A Weekend on the Heide

With the late advent of the North German springtime, I made an impromptu decision to avail of one of the best bicycle excursions the Hamburg region has to offer.  A 3 day, 200km, loop from the city south into Lüneburger Heide and a stay at the friendliest hotel I have yet encountered in this country.

Upon waking on Friday morning, I began packing for my spontaneous adventure, with most of my needs already at hand for such an eventuality.  Here is what I brought:


Panniers – Change of clothes, including one good shirt for evening wear, cargo pants, t-shirt, socks, underwear, thermal vest, sweater, cycle gloves, scarf, spare wooly hat and rainjacket, most of which I didn’t need as the weather stayed quite dry and mild.  Also food in ziplock containers including crackers, bananas, cheese spread, mustard, bread rolls, butter and apples.  Also, essentially, a book to read, Kevin Barry’s new collection, “Dark Lies the Island.”

On top of panniers – Meru sleeping bag rated for low temperatures, two person trekking tent, Camelpak 2 liter dromedary bag filled with tap water.

Frame bag – Tool and repair kit with emergency bottle filled with vodka.  Also attached to the frame is a very heavy Trelock bike-lock which could be used for self-defence in a bad situation.

Handlebar bag – Maps, nuts, dried pineapple, pen, notebook, LED headlamp and chewing gum.

Handlebars – A bicycle computer purchased at the last minute for a mere €15 and a mount for my iPhone for emergency GPS use.

The total weight of my kit was about 15 kilos.  I overpacked, especially as I did not end up camping as intended but followed my curiosity to an eco-hotel at the south end of the Heide and stayed for longer than expected.  This was a training session, in any case, for my planned Elberadweg tour later this summer.

Starting from my home in Ottensen, I stopped at my office in St. Pauli for final preparations and to install the new bike computer.  I set off just after lunch and headed directly south through the old Elbtunnel and into the strange hinterland behind the harbour.  This is a fairly tedious stretch, weaving from back-lots past run-down and rat-infested warehouses and onto busy carriageways thrumming with idling lorries.  There was an early detour as some new park developments in the Wilhemsburg district sent me the long and ugly way around to the Alte Harburger brücke, a forgotten relic in itself, which eerily and now silently stretches the southern part of the Elbe.  Harburg itself was an inconvenience, with one very tough obstacle of a pedestrian bridge over a motorway and railway lines over which the bike had to be carried, and the unimpressive Harburg town centre, which seems to take an uphill, against-the-wind, eternity to escape.  So no easy rewards in the first 2 hours of cycling, which most people would bypass by taking a train to Neugraben or Buchholz to start such a journey.  I was commited to doing the weekend by leg-power only nonetheless.

Continuing directly south, through alternating suburban and industrial neighbourhoods, one can only be vastly impressed by the relentless sprawl of Hamburg.  While there are easy escape routes from the metropolis which can bring you to nature in short time, this is perhaps the worst one to take.  Zig-zagging through Maschen and over the autobahn tangles of Seevetal, I finally broke down and consulted my GPS, and made for SSW towards Jesteburg through largely rural but not outstanding countryside.  The traffic, at least, beginning to thin out.

The real adventure began in Jesteburg, where I could finally use my Lüneburger Heide bike route map.  With some 35km already clocked, I turned directly south and started following the signs towards Undeloh, the geographic center of the Heide park.  The park area is under special protection and mostly car-free, with the old roads limited to bicycle and horse-and-carriage use.  The signposting is excellent, but it is not uncommon to see signs pointing in opposite directions to the same destination.  These routes can be of varying difficulty or condition, so the map is useful to see which path is paved, steep, or more suited for horses or hikers.  Often I would find myself pushing my bike through sandy stretches, sometimes for a couple of kilometers, or becoming mired in logging roads made muddy by the heavy trucks.

Undeloh is a pleasant but touristy village which mostly caters to the pensioners who gravitate here so as never to be too far from a cup of tea.  Spectacular scenery surrounds the village, and it is possible to simply wander in any direction and find peace, even in high season.  So far, the weekend looked as if it would be a quiet one, with no signs of Hamburg throngs yet as the bloom of heather has not yet begun.  I made directly for Wilsede, being too familiar with Undeloh to linger.  Making a small detour to Wilseder Berg, the highest point in the park at an astounding 169 meters, which brings visitors from far and wide in the flat northern lands to experience its dizzying heights.  The view is one of a pleasant and undulating landscape with occasional Northerners struggling up the slight incline as if it were Kilimanjaro.

Having made a last minute reservation that morning at the bio-hotel Spöktal near Bispingen, and running out of daylight hours, I ploughed on in the direction of Volkwardingen, a tiny collection of houses, and then a straight 3km downhill ride, hitting a speed of 42kmph by my speedometer, whooping and shouting, towards the village of Borstel.  After a few twists and turns through pleasant hamlets, I was at my hotel by the appointed time of 8pm.  The 7 hour trip from office to hotel was 76km, not including the 6km made earlier that morning in Hamburg earlier in the morning in preparation.  Slow going, but I had made a lot of stops.  With 82km cycling made in a day, I was tired but not sore.

