Think of mountains in Germany and the Alps will most likely spring to mind.
Yet right in the centre of the country, perched on the border of the three states of Bavaria, Hessen and Thüringen, the Rhön Mountains are known as the cradle of German aviation.
“The Wasserkuppe is legendary,” says Björn Volz, referring to the highest mountain in the region.
An avid glider from Bavaria’s Franconia region, he has climbed the summit for the past decade to take advantage of its winds.
“The area is very attractive for gliding as there are excellent weather conditions and good thermals,” he says, explaining the area’s long aviation history. “The German military pilots were educated and trained at the Wasserkuppe, also in gliders, before they moved on to fighter planes.”
The 950-meter-high peak might be most famous for its aviation attractions, but the Rhön region also offers plenty of great hiking since it’s part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Created from volcanic lava flows millions of years ago, the gentle slopes of the Rhön Mountains were originally forests cleared during the Middle Ages by farmers wanting to use them for grazing. Today, the range is a mishmash of boulders, small streams, leafy forests, peat bogs and green pastures.
The first thing you hear when you reach the top of the Wasserkuppe is the hum of the engines as the small planes tow the gliders up off the ground and into the air.
The first recorded glider flight from the peak was in 1911, but the interest in gliding only really took off after the Treaty of Versailles in 1918 banned the use and production of aircraft with engines in Germany. In 1922, Arthur Martens made history when he became the first glider pilot in the world to use a mountain updraft to stay up in the air. Shortly after this success, he founded the world’s first glider school atop the Wasserkuppe.
The nearby German Glider Museum (Deutsches Segelflugmuseum) is excellent, even if you’re not interested in aviation history – be sure to get the audio guide in English.
Many well-known German aviation pioneers such as Alexander Lippisch, Willy Messerschmitt and Peter Riedel spent time here in the 1920s and 1930s. Early wooden craft and the modern double-seated glider all made their maiden trips at the Wasserkuppe. But the peak didn’t escape the clutches of Hitler’s war machine and it was eventually used to train Luftwaffe pilots too.
My fiancée’s grandfather – who is now a fit 93-year-old – made his first glider flight from the Wasserkuppe back in May 1932.
“It used to take us a half day to travel the 50 kilometres to get there,” he recalls, “But it was worth it. It was one of the best places for hobby gliding until they turned it into a military training zone.”
Since then he has instilled his love of everything related to aviation in the rest of his family whose hobbies are skydiving, gliding and flying.
After World War II, the US Army set up a base here because it was right near the border with communist East Germany. It wasn’t until restrictions on German aviation were lifted in 1951 that gliders could return to the Wasserkuppe, followed by hang-gliders and model airplane enthusiasts a few decades later.
The Wasserkuppe these days is a fantastic daytrip or overnight stay (there’s a hotel at the top) and is perfect for young and old alike. There’s plenty to keep kids busy with a large playground, a pretty long summer sledding track and a model airplane collection at the museum. For old-timers and history lovers, the Wasserkuppe is a fascinating insight into German aviation history.
If you fancy a bit more action, you can sign up for a hang-gliding course or take a spin in a glider. Or you can just enjoy a fantastic hike to the Fliegerdenkmal (Aviation Memorial) or to the small Wasserkuppe peak to enjoy the view. There are plenty of trails and the area is also a paradise for biking enthusiasts.
On your way down the mountain, be sure to visit the Rhönhäuschen inn for some fresh river trout. Over 100 years old, perched on the border of Bavaria and Hesse, it flies both state flags outside and inside is a rustic, traditional place complete with oven and fireplace.
It may look simple but don’t be fooled, the food is exquisite and delicious and is expensive by local standards. Expect to pay around €18 for a main course, but it’s worth it since they offer trout cooked 10 different ways.
The easiest way to get to the Wasserkuppe is by train via Fulda. Then take the Rhönbahn to Gersfeld and hike up to the peak or from April to November take a bus.