With a length of 130 kilometres and a 4,000 metre difference in altitude the Nibelungensteig is one of the more challenging trails that cuts through the Odenwald. It leads to chapels and castles, past fields of blueberries and a moor, and through deciduous and coniferous forests as well as to the legendary place where Siegfried, the quintessential Germanic hero, is said to have died.
Here is where, according to legend, it happened—at this spring near Grasellenbach in the Odenwald. Hagen from Tronje stabbed his rival Siegfried from Xanten, also known as Siegfried the Dragonslayer. At least that’s how the Song of the Nibelungs, which sings of the fate of the Burgundian kings from Worms, recounts it. And that is also how Friederike Preuß tells it upon her arrival here after a short climb through the wet spring forest. The place seems peaceful, despite the bloodthirsty story. It smells of wet spruce needles and moss. The rain from the day before hangs as a mist between the trees. Drops of water splash quietly from the spring. “I really, really like being here,” says the woman with the friendly face and round glasses.
And she comes here very often. After all, the place is on one of “her” parts of the trail. Friederike has been a voluntary trail conservationist for the OWK Odenwaldklub forest club for almost 25 years. As such she is responsible for a part of the Nibelungensteig trail. The high-quality hiking trail has led through the Odenwald on natural tracks since 2008. It comprised about 40 kilometres when it was opened as such—from Zwingenberg located on the Hessian part of the Bergstrasse all the way to the Siegfriedbrunnen fountain near Grasellenbach. Another 90 kilometres were added in 2010. Now the trail ends in Freudenberg at the River Main allowing you to hike through the Odenwald along seven sections and some 4,000 metres in altitude.
Friederike knows all of the sections, even though she has never walked the trail from start to finish. Of course, the trail conservationist is particularly fond of “her” section, which leads from the Fürth district of Weschnitz to the Olfener Bild, a wayside shrine near the Oberzenter district of Olfen. A blood-red N written on a white background marks the trail here as it does elsewhere along its course—at least when Friederike has done her job well. Once a year, she checks whether the markings are easily recognisable and touches them up if necessary, for example, when a symbol has faded, the bark is flaking off or a tree with a marking has been felled.
The Nibelungensteig trails leads through the Odenwald between Zwingenberg and Grasellenbach.
Friederike Preuß has been a trail conservationist for almost 25 years.
She marks the course of the high-quality hiking trail…
… that passes through the Odenwald along seven sections.
White paint for the square background…
… and a blood-red N.
It goes without saying that you will see the Siegfriedbrunnen on the Nibelungensteig.
At least one of the many ones.
She would normally not even set out on the track on a day as wet as today. The weather should be dry the day before marking the trees in order for the paint to stick well, as Friederike explains as she trudges with Simone Paepke from Grasellenbach towards the Siegfriedbrunnen fountain. Simone is head of the Tourist-Information NibelungenLand in the Bergstraße administrative district and head of the tourism agency that markets the Nibelungensteig trail. Continuing along the path, Friederike has long taken off her jacket and stowed it in her rucksack. Then she suddenly stops. “This won’t do,” she says, looking at the red N emblazoned on the trunk of a pine tree. The bark has chipped off, and the painted white background is no longer intact.
I actually go into the forest every week
She reaches into the blue plastic basket she carries with her, takes out a jar of white paint and a brush. “The beech is the favourite tree of a trail conservationist,” she says, touching up the marker. “It’s nice and smooth. You only have to do it every two or three years,” whereas the paint doesn’t even last a year on the brittle bark of the pine. When she puts a new mark on a pine or on a Douglas fir, she first removes loose bark with a three-square file. Beech trees just require treatment with a wire brush. “We don’t want to damage the tree.” Friederike is responsible for over 100 kilometres of hiking trail. It takes her about three weeks every spring to walk them all and check the markings.
She is happy to invest this time because she loves her volunteer work and the feeling of doing something for the community. A total of about 6,000 kilometres of hiking trails run through the nine trail districts into which the OWK has divided the area between Frankfurt and the Kraichgau. Some 200 trail conservationists maintain them, with most of the volunteers looking after a 20- to 50-kilometre section. Their work is not only of a practical value for all hikers, but it’s also a contribution to nature conservation. “Of course we hope that people stay on the trails so as to not disturb the wildlife much,” she explains. The trail network in the Odenwald has existed since the end of the 19th century. Red and blue signs usually lead from north to south, green and yellow ones from west to east.
