, had not been impacted by humans for fifty years. This has allowed nature to return and flourish.
Not only is there dominant beech trees but also 30 other species of deciduous trees all competing for their place in the forest. 49 species of mammals including wild cats, middle spotted woodpeckers and 15 types of bats reside here.
But the piece de resistance in Hainich Nature Park is the remarkable Canopy Walk. The top of the Canopy Walk Tower is 42m high and the vista extends for miles and miles. We are very lucky as the park’s director, Manfred Großmann and his team have opened the attraction for us to experience. At every level, as you walk up, there are ‘arms’ of walkways that extend out into the forest. In the winter, with the entire forest covered in snow and ice crystals, it is inspirational. The views…stunning.
We also visited the Wild Cat Village in Hütscheroda which opened in April 2012. This centre is so popular, particularly with domestic tourists, that there have been 55,000 visitors in 2 years. The information centre offers brochures, a cinema and also features exhibits. It is also associated with an ambitious project to create ‘Green Corridors’ that connect forests in Germany and even other countries so wild creatures have more freedom to roam.
The enclosure for the captive wild cats (about 1/4 mile walk from the information centre) houses four males: Toco and Carlo from Germany and Franz and Tosca from Switzerland. As these cats are being fed, they can never be returned to the wild. The keeper skins the mice to make it easier for the cats to eat, thus coining the term ‘Naked Mouse’.
In the afternoon, I was thrilled to visit a very old medieval walled city. Mühlhausen is famous for its two market squares, each with imposing churches – St. Blaise (Divi Blasii) and St. Mary’s. Mühlhausen was also famous for being the epicentre of the Peasant Uprising of 1523 – 1525. Supported by Martin Luther’s right hand man, Thomas Müntzer, a resident of Mühlhausen, many of the peasant’s demands were ideologically similar with changes coming about with respect of the Reformation.
Our group enjoyed an impromptu organ concert given by the organist of St. Blaise on an instrument inspired by the one played by J.S. Bach in this very church. It was unfortunate that we each had to be given a blanket to cope with the perishing and bitter cold. Even as the sun slipped away, and the temperature dropped, it was a fascinating place to visit.
It was a visit to the town’s City Hall, built circa 1300, that was quite breath-taking. Steeped in history, there is a late Gothic mural depicting the town’s first council that is captivating. The archives, in the basement of the building since 1615, have daily correspondence of the city starting from 1382. The oldest book written in German, a law book from 1213, is housed here in the archives.
Visit www.visit-thuringia.com for general information.
All images ©The Roaming Scribe unless stated