Cutting a swath through central Germany, the 170-kilometre ridge trail marks the border between the Thuringian Forest and Bavaria's Franconian Forest, a region characterized by low mountains and scenic vistas sprinkled with castles.
Used since at least the 14th century, the Rennsteig has evolved from mediaeval trade route and to popular recreational destination.
“Unlike the Alps, where there's always some peak looming over you, when you're on the Rennsteig you're on top of the world and you can see for hundreds of kilometres,” said Heiko Walter, a native Thuringian born just a few kilometres from the southern end of the trail in Gräfenthal.
The 43-year-old runs an adventure sports outfit called the Rennsteig Outdoor Center in the nearby town of Steinach, displaying a local familiarity with the surrounding hills and an easygoing demeanour that seems to be common to the region.
Perhaps they're just used to welcoming visitors, as the Thuringian Forest has been a popular holiday destination since the 18th century. Germans still flock to the Rennsteig and surrounding areas to take in the spruce-scented air the entire year long, but it's less well-known beyond Germany's borders.
In the summer hiking, trekking, mountain biking, and horseback riding are obvious choices, but there is also a rich history of winter sports in the region, which produces some of the nation's best ski jumpers and biathletes. Tourists too can try ski jumping, though those who prefer earthbound activities can snowshoe, dogsled, cross-country ski, or schuss down a number of slopes at small ski areas close to the trail.
Getting lost along the Rennsteig is practically impossible – the entire historic route is marked with wooden signs bearing a white “R,” while new alternative routes are marked by a blue “R.” Visitors should also look out for some of the hard-to-spot historic stone border markers that date back to the 16th-century.
If hikers meet locals along the way they're also likely to hear the special greeting, Gut Runst, which roughly translates to: “Have a good hike on the Rennsteig.”
But clear trail markers and special vocabulary aren't the only thing that make the Rennsteig accessible to weekend warriors. Running from northwest to southeast Thuringia, most of the trail is between 500 and 1,000 metres high – a mellow altitude and easy terrain compared to Alpine routes.
Though the trail certainly offers more challenging sections for hardcore hikers, it's an ideal destination for families and stressed-out city slickers in need of some woodsy recreation. And what could define the essence of German Gemütlichkeit better than moderate activity followed by hearty food and drink in a cozy restaurant?
This is also where things might become slightly familiar for foreign visitors. Though it may be their first time in the Thuringian Forest, it's probably not the first time they've heard of a Thüringer, the delicious regional bratwurst protected by the European Union's geographical status law.
Other specialities not to be missed? The Rostbrätel, a tender pork cutlet marinated with beer, stuffed with spicy mustard and roasted onions, then grilled over charcoal. If that's still not enough comfort food, the starchy Thüringer Klöße potato dumplings should do the trick.
When it's time to eat and sleep, these Thüringer-roasting guest houses, small hotels, and beer gardens are often not far from the trail, offering these and other regional dishes and brews, and often a resting place for weary travellers.
According to Heiko Walter, ambitious hikers can cover the length of the trail in about five days, tackling an average of 30 plus kilometres per day. But there are also a number of options to hop on buses or trains to hike shorter, targeted sections of the trail. With a bit of pre-planning, hikers can book guest houses or hotels along the trail, travelling light with just a few changes of clothes in a rucksack.
Off the beaten path
While the Rennsteig is the perfect anchor for a trip through the region, part of its greatest charm are all the beautiful, hidden places to be found off the beaten path.
“People are starting to learn about the best spots along the Rennsteig,” Walter said. “But I think it's worth a look at the side valleys. Every little place has so much to offer you could spend a whole day there.”
After visiting some of the more famous spots, such as Eisenach's impressive Wartburg castle (where Martin Luther hid out to translate the New Testament into German) at the northern tip of the trail, or winter sports mecca Oberhof, ask the local residents about their favourite haunts.
If you're lucky they'll be like Walter, who revealed a fascinating microcosm of German history and tradition paired with the fresh forest air.
In his hometown of Gräfenthal, just four kilometres north of the Rennsteig, the most obvious first stop was the mediaeval Wespenstein castle, perched above the lovingly restored city.
The museum there is rudimentary, and renovations of the partially ruined castle are ongoing, but the spooky sense of history made it well-worth the visit. In the summer a beer garden at the castle base is a great way to wash away the goosebumps and eye the nearby ridge above town where 30,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army camped out. It might sleepy now, but back then “there was really some action,” according to Walter.
Back down in town is the border museum. It turns out Gräfenthal was just barely on the communist side of the East and West German border. Among the relics of radio equipment and uniforms from border guard stations are also old primary school maps of the area – where West Germany was simply left blank.
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“Just rivers were on the map,” Walter said. “We never knew the name of the city we could see just on the other side.”
The area is also heavily characterized by its natural resources, most visibly the beautiful black slate siding on many of the older buildings. Coming from the region's many quarries, the slate gives off a bewitching Hansel and Gretel vibe. Schoolchildren across the country once used slate from the region for their lessons when paper was still scarce.
In the nearby town of Lippelsdorf there's the Wagner & Apel porcelain factory, where visitors can see how the fine ceramic was made starting in 1877. It's just one stop on the region's “Porcelain street,” named after the numerous producers who have been using the area's special clay to produce the “white gold” for more than 200 years.
Just a few minutes down the road in Lauscha visitors can tour the birthplace of another delicate handicraft – the glass-making school and factory Farbglasshütte Lauscha, famous for its glass bulb Christmas ornaments.
Lauscha residents have been making glass for more than 400 years, and the special quality of their products even kept the region afloat economically under the communist East German regime.
“During those times people here used glass as currency, trading it for wares and services because it was so valuable - in Lauscha there were millionaires because of this,” Walter explained. “Glass was worth more than money.”
But probably the most valuable thing travellers will take away from a trip to the bucolic region along the Rennsteig is its salt-of-the-earth vibe so often lacking in big German cities. It spurs the subconscious reflex to take a deep breath.