Do you believe in miracles?
I’m not talking about the “He came back from the dead” sort of miracle, but everyday, simple wonders.
Here’s one that I experienced first hand.
During my time in Germany, where I attended University, I was one of the founding members of the Hiking Club (later called the Outdoors Club) – hard to imagine if you see me today. One of our first hikes was to the famous Neuschwanstein Castle in the region of Bavaria.
Germany has long been an essential stop for hiking enthusiasts. With a pretty vibrant and varied topography, hiking is a favourite pastime of the locals. As a result, there are a number of trails that can be found throughout the country most of which are usually well marked.
Neuschwanstein Castle, besides having historical importance in German history is known more for the fact that the now universally identifiable Disney Castle is inspired from it. One look at a photograph of both and the similarities are evident.
After an early morning two hour drive from our college – situated in the small town of Schwäbisch Gmünd some 40 odd minutes from Stuttgart – we reached the base of the mountain that hosts the castle. At this point, as in life, we had a choice; either we could take the “recommended” hiking path or in the words of the great Robert Frost – which is now also the mantra for most travellers – we could take “the one less travelled by”.
In all the excitement and filled with over-confidence we made the amateurish mistake of choosing the latter, which apparently turned out to be the more difficult of the two paths.
It’s pertinent to mention here that there were only four of us on the hike. Three staff members from the University, with me being the only student (remember the “early morning” part I mentioned above, we had a lot of dropouts at the last minute).
Since this was at the beginning of our time in Germany, neither one of us knew any German besides the very basic “Sprechen sie Englisch?” (Do you speak English?).
The average time it takes to hike up to the castle is a little less than an hour and a half. Being first timers and using more of a “doggy” path than a proper hiking trail, we estimated it would take us a couple of hours maximum to reach the top.
The initial hike – with the steep incline – was the challenging bit. It lasted about half an hour, but eventually, things got better, and although the air was thinning, the sights kept us going towards the summit.
Events took a different turn when after having hiked for close to two hours, we eventually came to the conclusion that we were lost. Taking turns with the map we all tried to prove our expertise, but the truth was quite simple; we had no clue where to go.
With no real path or fellow hikers in sight, the thought of going back down the way we came up became more of a reality. That is until…
…we came across a shepherd.
Sitting quietly, in an open patch, in the middle of nowhere, was a man staring back at us with the same look of confusion that we had while checking the map. There was hope.
Our joy didn’t last long once we all suddenly realised that none of us knew enough German to explain to the gentleman that we were lost and on our way up to the castle. Moreover, we were deep enough into the thick of the “jungle” and too much on the incline that pointing would not have helped, as the castle was at present out of sight.
Thus began our lame attempts at trying to explain our situation using hand gestures and extremely poor and broken German. After about five minutes of us trying to explain – which to him must have looked like all of us were collectively having a fit – he very plainly asked, in perfect, non-accented English, “Are you lost?”.
In the little panic we were going through, it seems none of us bothered to ask the shepherd the only German we knew, “Sprechen sie Englisch?”. The initial shock of hearing English slowly turned into surprise which ultimately led to much-needed relief.
We were then guided onto a path which was even thinner than the one we had been on. He suggested that the views were worth it and going back down would mean us having to forego the hike altogether.
Hence keeping that in mind, we advanced on what I like to refer to as the “poodle” path. Although we had our doubts about the new route, the shepherd informed us that it was perfectly safe. Another 45 odd minutes later we finally made it to our destination. The poodle path was safe enough, but narrowed down at times to get the heart pumping especially when we had to cross boulders in the way – a couple of feet to the side would mean a fall of cinematic proportions.
Even though it has been more than a decade, I still sometimes wonder about this day. Choosing a challenging route, getting lost, and eventually find a man, in the middle of nowhere, waiting to guide us. Memory fails me, and although I remember him being a shepherd, I don’t remember seeing any livestock around. I don’t even remember if we went inside the Castle. We must have. I hope.
This meeting has probably been one of the most surreal ones I have had while travelling. I obviously recommend that if you are ever in Germany, you make it a point to hike, here, there, anywhere really.
If you visit the Neuschwanstein Castle for the very first time, stick to the designated path, the one that everyone is using. If you do wander off and get lost, hope and pray for small miracles, and for the shepherd, who speaks perfect English, to find you and guide you when you get lost.