Hiking on the Way of St. James is a popular undertaking for the soul. But why only go on a spiritual journey on foot? Bavaria is criss-crossed by a network of cycling pilgrimage routes – including beautiful Franconia. We cycled off and had a look. Text: Markus Stein, Photos: Frank Heuer
Cycling Pilgrimage in Bavaria
“E ultreia!”, translated roughly as “Keep going!”, emanates from Pastor Jürgen Nitz as he tightens his bicycle helmet. His companions, a reporter and photographer, look questioningly into the grey, wet sky above St Lawrence’s Church in Hof today of all days. Does this mean that it will keep raining today? Or does the clergyman, who is a cycling enthusiast, want to encourage people to set off with the traditional greeting of the pilgrims of St James? “E ultreia! E sus eia! Deus aia nos y Santiago!” “Keep going, let’s go! God help us and Saint James!” And so, with that, we’re off...
All Roads Lead to Rome? LOL!
As is well known, all roads lead to Rome. But very, very many also lead to Santiago de Compostela. Since the Middle Ages, a vast network of pilgrimage routes has spanned the whole of Europe with just one destination: the burial place of St James in north-west Spain, which is still revered to this day.
In the 11th century, Santiago became the most important pilgrimage site in Christendom, along with Rome and Jerusalem, and later even the most important pilgrimage site of all, when Rome was trumped by Constantinople for centuries and Jerusalem was conquered by Muslims!
Eight Ways of St. James Traverse Bavaria
The Bavarians have always been pious and fond of travelling, which is why eight key Ways of St. James run through the territory of the Free State. Two “Upper Franconian St. James cycle pilgrimage routes” start in the town of Hof. They latch on to the routes from Saxony and Thuringia and move over the “Fichtelgebirge” (Fichtel Mountains) or through Bayreuth to Nuremberg, and from there optionally on to Augsburg, Ulm or Eichstätt. Then it’s on to Lake Constance, Switzerland, France and over the Pyrenees to Spain. Just on and on... But you don’t always have to walk your feet off...
“We already have over 2,000 kilometres of cycle pilgrimage routes in Bavaria. They are also already signposted with the traditional sign,” says Nitz happily. The man is thoroughly in his prime and acts both as a pilgrimage guide for the Protestant Church and as a tour guide for the cycling association “Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrrad-Club ADFC”.
“We” means a team of committed helpers around initiator Nitz on behalf of the Evangelical Church of Bavaria and five ADFC setup teams from Landsberg am Lech. The project is called “Radfahren mit Sinn und allen Sinnen” (“Cycling with Sense and all the Senses”).
Why a Cycling Pilgrimage?
“Well, quite simply: the bicycle, and especially the innovative e-bikes, make it possible for anyone interested who is not so good on foot but still mobile to set off, be on the road and discover the adventure of a ‘pilgrimage’,” says Nitz. Especially for people who have experienced a crisis or need time out, a cycling pilgrimage is a good opportunity to clear their heads and recharge their batteries.
And why on the Way of St. James of all places, and not simply on a hike with the Alpine Club? “Well, people have been travelling these routes for centuries; this tradition in and of itself even has an effect on those who can grasp its significance. And, very importantly, the trails are also meeting places where you can meet and exchange ideas with like-minded people. Many deep friendships have already been formed as a result.”
The setting of the cycle pilgrimage routes is based on the pilgrimage routes by foot and, where possible, makes use of existing long-distance cycle routes. The cycle pilgrimage routes are suitable for e-bikes and can be completed in reasonable daily stages.
450 Kilometres Through Franconia
The youngest offspring of the cycling-enthusiastic “disciples of St. James” is the network of cycling pilgrims’ paths in Upper Franconia. “Around 450 kilometres were signposted here, with great support from the district farms. And it was worth it,” Nitz sums up, not without a sense of pride.
A blue sign with the yellow inscription “Jakobus Radpilgerweg”, a stylised scallop shell and a bicycle, guides the pedal-driven pilgrim through the countryside.