40 trail conservationists work to mark some 1,200 kilometres in district number 4, where Friederike’s areas are located. “We could use a few more,” says the volunteer in charge of the district, who also trains newcomers. She came to her volunteer position through her parents. They took care of the trails around Heppenheim, where Friederike still lives. At the age of 29, she took over her own trails in the Überwald area of the Odenwald. She likes the region so much that she considered moving here. But commuting every day between the Odenwald and Feudenheim, where she works as a bookseller, was just too much.
Friederike stops once again. A young beech branch has grown in front of a sign. The conservationist pulls out the loppers and tries to cut it as high up as possible. It’s not all too easy when you’re only 1.58 metres tall. She is happy that her boyfriend often accompanies her on the tours. Not only is he a good 20 centimetres taller, but he shares her passion for hiking. Both are actively involved in the local OWK group in Heppenheim. As a certified hiking guide and health hiking guide, Friederike regularly offers tours there. “I actually go into the forest every week,” she explains and adds that she also likes to spend her holidays hiking—this year in the Hunsrück Mountains, the Black Forest and the Saxon Switzerland national park.
Friederike has stowed the loppers away again and continues on her way along the narrow forest trail. If the weather were better, she would apply the white paint for the background now, and then the red N on the way back. Hikers should see one of the signs about every 350 metres. “If hikers have walked for five to ten minutes without seeing one, they should turn around,” she explains. An even stricter rule applies for crossroads: “The sign with an arrow before the crossroads tells you the direction in which you should go; behind the crossroads, another sign confirms that you have actually turned into the right one.”
If possible, Friederike paints the red N on a white background at the top position above other signs on the tree. After all the Nibelungensteig is a high-quality hiking trail. As such, it has to fulfil a number of criteria. For example, there is a limit to how much of the trail leads along asphalted paths. Shelters, rest areas, vantage points, bodies of water, restaurants, parking spaces and a connection to public transport are quality features, as she explains. She does not only maintain the trails, she also acts as a surveyor and regularly checks whether or not the high-quality hiking trails in the region still meet these requirements. “This bit, for example, would be a borderline case,” she says, looking at the gravel-covered ground. You can’t tell whether it was applied or washed up by the rain.
Friederike appreciates the variety the Nibelungensteig offers. “You get to know many different landscapes.” The trail leads from the gentle scenery of the Vorderer Odenwald to the coniferous forests and fields of blueberries in the Hinterer Odenwald and to the valley along the River Main. Apart from the Siegfriedbrunnen fountain, Friederike particularly likes the Rotes Wasser von Olfen, a protected high moor that features reddish water, which lends its name to the nature reserve there. Another one of her favourites is the Walburgiskapelle chapel, which you reach by climbing narrow serpentines. And, of course, there is the wild and romantic Gassbachtal valley, situated just before the Siegfriedbrunnen fountain—or just after it, depending on the direction you have chosen to walk. If you want to hike all of the seven sections of the trail at one time, you should reserve accommodation in the guesthouses or campsites beforehand, because in many places they are few and far between.
Grasellenbach is an exception though. Lots of opportunities are offered by guesthouses bearing the names of the heroes of the Song of the Nibelungs; regardless of the fact that it is quite disputed whether the spring in the nearby forest is really the ‘real’ Siegfriedbrunnen fountain. “This fountain is actually one of the least likely ones to be the fountain in question,” Friederike knows. It’s too far from Worms, which is where the Burgundian kings resided and also where Siegfried’s body was brought, according to the song, in just one night. It is therefore much more likely that the Siegfriedbrunnen fountain in Heppenheim served the author of the song as a model for the scene of the murder instead. “But hardly anybody knows that one,” says Friederike. And besides, it is not as beautifully situated in the forest.
The man who wants to take the chestnut to the next level.
Tips for excursions and interesting stories about the Rhine-Neckar region can be found regularly in our newsletter.
And this is how it works: Enter your e-mail address in the field and click subscribe. You will then receive an automatically generated message to the e-mail address you entered, which you only need to confirm. Done!