Germany, a country less than half the size of British Columbia with a population over twice that of Canada’s, is a country criss-crossed with a 200,000-kilometre network of walking trails. With a newly designed pilgrimage trail celebrating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s criticisms of the Catholic Church in his 95 theses, and the subsequent birth of the Protestant Reformation, what better time to pack my hiking boots and check it out.
On the first day, I travel 60 kilometres from Frankfurt to Worms, one of the oldest cities in Germany – a principality of the Roman Empire shortly after the year 600. It’s Sunday, and with church bells ringing, my guide, Bettina, leads me to the central square to show me the Reformation monument, the world’s largest. She explains the figures on raised pedestals are famous 16th-century politicians and humanists who impacted the Reformation.
Further down the cobble-stoned streets, past tiny cafés and bakeries selling freshly baked pretzels, at St. Peter’s Dom, one of the original imperial cathedrals in Germany, is the Heylshof Garden. A plaque and some big bronzed shoes, mark the spot where Luther stood before the Diet of Worms in 1521 and refused to recant his theses.
Initially a professor and theologian, and later a monk, central to Luther’s teachings were: an intermediary (a priest) between the people and God was not necessary; God is not a damning one; and his disbelief in the Letters of Indulgence that the Catholic Church was promoting, where a devotee could buy absolution and closeness to God (as well as keep the Church wealthy).
Alsheim to Oppenheim
Thirteen minutes away via train the next day, I arrive in Alsheim to meet Ralf and his group, part of the local church congregation who marked the Lutherweg (trail) here.
At the train station, we hoist on our day packs and start following the green “L” stickers that mark the trail, through old narrow streets bordered with centuries-old buildings, and finally into the countryside. The group is eager to show me a Lutheran-style pilgrimage on this 16-kilometre leg of the almost 400-kilometre trail. En route they sing songs, and we have a 30-minute walk of meditative silence.
I learn that Luther did not believe in pilgrimages (he felt you did not have to do anything special to show devotion to God), so the trail follows the old trade routes that he would have travelled on. This area, which the Rhine River snakes through, is renowned wine country and most of our walk is through lush vineyards where much of the trail is shared with the previously established Rhein Terrassen wine trail.
Our pilgrimage ends with a tour of the Oppenheim Church, another Romanesque cathedral, before we return to the neighbouring village of Guntersblum, where Schwanhof Schuppert is hosting a Luther-style dinner, complete with a special Luther-wein they have created for the commemoration. This family has been vintners here since the 17th century, and before that, the original building was a tavern, where it is said Luther stopped for an ale on his way to Worms.
The next day on the train north-east, I pass wheat and barley fields (for all that beer and bread), half-timber buildings with shuttered windows, red tile roofs and finally wooded forests into Frielendorf. Here, I meet with Pastor Virges and Mayor Vaupel and group, who accompany me on the Elisabethenpfad trail. St. Elizabeth of Thuringia lived from 1207-1231 and is one of the most famous German saints.
The Elizabeth paths cover more than 500 kilometres and overlap with Jacob’s trail, which goes all the way to Spain to connect with the Camino de Santiago. We start at Klosterkircher Spieskappel, a parish church, but previously a monastery where Luther spent the night on his return trip from Worms.
Pastor Virges is happy to share his wealth of knowledge about Luther, Elizabeth and the various pilgrimages he has done. We walk past farms, grazing horses, and fields and forests, to the Spiessturm, a watchtower constructed in 1430 that stands where there was a crossroads of important trade routes in the Middle Ages.
Beside the tower, we picnic on hearty open-faced rye sandwiches loaded with a local delicacy, ahle wurst, a slowly-aged pork sausage, and drink refreshing apfelschorle (mineral water and apple juice), before I must say goodbye to my fellow pilgrims.
Kathus to Bad Hersfeld
“Not so old, only about the 1700s,” says Herr Otto when I ask him the age of a church in the distance. I realize I must alter my perception of “old” here. I’m on my next leg of the Lutherweg from the village of Kathus, back to Bad Hersfeld. Herr Otto helped design the Luther Trail here and knows a lot of the history. As we cross a peaceful creek that was once the border between two counties, he tells me the original bridge was called “pilgrim” bridge, so once upon a time in Germany they used the English word.
Luther passed through Bad Hersfeld on his way to Worms, and on his return on May 1, 1521, he stayed overnight at the abbot’s house. The abbot asked Luther to preach his theses, which Luther did in the wee hours of the morning at Stiftsruine, an old Roman church (now the remarkable setting for the Bad Hersfelder Festspiele, a famous German summer theatre). Two years later, Bad Hersfeld became Protestant, one of the forerunners.
My final train ride takes me to Eisenach, a historical walled city that was an important central stopping place between several major cities. Luther was sent here from his nearby hometown when he was a boy, in 1498, to receive his Latin education. At the Lutherhaus, currently a museum with a Luther exhibition, I see the original room where he lived.
Next, I make the steep climb through what looks like Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, to the stunning, and amazingly intact, UNESCO-protected Wartburg Castle. When Luther would not retract his criticisms of the Church, he was condemned as a heretic and had a price on his head. In a faux-kidnapping, he was brought here to hide for one year before he moved on and once again got involved in Reformation efforts.
At the castle, Luther wrote prolifically and, within 11 weeks, translated the New Testament from Greek to German. This translation allowed access to the masses and had important significance for the development of a uniform German language.
“If you don’t know history,” says author Michael Crichton, “then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of the tree.” Somehow, I think Martin Luther would have agreed and approved of my pilgrimage down these German trails, where I learned so much about the people, the culture and Germany’s long, rich history.
For more info go to: www.germany.travel
Air Canada flies directly from Vancouver to Frankfurt
Worms – Dom Hotel – www.dom-hotel.de
Bad Hersfeld – Hotel B & F – http://www.bfhotel-hersfeld.de
Eisenach – Hotel Haus Hainstein – www.haushainstein.de