Hiking and enjoying wine? Of course! The sunny western slopes of the Steigerwald make it possible. We hiked along the Steigerwald Panorama Trail and other routes through low mountain landscapes rich in history and species. Text: Christian Haas, Photos: Frank Heuer
Enjoying the Steigerwald Panorama Trail
“Wine is not everything, but without wine everything is nothing” is Barbara Baumann’s motto. In fact, a lot revolves around the liquid grape gold for this cheerful character from Handthal in Lower Franconia. After all, she is not only active as a winemaker in her own family winery, but also as a lecturer for wine and culinary culture, as a countrywomen's chef on Bavarian radio and as chairwoman of the approximately 300 “Wine Experience Franconia Guest Guides”.
Now we get too experience that for ourselves! At our morning meeting she has a picnic basket with her. With grapes, cheese and – of course, after all, it’s the “number one from the Steigerwald” - a Silvaner. And lots of stories. For example, about how the idyllic 45 cottages got their town name.
Upgrade for the Bocksbeutel
“According to legend, when the devil went through the world to marvel at God's creation, he got his horse's foot stuck in the bed of the Main,” Baumann says. “He then struck the still soft world with his hand. That is how Handthal came into being as an imprint of his hand.”
The story of the Bocksbeutel is quite earthly. A few years ago, Peter Schmidt was recruited for the design upgrade of the spherical, rather squat bottle shape, which is considered an unmistakable trademark of Franconian wines.
This was a big deal, as the star designer has already given Apollinaris and Nouveau Cologne by 4711 a contemporary shame. However, it is hard to say that the bottle is round, as it is less bulbous and more angular than the original after the facelift. Baumann thinks it’s great: “We now only bottle our wine in the more modern bottles.”
Pleasure Hiking with all the Senses
Baumann’s tours are about looking, listening, smelling and tasting. The latter is particularly prevalent in Handthal. There are six restaurants per 120 inhabitants, including country inns and more alternative establishments such as the “Café Lust”. This concentration also convinced a jury to include the Steigerwald towns of Fatschenbrunn, Abtswind, Höchstadt an der Aisch and others among the “100 best places to enjoy Bavaria”.
It's all about looking, listening, smelling and tasting
Another possible argument: the local speciality of roast venison with dumplings and red cabbage. The menu is accompanied, as they say, by “a Franconian dominatrix”. For those of you who are now beginning to wonder: Behind this term there is (also) a red grape variety ...
On the Path of Knowledge
The “Weg der Erkenntnis” (path of knowledge) leading up to Stollburg Castle helps to combat incomplete wine knowledge. The railing that accompanies the 267 steps to the ruin tells the story of wine, which is over eight millennia old. It is also about the Cistercians who once lived in the nearby Ebrach monastery and introduced viticulture to the region.
And about the local Stollberg as Franconia's highest vineyard and its location advantages: the more direct sunlight thanks to the slopes rising abruptly from the Franconian Keuper Plain, as well as the dense forest all around, which acts like a protective cap.
In fact, one sometimes asks oneself: Where does the forest end, where does the vineyard begin? One patch of green merges with the next and everything seems to be connected to everything else.
Franconia’s Squeaky Green Heart
One would love to join the regular hikers passing by, be it on one of the many trails starting here or at least on the short “Francis Trail” with its thought-provoking stations such as a walk-in bee house.
The bee house is located next to the Steigerwald Centre, the ideal starting point for any tour. Everything there looks inviting: the flat building made of glass and copper beech, which nestles discreetly against the edge of the forest.
The adventure playground in front with the climbable fire salamander, one of the heraldic animals of the region. And Andreas Leyrer, who is just waving out of the window and directing us to the entrance.
What is the Steigerwald Identity?
We follow his pointing finger and then the wooden trunk, which starts outside with roots and protrudes into the building, separated only by a pane. “Our goal is to bring nature indoors”, explains the forestry director of the institution, which opened in 2014.
He explains a lot more. Of the long influence of the church(es) and their impact on forests and culture (keyword “Catholic versus Protestant bratwurst”). About the current climate stress of trees and new forestry tasks. And of the stratified landscape, of the geology in general, which has given the region its character.
