Fantastic views, a refreshing spritzer to quench your thirst and hearty food to keep your strength up: the Palatinate has the densest network of catered hikers' lodges of any low mountain range in Germany. This altogether unique proposition is made possible only thanks to the dedication of volunteers, however. We paid a visit to the teams running the Ringelsberg and Trifelsblick lodges, both of which lie along the premium "Pfälzer Hüttentour" route.
"The way is the goal." This quote from the Chinese philosopher Confucius is renowned all over the world, and the spectrum of interpretations is vast. However, it's much easier if you approach Confucius with a little Palatine pragmatism: many ways are beautiful, but the goals are even more so. Spectacular rock formations, whispering forests, lofty castles and – perhaps most exceptional of all – hiking lodges. It goes without saying that these are worth reaching. Where else will you hear so much laughter in the face of steep ascents? Where else can you sit down at a bench or table and immediately feel welcome? Where else will you find hearty traditional fare in the middle of the woods?
You can find them above Gleisweiler and Frankweiler at an altitude of 550 and 463 metres respectively: the Trifelsblick and Ringelsberg lodges. They are managed by two local community chapters of the Palatinate Forest Association (PWV) in the southern Palatinate. Both lodges are shining examples among such calling points in the Palatinate, of which there are around 100 in total. Yet it is solely the efforts of volunteers that make it possible to run such a number of them. The Trifelsblick lodge. Half past eleven in the morning on a Sunday in July. Hikers wipe the sweat from their brows and set their backpacks down. Mountain bikers take a deep breath and dismount. The high temperatures seem to be keeping the crowds at bay, yet the benches in front of the lodge are starting to fill up in dribs and drabs. The spots lining the longest edge are particularly popular, where a clearing in the trees gives an uninterrupted view towards Trifels Castle and the vast expanse of the Palatinate Forest. The PWV is allowed to thin the trees out up to 100 metres further down in order to preserve this wonderful vista. Fruit juice and wine spritzer. Cottage cheese, sliced meats or vegetable soup with cervelat sausage. Hikers and bikers quickly help themselves to some much-needed restorative refreshments from the tray on the counter at reception.
The volunteers at the lodge have been working since just after eight o'clock. This particular Sunday seems to be family day at the Trifelsblick lodge: Irmgard Buschbeck, her husband Dieter, daughters Sandra and Julia are all on duty along with grandchildren Hanna and Luca, not to mention Irmgard's sister Brigitta and her husband Harry Kühlmeyer. Harry has been the chairman of the local PWV chapter in Gleisweiler for ten years, but the 68-year-old's commitment to the association goes back four decades. Whilst the others are in the kitchen chopping vegetables, simmering soup and preparing the cottage cheese, he talks me through the necessary prep work. "In the middle of the week, I take a close look at the weather forecast for the weekend. This determines whether to order more or less food from the butcher and baker on Thursday," he explains. The lodge doesn't have any mains electricity or water connections, meaning that everything needs to be brought along especially each and every weekend. Tinned sausages and drinks, however, are stored in a cool space between the lodge and the adjacent rock face.
The all-terrain bus used to drive to the lodge is especially equipped with a water tank. With the help of a pump, the stainless steel tank in the kitchen is filled up to "temporarily" store around 500 litres of water. An array of solar panels is used to generate electricity on site, which is then stored in a set of batteries. Starting up the refrigerators is one of the first tasks facing the teams when they start their shifts at the lodge. A gas generator is also at hand in winter, not to mention the obligatory tiled stove fuelled with wood chopped by the association itself.
Heating is totally unnecessary when visiting in July, on the other hand. The temperature in the kitchen would do credit to a sauna. Incidentally, this kitchen is where the whole story began. The local chapter was founded in 1969 and started building the lodge in 1970, with the dining room added in 1971. If you take the antechamber into consideration as well, the lodge offers space for around 130 guests, with the outside area able to accommodate a further 200. It's no wonder that dishes are used multiple times if hundreds of meals are served on a single Sunday. And as there's no dishwasher, it's all done by hand.
"We're known as the 'cake lodge'," Harry grins. He gestures towards the explanation for this nickname right next to the counter. Apple cake, cheesecake and chocolate-covered marble cake are lined up enticingly in a glass display case. Just at that moment, his wife Brigitta arrives bearing replenishments. The cake is still warm in the baking tin. This well-oiled family team is on duty at the lodge three to four times a year, Saturdays and Sundays. All of the associations in Gleisweiler take it in turns to help out on the other weekends. This is all regulated by an annual plan; an absolute necessity when a minimum of four to five helpers are needed for every shift. Even as many as eight might be required in peak season during spring, late summer and autumn.
Between four and eight helpers on average volunteer at this lodge as well. "We have a lot of people taking part who aren't members. In total, there are between 200 and 250 helpers," reports Martin Hagelstein. The 31-year-old has been chairman of the "Frankweiler Pfälzerwäldler" association since 2012. Other associations from the area are also involved in supporting the lodge. Hagelstein is particularly pleased with the successful efforts to build up PWV youth groups, the members of which are between eight and eighteen years old. The secret to this success? "Letting people get on with the job. Everyone can play their part." This, Martin Hagelstein explains, is the basis for the entirely voluntary work. This is accompanied by "payment" in the form of special lodge privileges. Helpers are allowed to celebrate privately here with their friends and family, too.
The Ringelsberg lodge places a particular focus on good preparations so as not to leave its visitors waiting for long. Totting everything up at the end of one particular Sunday is always the start of preparation for the next. Requirements for food and drink are worked out and appropriate orders are placed with local bakers or winemakers. Here, too, the mid-week weather forecast plays a vital part in planning, such as when calculating how much vinegar, oil and finely chopped cucumber to prepare for the dressing for the sausage salad. The key to the lodge and change for the till are made available on Saturday in a wine bar in Frankweiler. These are collected by the lodge's serving staff. At around 9 o'clock on Sunday, the pretzels and bread made by the baker are taken up to the lodge. Once there, it's a case of opening shutters, taking chairs off the tables and getting things started. The lodge is equipped with a telephone line and connections for electricity, water and sewage. There's even a gas tank. Before the day's business can start in earnest at around half past eleven, everything needs to be prepared in the well-equipped kitchen: this means chopping cucumbers, boiling horseradish for the meatballs and slicing tinned sausage. Once the spaces start to fill up – around 150 inside and 100 outside – everything runs like clockwork. Especially coveted are the 50 spaces on the "wellness terrace", a viewing platform constructed in front of the lodge in 2013. From here, there is a magnificent view over the Rhine valley. "As a rule, customers start to dwindle in number from about 4 o'clock in the afternoon," reports Martin Hagelstein. Nevertheless, it might still be 9 o'clock at night before the lodge's volunteers are finished cleaning up.
The association's chairman is proud of running such a tight ship. He would only change one thing in light of the ever-rising expectations of the lodge's patrons. "The work of volunteers should not be taken for granted. Our service is not at the standard of a restaurant, but the lodge teams are still pleased to have their efforts recognised. Tips are always welcome. However, it's really much more to do with understanding that we would rather be drinking a spritzer ourselves at times," Martin Hagelstein explains. In doing so, the guests morally and materially ensure that the lodge culture continues to thrive through voluntary work: as oases in the forest and the home of good cheer. There's no getting around it – this is and always has been a unique selling point of the Palatinate. That's why Confucius' quote is different around these parts: "The lodge is the goal".