Munich and the surrounding areas are full of green oases where locals and tourists can escape for a few hours. But what exactly does the forest do to its visitors? A stroll through the Allacher Lohe nature reserve with ranger and conservationist Dr. Rudolf Nützel.
As I step off the train in Karlsfeld and shake hands with the ranger Rudolf Nützel, managing director of Bund Naturschutz München, we immediately start talking about the forest. Our attention turns to Allacher Lohe, as the ranger tells me where we are by pointing at the forest that we can make out from the train station. Nature conservationists really do give their all. Or, as Nützel puts it himself: “I’ve always been pretty green”.
I’d spoken to him two weeks before, and he’d quickly chosen this small forest for our walk. Allacher Lohe is cut off from the surrounding area by the A99 motorway, a housing estate, the train tracks and a marshalling yard. On Google Maps, it looks like a valiant patch of woodland that refuses to surrender to its developed surroundings. Or rather, it hasn’t surrendered yet.
I make my way from the train station to the nature reserve with the ranger and Frank the photographer. But we first have to cross the Allacher Tunnel, which was opened in 1998. “In Bavaria there are hardly any primeval forests left that are close to nature. The remaining must be preserved. One last black woodpecker breeding pair lives here – they can grow up to 58 centimetres in size”, says Nützel as we leave the paved road behind and make our way along a dirt track. 1.5 square kilometres of oak and hornbeam trees stand before us – the minimum size for this kind of woodpecker. A miniature deciduous forest right by the train station.
And that’s exactly what we’re about to enter. The thick vegetation grows wilder along the narrow path, and I ask the ranger what sets the nature reserve apart from a common forest. Nützel, who’s leading the way and stopping every few metres to show me things that would’ve otherwise passed me by, says: “Forests are governed by forest law and regulated forestry. Nature reserves prioritise the conservation of nature over normal usage, such as deforestation and recreational activities”. That means dead trees aren’t cut down and fallen trees stay on the forest floor.
"When managers dive in groups into woods to embrace three-hundred-year-old oaks, it becomes clear that people want to go back to their roots. Or at least to those of the trees."
It might be quite cool for May, but I can sense the air is getting more humid and fresh as we go deeper into the forest. And even though I’ve written down lots of questions for the ranger, I also notice how relaxed I’ve become and would much rather listen to Rudolf Nützel’s words of wisdom instead of interrupting him and getting to the bottom of my queries. It’s only taken me a few minutes to get caught in the grip of a trend – forest bathing. It’s a tradition from Japan known as shinrin-yoku that was introduced by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture in the 1980s.
“The green chlorophyll has a relaxing effect on us”, explains Nützel. The most natural thing of all – spending time in the forest and embracing its soothing atmosphere – needs now a cool name to make society aware of it. You can train to become a forest therapist – the topic is booming, especially following Peter Wohlleben’s best-seller “The Hidden Life of Trees”. And when little groups of bank managers delve into the woods to hug three-hundred-year-old oaks, one thing is clear: People want to go back to the roots. Literally.
Nützel associates this with the littering of natural areas. “Why don’t people take their rubbish with them when they leave the forest? I mean, they managed to bring it in. Even Germans call it littering these days, but it’s still just plain old garbage”. We grin. “I think it’s got a lot to do with our whole to-go culture”, he continues. “We have to do everything at once, like drinking a cappuccino while we go for a walk. This fast-paced living has brought about counter-movements like shinrin-yoku to slow life down again”.
As we talk, Frank the photographer discovers a few flowers with yellow petals along the side of the path and starts taking pictures. Nützel kneels down next to him. I really hope he doesn’t test me on my knowledge of plants which, despite my love of nature, is pretty much non-existent. “Its leaves look like nettles”, I say at long last, and Nützel adds that it doesn’t have stinging hairs. He takes one of the yellow petals and eats it with relish. “Whenever I’m out and about with children, I often ask whether they want something sweet. Their eyes always light up when they try it – after all, it’s not a bag of sweets. Yellow archangels attract bees with their sweet nectar”. Right on cue, a queen bumble bee flies past and Nützel comments on her loud buzzing by saying it’s always worth walking through the forest with an open mind. I nod reverently and we continue.