Leyrer and his team impart this knowledge to kindergarten and school children as well as adult visitors. And there are plenty of hands-on stations where you can find out for yourself. It’s crystal clear that the focus of the information centre is not only on sustainability and forest management, but also on raising awareness of the 1,280-square-kilometre Steigerwald Nature Park. Leyrer puts it this way: “We want to strengthen the Steigerwald identity.”
The Outstanding Steigerwald Treetop Path
The Steigerwald Treetop Path near Ebrach, which opened in 2016, makes a major – if not the largest – contribution to this identity. The observation tower measures 42 metres in height, but the wooden structure, cleverly embedded in the forest, only reveals its dimensions shortly before arrival.
On the short hike from the Steigerwald Centre to the tower, you tend to pay more attention to other things anyway. To black alders and ash trees, which sometimes stand in a sea of wild garlic. To mosses and ferns. To the markings of the 161-kilometre-long Steigerwald Panorama Trail, the multiple award-winning showcase route.
And to oaks and even more so to beeches, whose populations are among the oldest and most valuable in the country. Their canopy, especially in spring, provides such a wonderful green light that we whoop. How can this colour be described? Apple, mint, May green? We think: Squeaky green sums it up best.
Hover Above the Daily Grind With a Season Ticket
You already feel exalted on the wooden walkways above the forest floor, which also offer glimpses of climbing tubes and an oversized bird house, but even more so on the top floor of the round tower. Sandra Fischer, acting director of the treetop path, provides an overview. She explains: “Here, 1,400 cubic metres of local wood were used. This amount has already grown back in five years.”
The fact that the treetop path is not just a tourist attraction is proven by numerous season ticket holders. “They appreciate the many events like the Christmas market, forest cinema and falconry demonstration.”
Officially the programme doesn’t include the flight shows from woodpeckers, which inhabit several “rooms” in an easily visible deadwood trunk. The busy traffic delights young and old, as do the XXL marble run and information boards along the path.
And on the question of when wood is considered wood, Sandra Fischer says: “From seven centimetres in diameter!” Another lesson learned. And that it’s going to get really thick in the wooded area by the car park. The diameter of some trees is 1-1.5 metres. There are several of this calibre, dozens of wooden super seniors can be spotted along one path. Apt name for the three-kilometre loop: the Methuselah path, or Methusalempfad.
Mediator Between Man and Nature
Verena Kritikos, who we meet the next day at the same place, exudes youthful élan. The young woman has been one of three nature park rangers since 2019. Her fields of work include support in nature conservation and landscape management as well as education and information work. In short: she sees herself as a “mediator between man and nature”.
„We are lucky not to experience a huge influx like this."
So let’s go! Into the forest, through which a path with a snake symbol winds – back on the panorama path. And once again, beech, ash, oak, spruce and bright green delight us. A strong contrast to the rapeseed yellow at the edge of the forest.
And the best thing: no traffic jams, no shouting, no mass movement anywhere. “We are lucky not to have such a huge influx as some alpine areas,” says Verena. “Even many people from Bamberg would rather go to Franconian Switzerland than to the Steigerwald.”
Tip: Hiking on the “High Road”, or Hohe Straße
In her opinion, this also has advantages: "You can hike for hours without hitting any roads or houses. This would work especially well on the “Hohe Straße”, an old hiking trail that runs more on the high ground from east to west. Why above? “It often gets boggy in the valley.”
It also gets wet elsewhere. After a while we pass carp ponds, real beaver hotspots, and start sweating as we head up a sunny hill above Ebrach.
Ah, we take a break. And ah, down there Ebrach Monastery, whose church is one of the most magnificent early Gothic churches in Germany. In connection with the construction of the monastery buildings, three gentlemen are worthy of mention: the master builders Dientzenhofer, Greissing and Neumann.
The three have nothing to do with the Dreiherrenbrunnen, the next hiking stop in the middle of the forest. Instead, picture frames with sayings hang everywhere, accompanied by a pleasant splash of Dolby Surround Sound. Half a school class could sit on the giant wooden bench, but it’s cosier on the curved wooden loungers.
