A journey of discovery through the Bavarian Forest (“Woid”) in the footsteps of Kneipp. The area between the Kneipp spas of Bad Kötzting and Bad Berneck is a land of almost mystical landscapes, culinary flights of fancy and healing springs. Text and photos: Thomas Linkel
Bavarian Forest and Fichtel Mountains: Paddling, Kneipp, Hiking
Wispy mist hangs over the river, veiling the banks. The river flows through a landscape made up entirely of fine, grey tones. We feel a great sense of peace as we float downstream in our canoe just before sunrise. The tangy yet aromatic scent of damp wood lies in the air, the water gurgles as the paddles carve through it.
We have planned to spend the morning on this 11 km stretch of river through the Bavarian Forest, so have packed snacks and sun cream and donned our lifejackets. A river guidebook shows us where to expect shallow sections, bridges and small rapids.
Over the next few hours we allow ourselves to be carried along by the light current from Blaibach to Chamerau, avoiding sandbanks and passing the mouths of small tributaries. We paddle past a pair of storks, their wings outstretched to catch the warmth of the morning sun. Some sections of the river feel like Canada, Alaska or Scandinavia in their stillness and remoteness. There’s still quite a bit of paddling to be done. When we finally leave the water in Chamerau at midday, we can feel the muscles in our arms and shoulders.
Perfect rest and recuperation: Kneipp spa Bad Kötzting
The easiest way to start is in the Kneipp arm baths of the Kurpark at Bad Kötzting. The area below the old town is a great place to recharge your batteries, whether you choose to follow your Kneipp treatment with a walk along the foot reflexology path or soak up the sun on a wide, wooden swing.
Before we head back towards Bad Berneck, we fortify ourselves at the weekly market with a fresh trout fillet, sweeten our departure with an Affogato al caffè in the “Eiscafé Valentino” by the Pfingstreiter fountain then walk to the pilgrimage church of Weißenregen.
200 kilometres through the Bavarian Forest to the Kneipp spa of Bad Berneck. Eastern Bavaria is far too rich and varied to do the journey in a single go. The scenery is impressive. It is home to many people who create truly exceptional things. For example, the owners of the “Brennerie Schraml” in Erbendorf, Germany’s oldest whisky distillery.
Record-breaking whisky from Eastern Bavaria
Gregor Schraml runs this high-percentage business at the foot of the Steinwald Nature Park - the sixth generation of his family to do so. Almost 700 whisky barrels are stored under the Bohemian vaults of the former provost building. “It was my father’s stubbornness, typical of the Oberpfälz people, which made him distil whisky and gin for many decades, even though everyone said he was mad,” says Gregor, as he checks the temperature of the still.
Just around the next corner, two women are bottling Gregor’s latest product, “Bairish Coffee”. This blend of five-year-old whisky and his own-brewed “Espresso Arabica liqueur” has an aroma of malt, caramel and vanilla and tastes like a very soft whisky with a shot of cocoa and mocha. “When someone tells me I can’t do something, it really spurs me on. So that’s why I’m now making Bairish Coffee,” says Gregor with a grin.
Thanks be to granite: The highlands of Bavaria
Whisky reflects the region: the barley comes from the Sassenhof farm, four kilometres away; the water from the Steinwald, whose wooded hills start just beyond the Erbendorf town boundary. “We are the highlands of Bavaria, our dialect is hard to understand, we are a bit eccentric and there’s a hell of a lot of rock.” Furthermore, granite is the perfect filter, making the water so soft that you hardly feel it when you wash your hands. Good conditions for the production of gin and whisky, gold medal winners in international competitions.
Gin from "elder" flowers
Their “Gin-Holla” is produced by Elisabeth Zintl in the “Brennerei Schraml”. She planted 500 juniper bushes near Waldeck and uses their berries and flowers to make jams, sparkling Holler-Secco, balsamic vinegar - and gin. Her family comes from the village, which is dominated by the mighty ruins of a castle dating from the early Middle Ages.
Elisabeth realised her dream of creating a sustainably run refuge for those in search of peace and quiet with the „Hollerhöfen“, a collection of once empty village houses surrounded by paddocks, herb gardens and village streets, now tastefully renovated.
Parkstein: Europe’s most beautiful basalt cone
The Parkstein towers over the landscape between Bad Berneck and Weiden. Alexander von Humboldt surveyed the extinct volcano and pronounced it the most beautiful basalt cone in all Europe.
From a distance, the Parkstein looks like a raised fist rising up from the bowels of the earth, but when you get close you can see the almost perfectly formed pentagonal and hexagonal basalt pillars, up to 38 metres high.
The landscape between the Parkstein and the “Leinerbauernhof” in the Weiler Oed district is one of harvested arable fields, copses and carp ponds. Kerstin, her mother Beate and father Johann Hösl have been busy in the bakery since four in the morning, as the bread, rolls and pretzels must be ready by seven at the latest so that Johann, who the two women jokingly refer to as their “minion”, can get them to the market on time.
Honest craftsmanship in the farm bakery
While deer graze in front of the farmhouse in the dawn light, inside they are baking, seasoning and kneading. “I don’t fit into any of my blouses any more as I’ve developed such big muscles in the bakery,” explains Kerstin, as she forms rolls out of wholemeal spelt dough. Next to her, Johann is taking loaves of bread out of the stone oven and tapping them. He nods: “When they have that dull thud, it means they’re done.”
One of their friends advised them that they would earn far more if they sold their bakery goods at a weekly market in Munich. But that’s not what they’re about, explains Beate, as we later sit on the veranda eating bread and butter and drinking coffee. “We are happy with our lives, so why create stress just to earn more money?”