I’m interested in how his forest walks with children are different to his visits with adults. He tells me his trips with children are more playful. They practise stalking, which means they have to be quiet. The teachers find this great, because most children from the city are quite hyperactive when they enter the forest. But watching wildlife requires peace and quiet. The children are then rewarded when they spot a brown hare, a squirrel, or a woodpecker picking out the larvae from a dead spruce. “That’s exactly what happened last time and everyone was amazed, as you can imagine”. And what about the adults? “Adults are more interested in finding out new things. Lots of people find it interesting when I tell them the Bavarian Motor Works used to manufacture their aircraft engines here, which is why the BMW badge still features the colours blue and white”. The Bund Naturschutz where Nützel works, has a full calendar of events ahead, including day trips like an extensive bike ride through river and lake landscapes, and a walk to find out more about edible wild herbs.
We amble off the beaten track for a few metres and stop in front of a dead spruce that’s shed its needles. It didn’t survive the dry summer. I learn the spruce has a shallow root system and gets its nutrients from the top surfaces of the soil. Nützel explains how the spruce will be completely lost to climate change over the next ten years.
A large piece of bark is peeling away from the trunk. The ranger pulls it up and tells me all about what starts living under there when the tree dies. It’s full of wriggling woodlice and spider webs, and we can even make out little burrows made by a bark beetle. “The male and female crawl down the passages underneath the bark and meet in the mating chamber”. I can’t help but laugh and neither can Nützel. “That’s the official biological term. Biologists are only human after all”.
"Being immersed in the humidity, the dim light and the substances given off by trees… it all does something to us."
Speaking of people – many of those who visit the forest with Nützel were at primary school when they last went on a guided trip to the countryside. “Can you hear that? A chaffinch. Very few people still know what one looks like”, he says, and I’m sure I wouldn’t recognise one either. In his opinion, the “public good” that people always talk about in Bavaria mainly depends on the preservation of our forests and our awareness of the last populations. “Being immersed in the humidity, the dim light and the substances given off by trees… it all does something to us. And that’s why the last remaining forest areas have to remain untouched”. I find myself nodding reverentially again.
It’s really easy for us to immerse ourselves in these gigantic relaxation spaces in and around Munich. “All our forests are interesting, starting with the Nymphenburg Schlosspark – an oak and hornbeam forest that you can get to by tram”, says the ranger. There's the forest in Trudering and, of course, the Perlacher Forst where visitors can discover a biotope and the Perlacher Mugl – a 26-metre observation hill. These green oases give Munich’s locals and tourists a place where they can escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a few hours.
After strolling through the forest for around two hours, we approach the Allacher Tunnel again. I can hear the scream of the motorway in the background and suddenly remember how difficult it’s become to find a quiet place with hardly any people. “You can just tell yourself the background noise is a mountain stream”, jokes Nützel. And we’ll try that out right away.
Getting to know Munich’s forests
Munich has a rich selection of woodland, including ten forests like the Allacher Lohe. Its landscape is made up of riverside forests, oak and hornbeam forests, fen woodland and the so-called “Leitenwald” forests found along the high banks of the River Isar. The diversity of the city’s woods is reflected by their wide range of historical uses, the moorlands (e.g. Schwarzhölzl), and rare plant species and biotopes (e.g. the Aubinger Lohe).
Discovering Hartelholz and Panzerwiese
The Hartelholz nature reserve is a green haven for anyone interested in history. The former hunting grounds of the Bavarian Electors had previously been used as a plague cemetery in the Middle Ages. And you can still see the preserved ruins of an anti-aircraft battery from the Second World War, which was built in 1941. Located to the south of Hartelholz forest is the Panzerwiese (“Tank Meadow”), whose name evokes memories of its former military use – it forms part of the Hartelholz and Panzerwiese nature reserve.
Climbing in the woods of Vaterstetten
The "Klettergarten" in Vaterstetten (S4/S6) is a popular destination for family trips, as it covers 21.000 square metres of woodland. Families can enjoy thirteen different obstacle courses on different levels, and there are always new events such as "Mondscheinklettern" which means climbing in the moonlight.
Taking a break at Perlacher Forst
Tram 25 takes you straight to one of Munich’s forests: the Perlacher Forst. As most of its wooded trails aren’t winding or interlaced with tree roots, the forest is particularly suitable for families with prams and joggers. If you climb all the way to the top of the Perlacher Mugl, a 26-metre lookout hill, you’ll be rewarded with a lovely view of the forest landscape. There are several inns and restaurants, such as the Nussbaumranch and the Kugler Alm beer garden.
Walking around Germany's first forest cemetery
The south of Munich is home to the first forest cemetery in Germany and the largest in the city. The 170-hectare landscape is the perfect place for a walk among tall trees, narrow paths and open fields. And some of the gravestones even bear the names of famous people like the writer Michael Ende, the Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics Werner Heisenberg, and the engineer Carl von Linde, to name just three.