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Rhön and Thuringian Forest UNESCO Biosphere Reserves

Thuringia is home to two UNESCO biosphere reserves. The Rhön hills, located in the south-west of the state, were awarded this status in 1991. The region is an age-old cultivated landscape of volcanic origin, with wide expanses of grassland, meadow orchards, ancient beech forests and bare-topped hills, and with no wind turbines or power lines to spoil the view.

The second UNESCO biosphere reserve, which is also Germany’s oldest, lies in the heart of Thuringia’s largest upland region. It only measures about 16 by 18 kilometres, but encompasses a huge biodiversity within that small area. It also contains the seven highest peaks in the Thuringian Forest. Dense forests, upland moors and flowering meadows define its landscape.

The Rhön region is dotted with small villages, many of which are surrounded by numerous meadow orchards where ancient varieties of fruit are grown.

The wet waterside meadows and the sparse dry grassland of the Rhön hills each have their own specially adapted fauna. In spring, they are transformed into bio-diverse carpets of flowers. Conditions here are ideal for a number of unusual orchids, and also rarities like the German gentian.

Once almost extinct, the Rhön sheep has become part of the landscape again. This sheep, with its black, woolless head and no horns, is perfectly adapted to the climate and the sparse grassland of the High Rhön.

Get away from it all in the Rhön hills

Walking is a great way to escape from the daily grind. Our eyes wander over fields and rolling hill tops as the wind sweeps gently across the vast landscape. In the distance we can hear the bleating of the Rhön sheep, and a red kite hovers above. It is easy to recognise with its long, narrow wings and its distinctive forked tail. The Rhön hills are one of its breeding territories.

We walk through wide expanses of dry meadows dotted with occasional splashes of colour in sunny yellow, soft violet and brilliant white. The biosphere reserve is a refuge for endangered species, so please do not pick anything that grows here. But do take as many photos as you like! If nothing else, they will help you to identify what you’ve seen once you get home. Was that a lady’s slipper orchid by the edge of the path, a rare greater butterfly-orchid or perhaps a great burnet? With its dark, red-brown round flowers it is a typical inhabitant of the Rhön hill meadows.

Over the centuries, human intervention has shaped the appearance of the Rhön hills, with their age-old pastures and large meadow orchards. Now we understand why they are described as an ancient cultivated landscape.

Already we have reached the next meadow orchard. In the spring the air here must be filled with the buzzing of thousands of bees. Rhön honey is a regional speciality. Now the trees are weighed down with fruit. Many old varieties of fruit grow here.

Walking gives you quite an appetite, so it’s time to head for the next village and stock up at a Rhön farm shop. Luckily there’s one just the other side of the meadow orchard. With a sigh of satisfaction we consider how much the Rhön hills have raised our spirits as we cross the soft grass towards the village without a care in the world.

Walk across seven peaks in the Thuringian Forest

A circular walk across the seven highest peaks of the Thuringian Forest and through the middle of the UNESCO biosphere reserve is simply fabulous. But you’ll have to put in a bit of effort, as there are a few up and downs along the way. It’s well worth it though. Spectacular views, dark and mysterious forest sections, sunny upland meadows – everything just as it should be. And you’ll want to take the time to cast your eyes over the hill tops and inhale the aroma of wood and moss.

Nature sharpens your senses. Far from the hectic city life, its noises suddenly seem louder. The melodious song of a bird somewhere high up in the trees. The sound of a pine cone dropping to the forest floor. The rustle of a hedgehog in the undergrowth and the low buzz of a native bumblebee as it settles on a violet flower in a sun-drenched forest clearing.

The core of the Thuringian Forest Biosphere Reserve was created back in 1979, and originally only covered the valley of the Vesser river. Around 1,900 species of plants, lichen and fungi grow here, and it is home to around 2,600 animal species. A huge biodiversity for such a small area. Black storks and black woodpeckers nest here, the streams are teeming with trout and fire salamanders dart through the fallen leaves.

The top of Mount Schneekopf provides a good overview of the area. Although it’s only the second-highest peak in the Thuringian Forest, you can still get above 1,000 metres – but only by climbing up the viewing tower.

At night, when everything's asleep

People generally tend to sleep at night. We all need our sleep, even animals and plants. And that’s where the problem lies. In many parts of the world this is no longer possible. The reason is artificial light, which illuminates streets and buildings as bright as day, even at night time. But not in the sparsely populated Rhön hills. The Dark Sky Association designated the region as a special conservation area in 2014. The best way to see the stars is on a night walk.

We leave at dusk, equipped with warm clothes, a blanket, a thermosflask and binoculars. We’ve also got a rotating star map and a torch, which we have covered with a red film to make sure that its light is not too bright.

It feels a bit strange to be walking into the dark like this, as if we were children sneaking out of the house at night. Trees and shrubs merge into shadowy outlines. There is chirping, murmuring and rustling. In the western sky the sunset casts the landscape in a crimson light. Then we enter the forest. There are sounds from the undergrowth. We strain our senses. Walking slowly, we notice that our eyes are gradually adjusting to the dark.

On a treeless hill we make ourselves comfortable on the blanket we’ve brought along. It feels great to be lying on our backs looking up. Above us, the first points of light become visible in the night sky. And then it begins, one star after another appears, it seems never-ending. Between them lies a blurred, silvery band – the Milky Way. Looking at it through the binoculars it becomes a glittering sea, like a celestial treasure trove. Vast, eternal and utterly beautiful. If only we could stay here like this all night, simply watching.

Choose your route

The best way of exploring the Rhön and Thuringian Forest UNESCO biosphere reserves is on foot. The Hochrhöner® Trail is one of the loveliest in Germany. It passes through three federal states, at a total length of about 180km. If that sounds too long, you might like to opt for one of the secondary trails, or a half-day or one-day walk to distinctive landscape features and sites of historical interest. There are 23 secondary trails in the Thuringian Rhön hills, including the Point Alpha Trail along the Green Belt, the former border between West and East Germany.

The Peaks Trail is the ideal way of exploring the Thuringian Forest Biosphere Reserve in all its beauty. It runs for 30km through forest and meadows and offers spectacular views. Along the way you climb the seven highest peaks of the Thuringian Forest uplands, the highest of which is Grosser Beerberg at 982 metres.

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