A muddy track, wide enough for a four-wheeler, leads out of Undeloh, a tiny village in Germany’s Lower Saxony. It soon narrows into a path just a few feet wide, slushy from overnight rains, and leads off into the wilderness. Patches of lush green grass skirt the path beyond which are tall pine trees that tower into the sky. The air is thick with the smell of wet earth and terpenes; it has a tingling, refreshing quality that is the hallmark of unpolluted outdoors. The patch of pine forest abruptly ends and the path opens into an expansive and unending vastness, covered in an undulating blanket of earth and sandy brown vegetation, punctuated by trees and shrubs. The nearest road is a long way away and much of Luneburg Heath (Luneburger Heide) is shrouded in blissful silence.
A gentle breeze sweeping across the wide open heathland carries with it an invigorating coldness. The sun has been stubbornly absent but it is bright and cheerful. Every time the sun makes an effort to emerge from between the clouds, it prompts colourful butterflies to dance on sunbeams and bees to hover over wild flowers. The whole scene is far too idyllic to ignore, so I perch on one of the wooden benches, helpfully placed all over the heath, and attempt to soak in everything.
Spread over 1,075 sqkm (107,500 hectares), Luneburg Heath is an extensive moorland in Lower Saxony, and is the largest contiguous heathland in Central Europe. It comprises wide swathes of heath filled with purple heather, old forests, streams and rivers, pretty villages with old farms, half-timbered and thatched houses. It has vast stretches that are vehicle-free and is home to numerous rare animal species like the black grouse and is the habitat for free-ranging herds of moorland sheep. By far, heather season, early August to mid September, is the highlight of Luneburg Heath, when the whole area is carpeted by millions of blooms in various hues of purple.
Even though the vastness is daunting and tends to dwarf you, it also appears welcoming. To enable visitors to get the most of it, a network of around 1,000 km of hiking trails, all of them well-marked, crisscross the heath. These include themed trails, circular trails and location hikes. While guides can be booked for these hikes, they are designed to be self-guided too, including for those on bicycles. Horse and carriage trails are clearly marked as well. I chose the Wilsede-Wilseder Loop trail starting from Undeloh, stretching for a little more than 10km, a popular trail that provided snapshots of various aspects of the heathland and traversed through some major highlights.
As much as I could have sat on the bench and let the tranquility wash over me, heath scout Pat Bulk, my guide and a fount of information on all things Heide, gently hints that we get a move on. In a low voice, as if to not disrupt the surrounding serenity, she drops nuggets from time to time—on its history, its topography, flora and fauna, trivia. In between, we walk in silence on a beaten path that continues over the undulating landscape, cresting and dipping. It skirts shrubs, clumps of tall grass, little clusters of wild flowers in yellow and white and all kinds of trees—oak, birch, beech, and more. In between there is a profusion of juniper trees, dark and columnar. The heath is known is have one of the largest juniper forests in Germany; it is nothing much to smell but a bit fascinating to learn that gin is made from them.
The path is firm with packed mud in places, soft and springy in others, strewn with dried grass and fallen leaves, and scattered with fallen pine cones, acorns and twigs. Except for the occasional chirping of a pipit or the stridulations of crickets, it is incredibly silent. In this deep silence, the rustle of leaves underfoot or the crunching of fallen cones is clearly audible. Mindfulness comes without effort. Though not circular, it brings to mind the concept of kinhin or walking meditation. Turns out the heath is indeed connected to spirituality. Pat breaks the silence to point to a yellow shell-like image painted on a tree and says it indicates that the path is part of the Camino de Santiago (Way of St James), a network of ancient pilgrim routes all over Europe that led to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Northwestern Spain, one of the most important Christian pilgrimages since medieval times.
The path inclines steeply upward for a few hundred metres and we are on a little hillock called Wilseder Berg. Known as the heart of the heath, this little summit, at 169 metres is the highest point in North Germany and an important highlight of many hiking trails. It offers fabulous 360 degree panoramic views of the heath. On sunny and clear days Pat says it is possible to see Hamburg (about 60 km to the north) but a cold haze keeps it hidden on this particular day.
The most adorable and memorable sight is coming upon a large herd of Heidschnucken, German heath sheep, Luneburg’s iconic inhabitants, with thick coats of white, grey and black wool. They are curious and skittish at the same time, bleating in a weird concerto, while an enthusiastic guard dog keeps a sharp vigil over straying ones. We stop for a meal in Wilsede, an idyllic village in the middle of the heath that can only accessed by foot, bike or carriage, and feast on dishes made from locally grown ingredients—skewered vegetables, roast potatoes, asparagus, buckwheat bread and buckwheat cake.
The weather, which had miraculously held all morning, suddenly turns foul. Rain falls in waves, swept by a swift breeze, slapping everything in its path. My umbrella is no match, twisting outwards and wholly useless. I opt to duck into a carriage and we clop off to the hotel just beyond the heath. But my last sight is burned into memory: the vast limitless moor with its rolling landscape is shrouded in grey light and has an intense brooding quality about it.
Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.