The Rheinsteig is a long-distance walking route that follows the east side of the river Rhine from Bonn to Wiesbaden, about 320km in all. As the “-steig” bit of the name implies, it doesn’t content itself with dawdling along the river-bank (where there are already busy roads, railways and bike-paths), but climbs up into the surrounding hills, often following steep and adventurous paths, and providing spectacular views over the river valley. 

We walked the most famous section of the route, through the Oberes-Mittelrheintal world heritage site, between Braubach and Lorch (76km), over four days.  Tough walking, by my standards, but very rewarding. We stayed in St Goarshausen and used trains (and the ship, one day) to get to and from the walks. We also spent one day visiting a couple of castles (Marksburg and Rheinfels) and doing a circular walk around St Goar on the other (west) side of the river to get views across to the Loreley.

Official Rheinsteig site: www.rheinsteig.de

The route is well-marked, with the main route indicated by Rheinsteig symbols in blue, and feeder routes to villages and places of interest off the main route indicated by yellow markers. Where there is a suggested bad-weather alternative to one of the more challenging sections, there are signs to indicate this as well. Something to watch out for when you're planning a tour is that the "stage-points" in the official listing are on the main route, which doesn't always go down into the towns you'll actually be starting from, and sometimes (e.g. at Kamp-Bornhofen) does a lengthy loop around above them, with multiple points where you can join or leave the route. The distance and amount of ascent you actually do walking from one town to another could be quite different from what you see on the website or in guidebooks.

As is typical in Germany, there is a generous provision of benches, picnic tables, shelters, information displays and the like along the route, and the viewpoints are usually kept clear of obstructing vegetation. All the Rhine valley towns have railway stations, with local services at least once an hour, and most can also be reached using the scheduled passenger ships of the KD line (and various competitors) during the summer months.

There are interesting walks on the other side of the river as well, of course, but it’s tricky to combine walks on both sides, as there are no bridges between Koblenz and Rüdesheim and ferries are quite widely spaced. “Up one bank and down the other” is really only feasible for cyclists. 

 

St Goarshausen (l); St Goar and Burg Rheinfels (r)
Cornfields over the Rhine valley
Looking downstream towards the Loreley
Chapel and Marksburg, Braubach

 

A condensed summary of my progress along the Pieterpad in 2018.

The numbers refer to the stages in the current version of the Pieterpad guide, Parts I and II. The distances are the "official" stage distances in the Guide - in places these differ a little bit from those of the GPS route and/or those given on the Pieterpad website, probably mostly due to rounding errors.

I generally stuck to the stage-points suggested in the Guide for my day-walks, except where there were very short stages:

  • I combined stages 1 and 2, walking from Pieterburen to Groningen in one day (total 31km, but it saved doing the long journey to Winsum two extra times)
  • I combined stages 12 and 13, walking from Holten to Vorden in one day (total 28km)
  • I reduced the four unequal stages between Groesbeek and Venlo (stages 18-21) to three days of about 24km each by shifting the stage-points to Afferden and Meerlo, which turn out to be quite convenient points for buses.

The week of 10-16 June was when I came closest to "proper" long-distance walking, hitting the trail on six days out of seven, and covering about 25% of the route. I was enjoying it, otherwise I wouldn't be doing this!

Between 24/6 and 30/6 I was on a pre-planned walking holiday in Germany, so I had to take a break from the Pieterpad with only five stages to go.

I completed the 13 stages of Part I (238 km, 48% of the route) on 6/6/18. 

I completed Part II on 10/7/18, 66 days after starting Part I.

I spent 23 days walking in all, averaging about 22km of the official route per walking day (plus a few extra km I didn't count here and there to link to public transport and to get back to Maastricht at the end of the final stage). 

 

Guide Part Stage No. From To Guide length/km Date last walked Notes
I 1 Pieterburen Winsum 12 05/05/18 1 and 2 combined
I 2 Winsum Groningen 19 05/05/18 1 and 2 combined
I 3 Groningen Zuidlaren 21 09/05/18  
I 4 Zuidlaren Rolde 18 18/05/18 to Assen (=+6km)
I 5 Rolde Schoonloo 18 21/05/18  
I 6 Schoonloo Sleen 24 23/05/18  
I 7 Sleen Coevorden 21 27/05/18  
I 8 Coevorden Hardenberg 19 26/05/18 out of seq. because of a bus strike
I 9 Hardenberg Ommen 21 02/06/18   
I 10 Ommen Hellendoorn 21 03/06/18   to Nijverdal (=+2km)
I 11 Hellendoorn Holten 16 08/04/18 out of sequence - "prologue"
I 12 Holten Laren 15

06/06/18 

 12 & 13 together
I 13 Laren Vorden 13 06/06/18    12 & 13 together
II 1 Vorden Zelhem 17 10/06/18   
II 2 Zelhem Braamt 18 11/06/18   
II 3 Braamt Millingen 24 12/06/18   
II 4 Millingen Groesbeek 20 13/06/18  
II 5 Groesbeek Gennep 14 15/06/18   
II 6 Gennep Vierlingsbeek 19 15 & 16/06/18   split at Afferden ferry
II 7 Vierlingsbeek Swolgen 22 16 & 22/06/18   split at Meerlo
II 8 Swolgen Venlo 21 22/06/18   
II 9 Venlo Swalmen 23 02/07/18 (also walked previously on 23/04/17)
II 10 Swalmen Montfort 21 05/07/18   
II 11 Montfort Sittard 24  06/07/18  
II 12 Sittard Strabeek 22 09/07/18   
II 13 Strabeek St Pietersberg 17  10/07/18  loop back to Maastricht via Kanne (BE)

For a couple of years I kept a log of all my walks, mainly to see how much walking I was doing. But I soon got behind with the log, and now I've given up and only occasionally list them in a private diary. But it might be interesting to keep these logs as a little bit of history.