The Naturhotel Spöktal is a family run business since 1926.  The welcome I received was unprecedented.  The Marold clan are deeply rooted in their community and pride themselves on their food and the warmth they offer their guests.  Despite only making a reservation hours earlier, I was brought in and shown around and treated as if I was always expected.  Everything is organic here, down to the material of the beds and the beer in the open fridge.  Guests keep a docket and mark off what they consume over the length of their stay, to be tallied up on departure.  I spent my first evening quietly sipping a Störtebecker hefeweizen in the garden and already contemplating extending my stay in such a comfortable environment.  My sleep that night was solid and happy, having the feeling of escaping the rat race on my own steam.

On Saturday morning I filled myself up from the amazing buffet spread and without further hesitation asked to extend my stay another night and to please book me for the dinner.  This was the best breakfast I had had in a long time, and it kept me going until the evening.  I spent the morning exploring the 20 hectare grounds of the hotel, immaculately kept but not manicured, just natural.  My two hour hike took me by some gorgeous lakes on adjoining land and well-kept larch forest.  Back at the hotel, the Marold family offered me a map and a suggested route around the area, away from the tourist areas.  This 30km loop route, I decided, would be my adventure for the day.

The tour starts at the hotel and goes directly east along the south bank of the Luhe River.  Forests open out to heath and some farmland and back to forests again as the route passes through the village of Dehnsen and bypasses the town of Amelinghausen to Wohlenbüttel.  It is here that I had an odd experience as I rested at a curious little heath called Stille Heide (Quiet or Calm Heath).  I stayed only a short time and hiked around the nearby woods, and set off again downhill in the direction of Sodersdorf.  It is then I noticed that my speedometer had ceased to function, and so I stopped my bike, cursing and proceeded to try and fix it.  Not finding the problem, I consulted the manual which I still had with me, having only bought the bike computer the previous day.  The magnet on the wheel passes a sensor attached to the spokes, the revolutions are counted, and this is how the speed and distance is calculated.  But nothing was registering!  Disgruntled, I continued down the hill, but when I reached the bottom, the speed inexplicably began working again.  I was puzzled by this and decided to go back up the hill to see what happened (and maybe regain my calculations).  On the way up, no speed registered, at the top, I was back in the Stille Heide.  Pausing for a moment, I realized that this was the only Heide I had been to where I heard no birds!  Spooked, I went back down the hill again, and same as last time, no speed until I hit the bottom.  So, perhaps this is a weird magnetic vortex of sorts which I should consult some druids about.

Further along to Sodersdorf is a collection of ancient burial mounds and standing stones which I am not too unfamiliar with from growing up in Ireland.  I am often struck by the similarities of such dolmens, chambers and constructions no matter where I find them, be it in Andalucia or on the Yucutan peninsula.  It’s a reminder that we humans were just as interconnected three thousand years ago as we are now, and good ideas travel well, regardless of how long they take to get there.  There appears to be an active artist community in this corner of the Heide, with many houses displaying ornate sculptures and carvings in their gardens which would seems fit for museums, although better where they stand.

Carrying on towards Schwindebeck there is a large detour off the roads and up towards the Schwindequelle, a natural spring pumping out 60 liters a second which one can simply meditate upon and watch the earth bubbling forth the cleansed water which gives life.  Further up is some beautiful Heide land sandwiched between the village and forest, and here I lay down for almost an hour and a half just basking in the sun and the peace, with hardly any passers-by.  Rolling downhill back into Steinbeck, stopping at a local tavern for a well-deserved Alsterwasser, I met with two other hotel guests, doctors from Hamburg, and compared cycle notes from the day.

The dinner back at the Spöktal hotel is well worth mention.  The buffet is entirely organic, piles of food and a huge variety, and I was assured, as I tucked in, that it was made with love.  Washing the meal down with a Bernstein (amber) beer from Störtebecker, and wobbling from so much food, I strolled around the hotel grounds for an hour and took in the sunset from the hilltop.  While there was a birthday party in progress at the hotel, my spacious single room was a great comfort.  With a large desk by the window, I have decided that this is the perfect place for my next writing retreat.

Sunday morning, another massive breakfast and a final stroll around the grounds, and I was ready, but a little reluctant, to depart.  With work to do the next day, I resolved to make it back to Hamburg that night.  Setting off exactly at noon, and downhill into Bispingen, a wedding cluttered up the road.  Upon recommendation from the Marolds, I went due west towards Hof Möhr and Pietzmoor.  Hof Möhr is a collection of some of the oldest buildings in the Heide region, the farm dating back to the 13th century, lovingly restored and now in good use as a “nature academy” for kids and school trips.  The collection of trees in the area merits the visit alone.  Directly adjacent to the farm is the Pietzmoor, which was full of Sunday morning walkers after church, and the only crowded part of the whole weekend.  From here, I pointed my wheels north and started my journey home in earnest.

