Over an undefined period of time, and most certainly with a lot of deviation into other stuff, I’ll give you some great outdoorsy tips for a day trip, with a European city as the starting point. Spring is soon around the corner, and culture or shopping might very well be combined with a hike. You’ll come home with a so much richer experience! No better place to start than in a former main city in the heart of Europe. I’ve been in Bonn – and left it.

Cultural capital 

The history of Bonn begun in the 1st century BC, with a roman settlement called Bonna, which makes it one of Germans oldest cities. Later, it was considered relatively unimportant until the Archbishop of Cologne set up residence in 1597. Cologne became what was defined as a Free City in 1475, a process that had been going on since the late 13th century, escaping the Archbishops jurisdiction. He sulkily (editors guess) left the premises in favour of Bonn, which then became the capital of the Electorate of Cologne until it was besieged by French troops in 1794 and became a part of Preussen at the end of the Napoleon wars in 1815.

30 percent of the city lay in ruins in 1945, but after the splitting of Germany, Bonn was made capital of West Germany from 1949 to 1990. It still houses lots of important governmental institutions, as well as a university and 20 United Nations institutions (including headquarters for Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention Climate Change).

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in 1770, and his house is placed right in the centre, close to all the shops and cafes. Spotify beautifully played “For Elise” and “Moonlight Sonata” for us and our kids on the car stereo going there, then we took a look at the house and ticked off on the cultural education.

Siebengebirge Nature Park

From Bonn you can get to Köningswinter in about 20 minutes by car or train. I think there are buses as well: No excuse for not going! From Köningswinter it’s a short (upward) hike to the Siebengebirge Nature Park, or you can use the Drachenfels Railway up the hill and hike from there. We started with a hike in the nature park, stopped by to take in the view at the Drachenfels hill top and ended at the fairy tale castle of Drachenburg. 

If you hike directly, it’s only 2,5 km from the railway station in Köningswinter to the view point and restaurant at Drachenfels. Keep on the main road and you won’t need any special clothing, except for good shoes (unless you’re a fan of painful feet), but I highly recommend taking a detour exploring more of the nature park.

In Siebengebirge there are 40 volcanic peaks, of which seven (as in sieben in German) are considered the most prominent. The forest seems endless. Sticking to the asphalt, it’s a crowded walk, even in winter, but the population thinned out drastically on the dirt roads and even more so on the marked smaller paths. 

Wandering into the unknown, we soon found ourselves completely alone with the views, the rough stone surfaces, the moss clothed trees and – feeling lucky – the sun. With a population of over 300,000 in Bonn alone – placed in the Rhine-Ruhr region, Germany's largest metropolitan area, with over 11 million inhabitants, the easy access to solitude came as a pleasant surprise.

The dark side of moving things around

A fungus, spreading from east to west in Europe, has sadly killed off almost all the Ash trees of the forest. Only three percent of the Ash trees seem to be genetically resistant to the fungus, but this means that there’s a chance for planting resistant seeds in 15 to 20 years.

An article in The Independent informs me that the fungus came with commercially imported trees from East-Asia – and as the Indians of America – the European Ash could not withstand the new pathogen. With the speed, magnitude and distances that we move around both plants, animals and humans in the contemporary world, we’re unintentionally bringing with us a wide array of potential threats to the flora and fauna. This is one of the reasons for the mass extinction of species that we’re witnessing today. Read “The Sixth Extinction” by Elisabeth Kolbert if you want to explore this fascinating and terrifying topic.

Sigurd and the dragon

Drachenfels hill got its name from the legend of Sigurd, the hero who killed the dragon Fafnir on the hilltop that’s been a popular destination for tourist since the romantic era. In Middle High German (spoken in the High Middle Ages) his name was Sigfried, but in old Norse it’s Sigurd – and the myth of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer is as familiar to us Norwegians as to the Germans. Growing up in the 1980ies and the 1990ies, most Norwegian kid has a common knowledge connecting Sigurd to the tales of the Vikings, based on a series of books and a movie playing upon the myth (the movie is called “The Littlest Viking”, and was released in 1989).

Swedish runestones and British crosses tell about Sigurd as early as the eleventh century, and he appears in the poetic Edda – a collection of poems concerning the Norse mythology, written on Island around the 12th century. In the German tradition Sigfried is described in the mediaeval poem of Nibelungenlied. They are both believed to be based on much older stories, and we do not know if he is based on a real person or a purely mythological creation. 

The Draco universe that suited the Nazis

According to Nibelungenlied, Sigfried almost accidentally happened to kill the dragon, but by bathing in the dragon’s blood, he became invulnerable, except from a spot where a Linden leaf was covering his body. His invulnerability was later used to such noble conquests as raping and thus taking the powers of an Icelandic queen. Remember, this is before Me too, and Sigfried is still our hero when he finally is killed in the most cowardly way – a guy called Hagen stabs him where the leaf left a weak spot on his body. His wife later revenges his murder by a gigantic killer fire and some beheadings, which makes some other people angry – and then she is cut in two. There was so much peace and love in the old days! Oh – I almost forgot – there’s an invisibility cape in the story as well. It’s a universe where Draco Malfoy (a suitable name by the way) is the hero of instead of Harry.

Much later, in the real world, the legend of Sigfried was used heavily in the construction of German nationalism – after all, he was a strong Nordic male hero, with a name which etymologically means victory and protection. The connection to the Nazis almost made the myth a taboo for a while, but in later years the dust has been blown away and the legends are coming back to life.

Back to now

Both history and tales are intertwined in the geography of Europe – something that’s becoming more and more apparent the more I travel, and I loved the opportunity to get better acquainted with Sigurd due to a picturesque hilltop in Germany. This lovely Sunday in February, we found a cup of hot chocolate at the base of the ruin – and a spectacular view of the Rhine river.

The Drachenburg castle

On our way down from Drachenfels, we stopped by the scenic castle of Drachenburg. Information on the site told us that it’s not really a castle – just a very extravagant villa. I haven’t seen any villa looking like this before, and hence I will continue to go by the definition as a castle – royalty and blue blood a minor concern as I’m a declared republican (please don’t mix this up with American party politics, as that’s a totally different story).

The construction of Drachenburg castle was begun in 1882 by Stephan Sarter, who made his fortune speculating with stocks. He was made a Baron the same year as he laid down the foundation stone, but he never lived there. Through history the castle hosted Sarters nephew during summer holidays, was converted to a tourist destination and a community-centre for the better-offs, continued as a Christian boarding school, a Nazi elite school, a refugee camp set up by US soldiers and then a training centre for the German rail.

It was bombarded during the second WW and faced deterioration and possible demolition in the 1960ies, but was saved by an eccentric private owner, Paul Spinat, in 1971. Finally, in 1980ies the castle was listed as a monument, and full restauration was initiated by the North Rhine-Westphalia Foundation of Nature, Heritage and Culture. In 2011 full restauration was completed inside and outside. Thank you, guys – you’ve done a great job!

Next time

We only got to see a tiny portion of the Siebenbirge Nature Park, partly because my poor husband was in the early stages of what turned out to be a terrible flue, moving like a snotty snail, and partly as we only had a short day before driving back to Brussels – but when you have seen a little bit you want more. The best part is: We’ve seen all the major tourist attractions. Next time we’re coming back to hike some of those seven hills!

Questions? Wanting to share? Duke of Edinburgh or plain Jane? Feel free to contact me.


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