I started walking the Pieterpad at the beginning of May 2018, doing day-stages (more or less) in order from North to South as and when I have time and inclination. You can see a summary of my progress here: Pieterpad stages. 

Some general background on what it is and why I'm doing it:

The Pieterpad

The Pieterpad is the oldest and most famous long-distance walking route in the Netherlands. In a little under 500km, it takes you along the eastern side of the country from Pieterburen on the Waddenzee coast to the St Pietersberg on the Belgian border outside Maastricht. The route avoids most large centres of population, and takes you through some relatively little-known areas. Highlights include the dolmen-strewn boulder-clay plateau of Drenthe (rising to a dizzying 26m above sea level in places), the Sallandse Heuvelrug, and the rolling hills (yes, hills!) of Zuid Limburg.

The name of the route is just a little joke playing on the coincidence of the two names: unlike most long-distance trails, the Pieterpad doesn't claim to be based on a particular geographical feature or a historical trade or pilgrimage route, it's simply a pragmatic attempt to create the longest interesting point-to-point walking route that you can reasonably fit inside such a small country. It started out as a private initiative by two retired ladies frustrated by the lack of proper walking routes in bicycle-dominated Holland. Toos Goorhuis-Tjalsma and Bertje Jens worked out the original route between 1979 and 1983, unexpectedly creating a rebirth of interest in walking; since then a whole official and voluntary structure for looking after walkers' interests has been developed, and many thousands of km of new walking routes laid out. 

The Pieterpad is now managed by NIVON, the Dutch counterpart of the Austrian/German organisation Naturfreunde. The route is marked throughout with the standard red-and-white markers used for national long-distance trails (LAW) in the Netherlands, and NIVON publish the indispensable two-part guidebook, which contains clear maps of the route (1:50k topo-maps blown up to 1:25k and overprinted with route information) and a lot of background information about the places you come through.

The Netherlands is a country where humans have a long history of tinkering with the landscape, and that still goes on today - not only do new roads, suburbs and industrial areas suddenly pop up, but also new areas of "nature" are created as priorities shift between agriculture, conservation, water-management, and recreation. Because of its length and the great variety of places it comes through, the Pieterpad regularly has to be updated to take such changes into account. Before setting out, it's always a good idea to check the latest updates on the Pieterpad website (this list includes both permanent changes to the route and temporary diversions around construction works and the like). By the way, this constant tweaking of the route explains why the distances on fingerposts you find along the way never seem to add up to the same amount. 

The coordinating organisation for long-distance paths, Wandelnet, has GPS routes available for download, but you have to use these with a bit of caution - some stages (e.g. around Gennep) are out-of-date and still show the route from previous editions of the Guide, others already incorporate changes made since the current Guide came out. If in doubt, always follow the red-and-white markers.

Long-distance walking

On the whole, I'm not a big fan of long-distance routes: I often cherry-pick interesting stages from them as day-walks, but rarely make a sustained attempt to walk a complete route. When I've done it, I've enjoyed the feeling of achievement involved in getting from A to B by your own efforts, especially arriving in a place on foot, sleeping there, and then walking further the next day. But that pleasure is so often cancelled out by the discomfort of having to carry luggage, the tyranny of the rigid plan made in advance to ensure that you have somewhere to sleep (which means you can't take a day off from walking if the weather is too miserable to let you enjoy it), and the necessity of walking all the boring stretches of the route that are clearly only there to get you from one interesting bit to another. 

So how did I get sucked into doing another one? Well, mostly by accident, as happens with these things. Looking for new walks to try out last year, I did a couple of stages from the middle part of the Pieterpad, around Venlo and Nijmegen. Those led me to look up the complete route, and got me interested in at least having a little look at areas like Groningen where I rarely have any reason to go. So, of course, one fine weekend I did get the train to Winsum and got on the little bus to Pieterburen, which turned out to be entirely full of walkers about to start the Pieterpad. The walk from Pieterburen to Groningen isn't an especially beautiful one, but it was interesting, it was a lovely day, the presence of all those other keen walkers was inspiring, and somehow, by the end of the walk my mind was full of the thought of coming back to do the next bit!

I'm doing it in day-stages, mostly direct from home, which cuts out many of the inconveniences, but also some of the pleasure -- you get to a nice place at the end of the afternoon and you've always got your train or bus connection home in mind, rather than taking a shower and looking for a nice place to eat. And of course - even if you're retired and are generally supposed to have all the time in the world - you still end up with quite a lot of gaps between stages, because you have to juggle transport possibilities, weather, other commitments, and simple motivation. Another compromise tactic I've considered, but which hasn't really worked out so far, is to stay in a strategically-placed transport hub on the route for a few days, so that you would just have a fairly short hop by train or bus to the start-point of the stage. I'll probably try that sort of thing when I get down towards Zuid Limburg. 

My impression from the other walkers I've met during May is that the majority are also doing individual day-stages. Not many big rucksacks about, and most people I've talked to are either getting the train/bus home at the end of the day or have a car waiting for them. But that might well be different once the school holidays start. The one time I did meet quite a few walkers with luggage was on the bus to Pieterburen, and that was on the Saturday before Ascension Day, probably an obvious starting day for a short holiday people who need to count their vacation days.

 

 

For a couple of years I kept a log of all my walks, mainly to see how much walking I was doing. But I soon got behind with the log, and now I've given up and only occasionally list them in a private diary. But it might be interesting to keep these logs as a little bit of history.