The Odenwald forest

A fine overview of the Odenwald, one of the larger forested regions of Germany, can be obtained by taking the funicular railway to the top of the Königstuhl (King’s Throne), the steep hill that rises above Heidelberg Castle. Its summit is said to be one of the best vantage points in south-western Germany. Due west, in the flood plain of the north-flowing river Rhine, are the hazy outlines of industrial Mannheim; to the south-west lie the forested heights of the Vosges mountains. More than 500 metres below are the river Neckar and the historic buildings and university quarter of old Heidelberg. However, during the late afternoon of my first visit, it was the view to the east that made a strangely vivid and lasting impression. Stretching away to the horizon, rank upon rank like the crests of waves, were the hills of the Odenwald. The long ridges were outlined by mists rising from the valleys, producing an air of mystery, all very evocative of the spirit of Romanticism, a ‘way of feeling’ that dates from the late eighteenth century. For a moment I was reminded of that famous German oil painting in which a windswept solitary looks out over a misty and mountainous landscape7. In the nineteenth century two literary lions from America were enthralled by Heidelberg and its surroundings. The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) drew deeply on the ideas of Romanticism whilst living in Heidelberg during the 1830s. In ‘Hyperion: A Romance’ (1839) he writes ‘In the valley below flows the rushing stream of the Neckar … up the valley stretches the mountain-curtain of the Odenwald …so close and many are the hills, which eastward shut the valley in … westward it opens upon the broad plain of the Rhine, like the mouth of a trumpet; and like the blast of a trumpet is at times the wintry wind through this narrow mountain pass … blue Alsatian hills rise beyond …’. Mark Twain (1835-1910) came here later and, in contrasting vein and with cracker-barrel humour, found much to say about life by the river Neckar and at the famed University.8

The ‘mountain-curtain’ of the Odenwald rises abruptly from the Rhine plain on a north-south line roughly 60 km long. To the north the Odenwald is bounded by loops of the river Main. To the south it embraces the river Neckar as it winds toward Heidelberg and the Rhine. Its forests are often pleasantly deciduous rather than coniferous, quiet and scored with deep valleys. Frequent use of dusty pink sandstone for buildings, bridges and walls in the villages and small towns gives them a pleasing warm appearance: Heidelberg Castle is a prime example of the attractiveness of mellowed sandstone. The numerous hills are often steep-sided but not particularly high: the highest is the Katzenbückel (626 metres). Roads tend to be rather tortuous. In the evenings, deer emerge from the trees to graze in pastures and assault unprotected vegetable plots: locals will tell of unwary walkers being ‘treed’ by stags during the rutting season. On occasion one might even encounter a fast-moving pack of wild boar, small animals but alarmingly muscular.

When the Burgundians settled near Worms on the Rhine in the fifth century AD, long after the fall of the Roman Empire, they were well aware of the rich hunting grounds of the nearby Odenwald forest. Seven centuries later, that doom-laden saga, the Nibelungenlied, would appear in written form. It describes how a large band of tribesmen, the Nibelungen, left the Worms region, travelled east through the Odenwald, went down the Danube and ultimately perished at the hands of Attila the Hun in distant Hungary. Naturally one likes to think that, in common with many other legends, it could well have a core of historical truth. In the late nineteenth century, over a period of twenty-six years, the ‘magician’ Richard Wagner interwove Norse and Teutonic mythology with the artistic licence of genius and created his revolutionary music-drama, The Ring of the Nibelung.9 Today, two Odenwald highways bear the names Siegfriedstrasse and Nibelungenstrasse. In like spirit, those who live in the Odenwald today are happy to point out a spring near the village of Gras-Ellenbach where the mighty hunter Siegfried received his death wound from the boar spear of ‘grim Hagen’.

  1. Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich (1777-1840). []
  2. Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1996): originally published in 1880. []
  3. The 16-hour tetralogy comprising Rhinegold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods was first performed at the Festspielhaus, Bayreuth in August, 1876. Inevitably there are longueurs but there are also moments of incandescence. []