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Idyllic exploration

Li Fern Ong
June 24, 2013

Wanderlust may be closely associated with Goethe and Schubert and the Romantic affinity for nature. But even today, Germans are still set on exploring the great outdoors - no matter what the weather.

A hiker enjoys a spectacular view of mountain scenery
Image: Fotolia/Gruenberg

Resting at a Bonn bus stop last week and sporting crutches following an operation, an elderly lady passed me by. She was carrying Nordic walking poles and her confident stride betrayed no hint of frailty. Bearing a resemblance to Huckleberry Finn with her rucksack and hat, she looked the epitome of the eager adventurer.

Wanderlust is one of the few Germans words that have meandered into the English language. A simple translation just wouldn't do it justice because it incorporates an entire philosophy, an approach to life.

And this Wanderlust - the desire to travel, explore and have adventures - is not just a long antiquated cliché I learned about in German literature classes, but a very current cultural phenomenon.

Derived from wandern, which means to hike or roam, Wanderlust is not just a Saturday afternoon activity, but a way of seeing the world - both literally and figuratively. And in the days before airplanes and freeways, traveling anywhere - whether on foot or in a carriage - meant getting up close and personal with the great outdoors.

Franz Schubert, a portrait by H. Torggler
Nature-lover Schubert (1797-1828) was a profilic composer of German songsImage: Ullstein

The world is your oyster

"It's connected with a certain curiosity about the world, an openness to new experiences and a desire to discover and learn," Claudia Wich-Reif, professor of German language history at the University of Bonn, told DW.

"Wanderlust is also strongly connected to being outside with nature. The Romantics, among them Schubert and Schumann, believed you could find happiness there," she added.

Romantic composers like Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann musically contextualized the idyllic, nature-praising poems of their literary colleagues - for example, Schubert's "Die schöne Müllerin" song cycle on poems by Wilhelm Müller or Schumann's Op. 35, "Wanderlust," on a text by Justinus Kerner.

Writers and thinkers from the Romantic period such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Arthur Schopenhauer enjoyed travel, and their experiences abroad colored many of their poems and essays.

A love for outdoor adventures and an appreciation for natural beauty can lead to long-distance journeys - and the Germans are well known for being avid world travelers -, but with the Alps, the Rhine and the Black Forest within their borders, there is no need to venture far beyond the front door to get in touch with nature.

Bad weather is a myth

The woman with the Nordic walking pole friend is one small part of the country's long tradition - even if the Wanderer may have worn suits and dresses back in days of Goethe and Schubert, rather than the all-weather zip-off pants common today. And since Germany tends to form an official organization for everything it holds dear and near, the German Hikers' Association was founded in 1883.

Present-day member, 58-year-old Ingrid Schwibbe from Fläming in northern Germany, sees plenty of reasons to stay local. "In the mountains when you hike, you develop a rhythm and the physical movement is really satisfying," she said. "Once you switch your mind off you enter into a different state. It's like a trance."

Born and raised in Berlin, 74-year-old Manfred Reschke, still lives in the city but has been indulging his own Wanderlust with regular hikes over the past three decades.

"It's the small things in the landscape that you would miss in a plane or car," Reschke told DW in a telephone interview. "Once as I was hiking I saw a stream flowing through a field and I simply had to stop. It was picture perfect, as if it was straight out of an olden day fairytale."

Manfred Reschke poses with a statue during a hike in Santiago
Currently en route in Germany, Reschke is pictured here on an earlier adventure in SpainImage: Manfred Reschke

He is currently on a 900-kilometer (560-mile) odyssey from Bad Belzig in the North to the Bavarian village of Obertsdorf in the South. It's part of this year's Wandertage, an annual event organized by the German Hikers' Association for the past 120 years, with some 50,000 participants each year.

"I like that there's time to talk to the people in the villages along the way. We learn something from them, and they from us," said Reschke.

When asked about how he's coping with the long distance, Reschke quoted a popular saying: "In hiking there is no such thing as bad weather, just poorly selected clothing."

Goethe and Schubert would have loved Gortex.