A nice place to stay. And to listen to Verena. About her work with fire salamanders and their alarming skin fungus infestation. About the 50th anniversary of the Steigerwald Nature Park in 2021. And about the much discussed pros and cons of a “Steigerwald National Park”.
Trekking Sites: Wild Camping, But Legal
The region is a dream for hikers for whom the Alps are too steep or too far away. In the Steigerwald, there are at most moderate altitude climbs. Nevertheless, it is not boring, especially its scenically.
Adventurers, take note: Those who absolutely do not want to leave the forest on their multi-day tours (although the typical Franconian villages with half-timbered houses and buildings made of local sandstone provide good reasons to do so), sleep at a trekking site.
There are now ten of these in the area. We head for one, above Geusfeld. What it offers: Seclusion, a top view of the vineyards of the Rauhe-Ebrach valley, as well as a campfire site, compost toilet and a porch where you can pitch a tent (with others nearby). What it does not offer: running water, service, convenience. That’s why the special camping costs only five euros per night and camper. Verena notes: “Reservations cannot be cancelled.”
Either way, the trekking sites combine two worlds – cultivated hiking and adventure feeling – and are thus typical of the Steigerwald: after all, it not only unites six counties and three Franconian administrative districts, but also two worlds of beverages.
In the East, it is not wine that rules, but beer. And that’s an understatement! Nowhere are there more small breweries than around Bamberg at the end point of the Steigerwald Panorama Trail. As Barbara Baumann said: “Wine is not everything”.
More Enjoyable Hikes in the Region
Snake Trail (Schlangenweg) – Böhlbach Valley Circuit
10 km, 3-4 hours, medium
One of the most beautiful hiking trails in the Steigerwald Nature Park promises a pure nature experience where you won't see a single house for several hours. No snakes either, by the way. The name derives from the fact that the path, which is neither suitable for buggies nor for bikers, winds gently upwards for several kilometres on often narrow forest trails along a gorge. Sometimes you get a real wilderness feeling. The starting and finishing point is the winegrowing village of Zell am Ebersberg at the foot of the Schlossberg vines. Tip: Already at the beginning, keep an eye out for which of the six Heckenwirtschaften you want to stop at on your return – this increases your motivation! experience-steigerwald.net (only in German)
From Abstwind into picturesque Prichsenstadt
17 km, 4.5 hours, medium
To this day, Abtswind is characterised by its winegrowing and the magnificent sandstone houses in the village centre. The fact that it, like Handthal, was voted one of the “100 best places to enjoy Bavaria” in 2018 says a lot. The scenically varied, charming hike, which begins at the Abtswinder vineyards and leads through woods and meadows via the Ilmbach hunting lodge and Altenschönbach to the vineyards of picturesque Prichsenstadt, is also attractive. Its townscape, characterised by town gates, half-timbered stone houses and cobblestones, is also a real treat! experience-steigerwald.net (only in German)
Ranger and wine panorama
9 km, 3 hours, easy
Handthal is an ideal starting and ending point for all kinds of hikes, thanks to the informative Steigerwald Centre, several refreshment stops and different circular routes. With 300 metres of ascent and descent, the “Waldläufer und Weinpanorama” loop is easy to do and very attractive with several vantage points. The name says it all, as the route leads through the vineyards and forest passages at the back of the Handthal valley. The highlight is the viewing platform at the Stollburg ruins. The nearby inn attracts with its sun terrace, delicious food – and in good weather a top distant view. fraenkisches-weinland.de (only in German)
From Markt Bibart to Markt Nordheim
18 km, 5 hours, medium
Ingolstadt is not only located on the Danube, but also in a much smaller version in the Steigerwald. Hikers can experience this on the beautiful route from Markt Bibart to Markt Nordheim. They will also pass through beautiful beech and oak forests and hidden vineyards. The finale also packed a powerful punch: Markt Nordheim, with its beautifully situated Seehof Castle, was by no means a village that could be any more beautiful. experience-steigerwald.net (only in German)