From the top of the Wilseder Berg, the highest point of the Lüneburg Heath (Lüneburger Heide), we looked out across the rolling landscape that has long been a draw to visitors of northern Germany that has long been an attraction for visitors – and especially nature lovers. Unfortunately it was too early in the summer for the spectacular sight of the heather in bloom, but nevertheless the view across the nature reserve was a fine one.
And more importantly, none of those hills looked like they were going to pose much of a problem by bike. A plan was forming.
The next morning, we set out from our hotel, just north of Schneverdingen, and headed out across the grasslands of what had once been a military zone, along wide gravel tracks flattened at some point in time by German, British and Canadian tanks. Soon we were deep into the nature reserve, first following a forestry trail until the landscape opened up and we were riding across the heath itself.
In the distance, we spied a lookout point. Different to the one we’d walked to the day before, but it promised equally impressive views across the landscape. As we approached, those nice gentle hills that had tempted us onto our bikes turned out to be not quite as easy as we’d thought. Halfway to the top, we met two women sitting on the grass at the edge of the heather, their bicycles on the floor by their sides. By this point, we had also dismounted and were pushing up the final incline towards the top of the Suhorn.
‘It’s not as easy as it looks, eh?’ one of them said with a cheery grin. But the view would be worth it, she promised, and she was most certainly right.
The Lüneburg Heath is a popular destination, but aside from a couple of other people spied on a trail in the distance, these two women were the only other souls in sight on a quiet weekday in early summer. Throughout the day we would occasionally meet others – hikers, bikers and horse riders – out exploring the heath. But the general absence of people added to the atmosphere of a landscape that was quite unlike – in scale at least – anywhere else we’ve been to in Germany.
Despite the struggle up a sandy hill to the first lookout point, it turned out that the Lüneburg Heath was suited to exploration by bicycle. Most of the paths were more than fine even without a gravel or mountain bike, and the complete absence of motorised vehicles apart from the road that we crossed as it made its way through the heart of the nature reserve, meant you could ride the waymarked trails for days with barely an encounter with a car, campervan or truck.
What you could encounter, in the hollows and valleys of the heath, where juniper bushes grew out from the heather as red kites hovered in search of their lunch, were the flock of Heideschnucke. These are the German grey heath sheep for which – along with the purple heather – the Lunebug Heath is famous for. Horned and shaggy, you can sometimes spot them out in the open, although you definitely find them on the menus of the local restaurants.
Elsewhere on the heath, we saw black grouse (this is one of the very few places in Germany they can be found), heard some curlews in the long grass, and were told tales of the wolves that have returned to these parts centuries after they’d been driven away from the forests of Germany and into the mouths of storytellers and collections fairy tales. Today, a pack of around eight wolves live on the Lüneburg Heath, but sightings are extremely rare. Whether they have redeveloped a taste for the Heideschnucke, we didn’t find out.
We rode on, getting lost at one point, emerging out of a patch of forest on the edge of Schneverdingen a good ten or more kilometres from where we were aiming, but it didn’t really matter. It felt like you could take any trail on the Lüneburg Heath, follow any fork in the road, and you would enjoy the ride.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton