How exquisite to race along the country roads of Franconia in Spring, the sky finally clear after a dreadfully long winter, the curving, sinking fields around us dappled with wildflower. We have some sublime music on and it exhilarates – a perfect match for the serene scenery, this central European tableau of farmhouse, mill and die wälder, the abundant patches of old forest that characterise northern Bavaria. We ride the melodies through dorf and altstadt, through the rock formations of Fränkische Schweiz, the territory between Bamberg and Bayreuth they call their little Switzerland – pretty towns, dark-beamed buildings as only the Germans can build them and at almost every junction of the roads a little brewery and biergarten.
We stop in at a favourite, Kathi Bräu, for some quark and onion on heavy brown bread, then set off again along the winding rivers that snake their way from Schloss to Schloss, the imposing castles that number even more here than they do in Andalusia. Our eyes and ears are joined in pleasure as the ensemble, a quintet, race through their bright, 1979 recording of self-penned pieces. The title of the collection, “Highway To Hell”, belies the uplifting nature of the Australian musicians’ performance.
A few days later, we’re without any soundtrack at all, not even a breeze to rustle up the leaves as we walk through forest near the little town of Kulmbach. It’s the kind of country we don’t have in Ireland – there isn’t enough space between things there to fit in places like this, where a country lane can lead though the woods from village to hamlet without a car in sight, nor any sign of a proper road. We ascend a slope on dirt tracks, on our way up to a tiny dorf, up on the open ground above – meadowlands on a height that will furnish us with panoramic views in every direction save the forest at our back. We make quick time and four men in front of us, in hiking gear, stop and stand aside to let us pass, raising their caps in a jocular salute to our stamina.
“At least you’re breathing heavily too,” says one of them to K, in German.
“Well, we’re not young anymore,” retorts K.
It’s a good-natured jibe and they laugh. I want to tell them that as an Irishman I couldn’t slow down even if I wanted to, having been told there’s good beer at the top of this hill, but I haven’t the language skills to deliver the line.
German woods, in my limited experience, are well tended. At intervals along the path, felled trees are stacked neatly. Neither sparse nor particularly dense, stumps punctuate the new growth and plenty of light is admitted to illuminate the foliage – abundant shades of the same colour. Ivies and grasses, shrubs and nettles clamber over each other on the ground while above them the bright salad of the younger trees stands against the darker, older, winter greens of the pines.
The beer is an organic zwickl and we wash it down with some cheese on bread. It’s a public holiday so, in contrast with the forest, there are numerous people up here, families and day trippers out for a bite to eat. Tennach is a pretty little dorf, all pitched roofs and wooden barns. Lazy-looking cattle feed in one of them, behind the biergarten. You can never eat as well or enjoy a beer so much as after a walk like that – three or four kilometres, uphill and at a pace.
Afterwards we take a different track – rather than descending on the one that brought us here, we choose a way that winds along the tree-covered crest of the hill. K wants to show me the turm, the tower she has often spoken of to me. The tower that entranced her and her little friend S so much that they set out one day from her house to go to it, not realising the distance involved, and failed to reach it after some hours walking. Tired feet and uncertainty turned them back at the edge of the forest. K returned to an apoplectic mother, muddy and one shoe down but safe. I don’t know what kind of reception S got at his house. They were five.
I feel like S2 as we peer through the tree trunks trying to spy the tower. K is puzzled because the new path begins to descend after a while and she doesn’t think it should. I don’t think she has her bearings (it’s a frequent problem) and tell her that, based on everything she has told me and pointed out, the tower is much further along the ridge and that we should be patient.
But we do keep descending and, after another kilometre, no sign of a tower.
“Wait a minute, is this like the coriander allergy thing?” I ask. “Is there really a tower, K?”
“Fuck off,” she says.
Another kilometre. No tower. We’ve taken a right to get ourselves back uphill and K doesn’t like it.
“I’ve reached the point,” she announces, “where I’m not really enjoying walking that much, any more.”
I’m all for continuing – I love a quixotic quest – but I have to wait and lean on K’s walking stick, which I appear to have acquired, and stare at my feet in a sulk, raindrops dappling the ground around them as she emasculates me by consulting the satnav on the smartphone.
Smartphone! Doesn’t she realise that, as a man, navigating country like this is an innate quality of mine? That in the olden days I would have been leaping around the place to bring her food? Hunting my prey? You know, squirrels and the like?
No. She does not realise; she consults the satnav.
Women – what do they know? Of course, we’re utterly lost by now and have given up completely on the tower. I understand how S must have felt and vow to K that I will return here with her and find it, one day. She merely nods, intent on her machine as we walk on, the objective now merely to get out of these woods and back down to a road where her dad can pick us up. The path is narrow, like a tunnel of muffled sound, a leaf kaleidoscope; the dead underfoot and the living above our heads. The machine guides us back to a larger path from where K knows the way down; another kilometre and we’ll be at the meeting point. Despite our abject failure it’s been a beautiful walk; eight kilometres or so, up and down in beautiful country that always delights me. I’m anticipating my next beer when K emits a breathy chuckle and raises her hand.
I follow her finger with my eyes and there it is. Just a few metres away but still almost hidden by the trees, like something out of a fairytale it stands, old grey stone rising high and silent in the shock of greens that surround it.
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