So we too leave the stress to one side, cancel our planned visit to the deep drilling project in Windischschenbach, where scientists extract stone from 9,101 metres down, and instead cycle along the Fichtelnaab. This stream meanders through a broad valley between Erbendorf and Brand. The Fichtelnaab flows past meadows shared by sheep and cattle, touches orchards where cats hunt their prey, washes up against old mills, whose wooden waterwheels have long since ceased turning and are now thick with moss. Then the summer sunshine gets too hot for us so to cool down we float in the dark river water among green-shimmering dragonflies.
Mystical mood in the rocky labyrinth
The next day, when we meet Geopark Ranger Christine Roth at the rocky labyrinth of Luisenburg, rain is falling from dark, low-hanging clouds. “We’ll be the only ones there,” she says. No great surprise - after all, it’s five o’clock in the morning.
We climb uphill along a narrow path. A relentless stream of droplets falls from the pines and firs along the way. Red and yellow leaves are piling up below the beech trees, while their trunks are knee-high in moss. The branches of the rowans carry firm orange berries. Behind a fir tree, whose branches are festooned with swathes of horsehair lichens, a huge granite rock looms out of the dark forest.
It is 25, perhaps even 35 metres high and towers over most of the trees, its surface covered with white and grey lichen and moss. However, this colossal boulder looks less like an individual rock, but more like many rounded rocks piled on top of each other by giants. Or like a heap of wool sacks, says Christine of the particular weathering pattern of these rocks.
Luisenburg: Rock orgies in the fores
The special weathering has created a sea of rocks in the forest, and we spend the next few hours wandering among them. We squelch past granite blocks and find an overhanging wool sack rock to shelter from the rain while we eat our rolls from the “Leinerbauernhof”. At the end of the Wolfsschlucht ravine, some luminous moss glows with a poisonous green colour, the Napoleon’s Hat earns its name, and the Devil’s Staircase forces us on our knees through a stone tunnel.
The rock formations of the Luisenburg are so unusual that in 1788 work began to turn this spectacular natural phenomenon into an accessible landscape by means of bridges and steps. Emperors, queens, Goethe and Humboldt were just as fascinated by it as the tens of thousands of modern visitors who come here each year. And that’s why Christine is right: the worse the weather, the emptier and more mystical it is in the rocky labyrinth - and the more it is well worth the visit.
Soulfood: Culinary sophistication in Auerbach
Michael Laus uses tweezers to place the final roasted crouton next to the sliced kohlrabi in apple juice. He then drizzles an apple and verbena jus over the marinated salmon. A Michelin star restaurant in a small town, surrounded by a lot of rural landscape, is the perfect place to experience both personal and culinary development.
Christine Heß and Michael Laus have been doing just that for several years in Auerbach. They change their à la carte menu every six weeks. Their passion is being able to regularly try out new things. But how do you compose a new dish? “We can plan it in our heads,” explains Michael. “We know the various flavours and imagine eating them. That way you stay slim too.” Then he caramelises a monkfish fillet with honey for table three in the “Soulfood” restaurant.
Kneipp protects heart and circulation, from back pain and allergy
Kneipp therapy in Bad Berneck
The inns on the marketplace in Bad Berneck are well attended. Walkers, mountain bikers and spa guests sit under their half-timbering. Bicycles lean up against the fountain in front of the old Rathaus and a queue has formed outside the ice cream counter. From the lower end of the marketplace you can see the keep of the Alte Schloss, a medieval castle ruin above the small old town.
This steep valley, home to the Kneipp spa, was carved out by the Ölschnitz. It flows past the Kneipp facilities in the Kurpark and the Wilhelminian colonnades. Further down in the town we find a metal structure for treading water directly in the cool stream. Down a narrow set of steps, and we soon feel the tiredness leaching from our legs.
As evening falls, we walk along a steep forest path to the “Sun Temple”, a pavilion high above the town. For a few minutes, the last rays of the sun illuminate the Alte Schloss, then the lights of Bad Berneck start to come on. A mild breeze rustles the leaves, the birds are already asleep. This feels like the perfect place for being above all things and recharging your batteries.
This is how it works:
The demonstrably successful and scientifically proven efficacy of the classic Kneipp therapy is based on the interaction of the five elements of water, diet, exercise, plants and inner balance. It protects against: heart and circulation problems, rheumatism, back pain, allergies, weak immune system.
The water provides temperature stimuli. This provokes a reaction in the blood vessels, the metabolism and the muscles. The result is improved circulation, and the body is purified and relaxed. This form of application includes immersions, affusions, washes, compresses and wraps. Repeat applications of this nature have a training effect, which tempers the body. The susceptibility to infection is reduced and overall well-being improves.
More ideas and tips
Let's go-Listicle about Kneipp therapy: Nine tips for Upper Bavaria, Eastern Bavaria, Allgäu/Bavarian-Swabia and Franconia
Note: Canoe tours on the Regen
There is currently a ban on commercial canoe trips on the Regen. The district office has commissioned a nature conservation report to clarify whether and to what extent commercial canoeing damages the flora and fauna of the river
We recommend the following rivers as alternatives for canoeists: The Rott is considered as Bavaria's Amazon (only in German). On the Waldnaab, multi-day tours (only in German) over 100 kilometers are also possible. The wild river Ilz may be navigated outside May and June: bayerischer-wald.de. Tours on the Kößlarner Bach start in the Innauen, from there you paddle three hours through the jungle of Little Canada. Info on passauer-land.de (only in German)
31 million cubic meters
This is how much wood grows in Bavaria every year. This would allow a 12-metre-high and 2,705-kilometre-long solid timber wall to be built around the entire Bavaria.