Photography by Emma Krasov
Nationalpark Kellerwald-Edersee in the north-western part of the state of Hessen is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site, and a part of the larger primeval beech forest massif spread out to the Carpathians Mountains on the territories of Slovakia and Ukraine. The so called “Ancient Beech Forests of Germany” cover more than 50 hills of Kellerwald-Edersee National Park (5738 hectares), creating a green rippling “sea of beeches” under which in the deep shadows of dense leafage no other species of trees can survive.
The purely European phenomenon, beech forests growing on low mountain ranges, and interspersed with clear water streams, provided early humans with shelter, fuel, food, water, and building materials, and served as a habitat for dozens of species of wild animals. Without the impact of humans, the sturdy trees reaching up to 260 years of lifespan, would cover two thirds of the entire country of Germany, but due to the population density and the vigorous consumption of this natural treasure throughout history, only 7% of the prehistoric beech forests remain in Central Europe today.
At national parks, the motto is, “Let nature be nature,” and the new wilderness is now developing on the 90% of the Kellerwald-Edersee area without human interference.
On the map of Hessen, the Kellerwald-Edersee Park looks like a rough triangle with curved sides. The northern border of it is framed by a snake-shaped lake, Edersee, 27 kilometers long, created by the dam across the river Eder. Our group of avid nature lovers started exploring the park and the lake with a visit to an ancient castle, Waldeck, positioned slightly to the north, on a hill overlooking the town of the same name, and the abundant flowing waters of Edersee.
The castle was first built in 1150, and became a residence of the Counts of Waldeck, later turning into military barracks. Now a public property, surrounded by tall trees, and with a view of the lake from a stone terrace, it’s a favorite place for tours led by local guides, and outdoor wedding ceremonies.
A quaint 50-year-old cable car at the top of the hill still provides scenic rides in creaky little cars for two passengers over the tree tops to the lakeshore.
Down below, at the small marina, we all got aboard a romantic round trip on the lake, with unparalleled views of the deep blue waters, wooded banks, the impressively high dam, and of course, the Waldeck castle on the hill with its wall crenellations and a round tower under a tin roof.
The most pleasant boat ride included a coffee break with a variety of creamy and fruity cakes – among them the famous Black Forest studded with plump cherries.
That night, after we walked through the gorgeous primeval forest along a small part of the 70-kilomenter trail Urwaldsteig Edersee to the town, we settled at the Ringhotel Roggenland Waldeck and dined on seasonal white asparagus with various accoutrements, offered by all German eateries this time of year.
Next morning, after a substantial breakfast included with our hotel stay, our group engaged in a thorough exploration of Kellerwald-Edersee Park with Deputy of National Park Jutta Seuring and an excellent, highly knowledgeable and entertaining Guide of National Park, Rita Wilhelmi.
Rocky slopes with exposed slate, humid canyons with roaring springs, and emerald beech brush under the old whimsically gnarled trunks surrounded our picturesque trail, while we were making our way from the northernmost park gate to the south. Half-way through the enormous park, we had a stopover at the Bathildishuette – a former hunting cottage – as if taken from a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale.
Our nap-inducing picnic lunch on a sun-dappled lawn ended up with an arrival of a park’s covered wagon drawn by two docile horses – Fritz and Earl – furthering the fairy tale feel of the place.
That afternoon, we spent plenty of time at the NationalparkZentrum Kellerwald – the information and visitor center, and a small architectural wonder – containing interactive exhibitions, a unique 4D-SinneKino cinema experience themed on park critters, and a charming GastRaum café with omnipresent masterfully decorated cakes for an obligatory coffee break.
After a supper of white asparagus (of which I personally never tire) with new potatoes and smoked ham, I couldn’t sleep thinking of all the day’s wonders, and excited about the next day promise – wild animals!
Our visit to the WildtierPark Edersee was everything I dreamed about, and more! All kinds of animals, indigenous to the beech forest were housed in spacious enclosures, where several species of the original inhabitants (sometimes extinct, and borrowed from other places, like Canada) regained a place to live. Wolf, lynx, wild cat, European bison, red deer, and wild horse can all be seen at the park today.
A large herd of fallow deer roamed free, and could be approached and even petted. Wild boar with the cutest tiny piglets marked with horizontal lines on their velvety sides, were doing their dirt digging at an arm length.