The recently inaugurated route takes cycle pilgrims from Hof via Bayreuth and Creußen through Franconian Switzerland to Nuremberg. Those who want to can choose a tour variant from Hof eastwards through the “Fichtelgebirge” mountains, as the team of reporters did on their test ride together.
Along the Saale River
The pilgrims’ cycle route initially runs along the Saale cycle route. The destination: the source of the Saale near Zell. The bikes roll upstream without having to climb a significant incline. Effortless. The young river meanders in majestic fashion through its romantic valley, past meadows and trees. Dreamily, here and there a branch sticks out into the water.
The rain has loosened soil from the ground and coloured the Saale brown. In some places, the river babbles over large stones, splits into smaller branches or appears covered with white flowers. Occasionally, a church steeple also catches the bikers’ eye.
A Church Every Two Hours
Pilgrimage churches belong to pilgrimage like an air pump to a bicycle. “In our specific routing, we try to ensure that a pilgrimage church can be visited every two hours,” explains Nitz. Churches are places of peace and silence. Places where one can pray, where the soul can find peace and strength – and where the body can enjoy something to drink (and use the loo). The coveted pilgrim’s stamps for the pilgrim’s passport are available in pilgrim churches!
Anyone who was neither a merchant nor a monk in the Middle Ages did not have an easy time getting out of the narrow confines of his village and discovering the world. But as a recognised pilgrim, with the permission of the local bishop, it was possible. So those who set out into the distance (and, of course, also wanted to facilitate their own salvation) set out on the path, the “Camino”.
Important utensils included a hat, tippet, gourd and, on the return, the scallop shell. With the pilgrim’s passport today, it is possible to document that a person has stayed in the designated hostels, hospices and monasteries for one night only at a time, before moving on again the next day... The mostly artistically designed stamps are also a nice souvenir.
Late Gothic as an Original!
The church of St. Maria in Weißdorf is a good 20 kilometres and a solid hour’s cycle from Hof. The late Gothic hall church, consecrated around 1480, is found still largely in its original condition and has a very special aura. One key feature is the frescoed columns inside the now Evangelical Lutheran church.
Another noteworthy point on the north-eastern column is the woodcut-like depiction of the crucifixion with the date 1483 (the year of Luther’s birth) and, on the north-western column, a small, black ram, which presumably represents the “scapegoat”. (Once, rams were symbolically loaded with the sins of the people of Israel and “sent into the wilderness” for reconciliation between God and man).
Together with the high ribbed vault, the baroque altar with its evangelist figures and the baroque baptismal angel, the frescoes give the church its unmistakable character. “A church that touches the soul”, says Pastor Nitz.
Up to the “Großer Waldstein”!
Nature does just that too! Shortly before Weißenstadt, today’s stage destination, the “Große Waldstein” awaits; at 877 metres, it is the highest mountain in the northern Fichtelgebirge. Tour guide Nitz warns with a laugh: “It’s going to get chilly beyond Zell!”
On the water divide between the Saale and Eger rivers, a forest path branches off in a northerly direction to the “Waldsteinhaus”, a restaurant with a beer garden. Then it’s time for the bikes to come to a halt, and it’s a quarter of an hour’s walk up to the lookout point Große Schüssel.
On the way there, you enter a fairytale world of fantastic rock formations, jungle-like green mixed forest and the remains of a once mighty castle. The granite rocks, partly covered with moss and lichen, pile up like wool sacks stacked on top of each other, puffing up like Michelin men, reminiscent of marshmallows that have been pressed flat. Occasionally, trees have clung to rocky outcrops. Crazy.
Once you’ve arrived at the “Schüsselfelsen”, you can enjoy a panoramic view over the dark sea of forests of the “Fichtelgebirge” – to the east as far as the “Erzgebirge”, Bohemian Forest and “Steinwald”, and to the west as far as Franconian Forest, Rhön and Thuringian Forest. To the south lies the pretty little town of Weißenstadt with its listed old town and lake.
The modern thermal spa “Siebenquell” with its huge water and sauna world and wellness massages resides very close to the shore. Just the right thing for weary cycling pilgrims and their tired legs. So, down with the bike and on with the swimming costumes. Gracias a Santiago! And the Church of St. James in the city centre invites you to do good for your soul.