Riding the Vulkan Eifel Trail

It’s official – Germany is a TOP 10 Tourist Destination for 2010, according to Lonely Planet. LP mentions Berlin and Hamburg but I was headed to the Eifel, an area of hills, forests and lakes in the west of the country, to ride the Vulkan Trail.

Late in the evening we arrived at the Gasthaus to find the members of our group enjoying a convivial meal outside. There were six of them, all speaking English, very friendly and hospitable, immediately inviting us to join in them in a round of Eifelfeuer, the local schnapps. They looked disappointed when we headed off to bed, but we were shattered, having spent most of the day traveling from rural Romania by van, plane & car.

We were up early the next morning to meet our horses, which were grazing just across the road. My horse was Sonny, a half warm blood of about 16hh, in immaculate condition, with a shiny coat and perfect muscle tone and very well mannered.

Piet is a genial, charming man who speaks very good English and organises his rides to be reasonably laidback by German standards (though they are run with precision and efficiency compared to rides anywhere else). Piet has been running trail rides in the Eifel for the last twelve years. Germans have a mania for qualifications and Piet’s appeared impressive: B level Trainer B in trail riding (from the Deutsche Wanderreitakademie) and a C level trainer in Western riding (from the First Western Rider Union of Germany). All Piet’s horses were not only in perfect condition but also incredibly well behaved. No doubt they have all had to sit and pass various exams both practical and written before they are qualified to carry tourists.

Riding in Germany was cheaper than I had expected especially considering the quality of the horses, accommodation and food, but the deal is you are responsible for your horse’s care: catching, grooming (a thorough job – picking out hooves, and brushing and sponging every inch of your horse – not just a quick brush where the saddle goes), saddling and bridling, feeding and turning out. Not being used to a proper heavy Western saddle and a tall horse I struggled to master the saddling technique and Piet had to come and help me.

Volcanoes are not the first things that come to mind when you mention Germany, but the Vulkaneifel is exactly that – an area of old volcanoes just west of the Rhine. The last massive volcanic eruption in this area happened 13,000 years ago and created an area of huge lava flows and circular blue lakes called “maars“, which form in volcano craters. The route we followed took us past the cloister of Maria Laach, where we stopped for lunch. Maria Laach was established in 1093 (Germany does old buildings really well – there are multiple castle ruins in the area too) on the beautiful Laacher See. But should we be worried that the Laacher See volcano is “not considered inactive”?

The Vulkaneifel is a picturesque area of rolling hills, farmland and forest. The trails we followed wound through forests of fir, oak and beech, and past rippling fields of barley, wheat, oats and rapeseed. We picked cherries from trees as we passed. Germany was in the grip of a sweltering heat wave and in the afternoons loud thunder heralded the arrival of torrential rain. Mainly we walked though we had a few mad gallops and did some trotting, covering about 25km per day.

We decided the trail should be rechristened the “Schlemmer Trail” instead of the Volcano Trail. (“Schlemmer” is the German word for glutton.) The food in the Eifel is famous apparently and people come from all around Germany to do various active things like cycle and hike so they can eat vast quantities and try all the different local beers and schnapps varieties. Germany is also a mecca for cake lovers like me.

In Bucharest the danger we faced was from gangsters and con artists.
In the Eifel it was from Kafe und Kuchen (coffee and cake) or Bier und Eifelfeuer (beer and schnapps).

Piet’s five rules of trail riding:
1) The guide is always right
2) In case of exceptional circumstances or debate see rule 1
3) Anyone who causes the ride to stop owes the group one round of Eifelfeuer
4) Anyone who causes the ride to stop from gallop owes two rounds of Eifelfeuer
5) Anyone who goes to bed before midnight owes a round of Eifelfeuer for each hour before midnight they miss.

These rules were scrupulously obeyed by the riders, which meant that we consumed an enormous amount of Eifelfeuer in the evenings. Our group obviously enjoyed the social atmosphere as they had all been riding with Piet before and liked to come back each year.

We spent our last night in the town of Mendig, whose attractions included an interactive volcano and earthquake museum, an extensive network of underground caves and more importantly the famous Vulkan Brauhaus. In previous centuries Mendig was mined for basalt to make millstones, which were sold all over Europe. The caves also happened to be the perfect temperature for storing beer and at one point last century there were 28 breweries in Mendig, all storing their beer underground.

We finished with a meal in the local famous Vulkan Brauhaus before leaving the next day for the fairy tale castle of Neuschwanstein in South Bavaria.

Luckily our horses were solid and strong to carry all that extra weight from the food we had eaten.

-The Eifel area is close to Frankfurt Hahn Airport. The website http://www.flyhahn.com is the official tourist website for airport and a good source of information for travelers.
– Consider a visit in December in the run up to Christmas; riding in the snow is an unforgettable experience and Germany, with its fantastic Christmas Markets, is one of the best places to soak up the Christmas atmosphere.
– If you have a few spare days, hire a car and head for the town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria.
Rothenburg is a completely preserved, walled medieval town and an incredible place to look around. It was the inspiration for the village in Walt Disney’s film “Pinocchio” and it also features in the film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”. (The author admits to a large degree of subjectivity as Rothenburg is her mother’s home town).

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