The Oster Heide, hugging the eastern side of Schneverdingen, is as serene as any part of the Heide, although seemingly less trodden.  Zig-zagging through some poorly signposted sections, I made the road for Barrl through forest and rough paths.  The forest-experience center at Ehrhorn offers some curiosities worth stopping for, including a fabled sunken village, a stone maze, and many elaborate carvings from tree trunks which hailed back to ancient ancient forest gods.  The route to Wehlen, continuing north, was beautiful and peaceful, but tough in parts with the uneven path turning from sand to mud to grass to gravel and back again.  At Wehlen, I was surprised to find a jumble of the best bits of the Heide in such close proximity, an expanse of heather with an ancient wood nearby and some small ponds, the source or the river Seeve, hidden away and barely signposted… blink and you’ll miss it.

Coming into Inzmühlen it becomes apparent, with the roar of the weekend motorbikers, that you are returning to civilization, and only halfway back to Hamburg.  Taking the backroads as much as possible into Buchholz (being unable to find a way around), I entered into the toughest, most gruelling, stage of the trip.  Heading still north, my plan was to go through the Rosengarten and the Fischbeker Heide, through Neu Wulmstorf and across to Finkenwerder where I would catch the city ferry back into St. Pauli.  Good plan, but I had failed this once before.  The signposts become less reliable at this stage, and the turnoffs easy to miss.  Added to that is the constantly changing topography, which was to trip me up badly.

Buchholz is nothing special, although the land and nature around the town is.  Passing through, I went to Dibbersen and then on to Emsen stopping twice to ask locals the way, along the very busy road, not wishing to mess up like last time.  The previous occasion I had ended up going straight into Harburg center, through very urban settings.  This time, I was checking my map every 200 meters.  Leaving the road at Emsen, and following some back roads behind numerous horse farms, the route went haphazardly from dirt tracks to pavement.  Crossing the road into Sieversen, I found the forest track to Neugraben on a confusing switchback and took faith in it.  Heading straight, I came to an unexpected and delightul downhill track, 3.5km by my odometer, all the way down into the Fischbek neighbourhood, and very familiar territory for me.  The 250 bus ends nearby here, and is a 30 minute ride to my front door.  But I am continuing on to Finkenwerder for the ferry.

Down the hill and under the train tracks into the older thatched-roof part of Neugraben I had never seen, I continued north through Das Altes Land, the orchard region of Hamburg, along dykes above the road.  My bike map, however, was outdated and I was met at the expected short cut into Finkenwerder by a massive new Autobahn construction, a new extension to link Airbus to the A7.  What this meant was an extra 14km way around, something I was not too please about on the last stretch, having already made close to 80km in the day.  The way around brought me through Neuenfelde, which I was not too happy to see, and the south end of the Airbus complex, which I grumbled at as I passed.  Reaching Finkenwerder by 8pm, I stopped at a petrol station for a couple of tins of beer and hopped on the ferry to Hamburg center, passing, as chance would have it, the Queen Elizabeth as it was leaving port.

I drank my second tin of beer on the Landungsbrücken watching the bustle of tourists at sunset and admiring the Rickmer Rickmers and the skyline.  Hamburg is an open city where anything goes.  It claims to be the “gateway to the world,” being one of its busiest ports, but also having been the last European staging point for many millions on their way to new horizons.  The city is a jumble of international influences and is marked by a broad-minded characteristic, and this I brooded upon as I pushed my bike back up the embankment and onto the Reeperbahn, to the scowls of a cluster of street prostitutes.  But the city’s best kept secrets may lie in its back gardens, and I hope to elaborate more on this here in the future.

Weekend stats:

Day 1:  Hamburg-Altona -> Hamburg-St. Pauli -> Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg -> Hamburg-Harburg -> Maschen -> Seevetal -> Jesteburg -> Undeloh -> Wilsede -> Volkwardingen -> Steinbeck (Luhe)


Day 2:  Steinbeck (Luhe) -> Dehnsen -> Wohlenbüttel -> Soderstorf -> Schwindebeck -> Steinbeck (Luhe)


Day 3:  Steinbeck (Luhe) -> Bispingen -> Hof Möhr -> Pietzmoor -> Oster Heide -> Barrl -> Ehrhorn -> Wehlen -> Inzmühlen -> Holm -> Lüllau -> Reindorf -> Buchholz (in der Nordheide) -> Dibbersen -> Emsen -> Harburger Rosengarten -> Neugraben -> Finkenwerder -> Hamburg-St. Pauli


Total distance cycled:  212km

Average speed:  14kmph

Top speed:  42kmph

Addendum:  Monday morning, back at home, I realized I had forgotten to return the keys to my hotel room on my departure.  I shot off an email to the Marolds saying sorry and that I would send the keys back in the next post.  The response was that this tends to happen a lot, as perhaps many people subconciously don’t want to leave.  I think this was true in my case.