Then the Raptor Flight Show gathered a crowd by demonstrating catchy tricks performed by golden eagle, Eurasian griffon, and various birds of prey – falcons, hawks, kestrels, vultures, and owls – gliding low over the heads of fascinated spectators.
I couldn’t abstain from lunching on wild boar skewers at the Bericher Huette park café, trying to stick to the natural environment of the beech forest…
After lunch, we got on a bus, and drove through the bright-yellow fields of rapeseed under the brilliant blue sky to the neighboring state of Nordrhein-Westfalen, to the Nationalpark Eifel whose motto is, “Forest, water, and wilderness.”
Eifel National Park – an area of 11000 hectares housing more than 1800 endangered animal and plant species – has a few distinct features of its own. First of all, Eifel is certified as the first Dark Sky Park in Germany. A famous astronomer, Harald Bardenhagen, presented to our group an entire lecture complete with a film on the dangers of excessive light imposed on Earth by one of the greatest inventions of our civilization – electricity!
Turns out, not all that shines is gold. According to the astronomer, there’s no completely dark sky in Europe anymore, since the dark side of Earth (at night) changed in the last 150 years more than in the preceding 3.5 million years. The light from the big cities, reflected by the clouds, travels for up to 200 kilometers, and interferes with the life of nocturnal animals and plants, and with the circadian rhythms of human beings. Besides that, lighted, gray sky prevents us from seeing stars.
Luckily, Eifel Park has an area of near-complete darkness, where Milky Way can be seen in all its glory, and where the park conducts nighttime star-gazing hikes for its visitors.
Another special feature of Eifel Park is Vogelsang IP [International Place] – a repurposed former Nazi compound located on a hillside area of 100 hectares that was introduced and explained to us by the Eifel Park Communications Manager Michael Lammertz.
Used during World War II as a propaganda center preparing future rulers for the conquered Eastern European countries, the center partially maintains its historical appearance. On the gate towers leading to the main building there are two sculpted reliefs of an “Aryan” warrior on horseback – Eastbound, naked and armed, and returning to the West with bags of war loot from the “inferior” nations. Those plans weren’t going to materialize, as well as the 100-story building that was supposed to be erected over the existing 4-story grim stone structure.
Instead, after the war the site was taken over and used by the British military as a training area, then handed over to the Belgian military, and since 2006 Vogelsang has been used for civilian purposes. The International Place is now transformed into a multifaceted and internationally oriented exhibition, cultural, and educational center as well as conference and meeting place.
After a day of exploration at the Eifel Park, populated by wild cats, beavers, black storks, grey herons, cormorants, and several species of fish in the low mountain streams and shallow pools, our group settled for the night at the Tagungshotel Eifelkern, and had another delightful white asparagus-centered dinner at the Schloss Schleiden restaurant, located in the cellar area of a historic castle.
The next morning, after a lavish breakfast at the Das Bauerncafe Morsbacher Hof restaurant that included everything from fish, ham and sausage to assorted cheeses, yogurts, and exotic fruit, we were about to discover one more distinct feature of Eifel Park. That was the so-called “barrier-free” nature experience park Wilder Kermeter allowing visitors with disabilities feel more comfortable moving around in the wilderness.
The tactile bronze model of the park and the dam on the river Urft allows the blind to feel the landscape of their whereabouts. There are benches placed 250 meters apart where people who have difficulty walking can sit and rest. All the information boards are printed in large raised type and in Braille and available in audio form. Many trails are wheel-chair accessible, and have disabled restrooms, parking places, and bus stops.
When our group decided to embark on a scenic bicycle ride along the river Urft to the lake Urftsee, with a stop at the bird watching station, I had to regretfully admit that I was a living proof that a childhood skill to ride a bike can be unlearnt… Little did I know that the barrier-free spirit of Eifel Park extended to my case as well. Within minutes, an EifelRAD truck arrived, loaded with bicycles for the entire group, and an amazing construction, called Trimobile for me.
As the proprietor Uwe Kolke explained to me, the Trimobile was designed for up to four people – two adults and two children. One person is at the handlebars, the other is sitting behind, and both are pedaling, while children can sit in their own chairs just enjoying the ride. When our group tour guide Soeren Hoika kindly agreed to steer and keep the entire thing in balance, I gladly took my place behind him, pedaling with all my might, and as a team we zoomed through the entire 10-kilometer route faster than the rest or our jolly group.