The Volksmarch -- A Sport Anyone Can Enjoy
Leave it to the Europeans to take a simple activity, like walking, and turn it into something incredibly organized. But then, you would be amazed at just how much fun walking can be, and how many thousands of people make it their main social activity. You'd also be amazed on how easy it is to get hooked on it!
Volksmarching is popular for several reasons. First, walking is a truly all-ages activity and great exercise. Whole families participate as do seniors, and I surmise that many seniors stay fit this way. Second, Volksmarching caters to one's abilities. You can walk as long as you like and as fast as you like. Third, it is a very social event. You can do it with friends, even large groups (and Volksmarching tours are common, I learned), chatting and taking photos the whole way. And finally, it is an event that rotates among hundreds of little towns and villages every summer. Another week, another town in the region is hosting one, with different scenery and local cuisine at the refreshment stands. The towns get an economic boost, too, as the local breweries, wineries, butchers, bakers, etc. all help sponsor the events while doing a little business on the side.
Volksmarching is the most popular of several non-competitive activities collectively known as Volkssport ("People's Sports" or "Popular Sports"). Other Volkssports include recreational biking, cross-country skiing, swimming, etc.), and there are international agencies that govern it (such as the International Federation of Popular Sports, or IVV). These are non-competitive in that there is no race or winning, the competition is essentially with oneself. But, they are organized like races, with checkpoints, so that one's accomplishments can be certified. And, for a small fee, you can buy a passbook to collect stamps showing the Volksmarches you have completed. Filling a book (based on either numbers of events or distance covered) earns you prizes, which for many is incentive enough to go for it.
My first Volksmarch took place in the small wine village of Malsch bei Heidelberg, about a twenty-minute drive south of Heidelberg in the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. The village was very similar to other villages in the Rhein-Neckar region, like where I live (Nussloch). The main square is small and perched on high ground, with the Rathaus and town church nearby and main shopping street leading down through the rest of the town. Malsch was mostly residential with a few shops and guesthouses, and a main factory or industrial center a short distance outside the town. The village was gearing up for its summer festival, and the main street was lined with tents as I headed toward the Volksmarch start point. The event was held at a winery just outside town, with the registration booths inside the main store (how convenient, eh?).
How it works. Volksmarches normally offer several distances -- a short, medium, or long path. The actual distances vary from event to event. Malsch offered 6km (3.6mi), 10km (6mi), and 20km (12mi) routes, and the registration fee depended on the distance you planned to cover. You then get a card with blanks for the checkpoint stamps. The Volksmarch event runs most of the day, normally beginning in the wee hours of the morning. You have the freedom to start and finish when you wish, so long as you have completed the event when the course closes at the end of the day.
Pre-registration is possible, even recommended, if you want to earn prizes. This was especially important for the kids, who get to collect toys or trinkets for completing the walk. I did this Volksmarch with a large group, and there were a number of kids with us (and one dog), so we did the short route (6km) at a leisurely pace. Once we all had our cards, we simply went to the start line and got going.
This path was mostly in the open, cutting through hundreds of acres of farmland below Malsch. We passed by cornfields, barley and wheat fields, apple orchards, miles of turnips and squash, and a few veggies we didn't recognize.
The third photo shows one of the checkpoints (and the only checkpoint we were required to hit on the 6km path). One gentleman there was responsible for stamping the cards, while the others ran a small snack bar with provisions from local businesses. Iced tea was free, but also available were soft drinks, locally brewed beer and locally made wine. Simple sandwiches from the nearby bakery were sold as well. As you can tell from the third photo, it was a very relaxing break and there was no rush to continue the journey.
But continue we did, and soon we were at the trennung ("separation", literally) shown in the fourth photograph. The short route went one way, the other routes went another. We turned left at this time and headed back toward Malsch. The view of Malsch was the best during that stretch, with the village looking over the wide expanse of farmland ... huge fields of green under a light-blue sky. Always a pleasant scene.
A few short kilometers later, we reached the finish line (just in time for some of the kids to begin losing their energy). With the completed cards, those who had passbooks were able to get them stamped inside the winery, and the kids were able to collect their prizes (a toy 18-wheeler with the logo of the local sausage factory on the side... the boys seemed to like them better than the girls, but hey...).
The winery itself was open for business big time as a restaurant offering badischer cuisine. This included huge grilled pork sausages, sausage salads called "wurstsalat", and vintner's plates of local meats and cheeses. People could wash them down with local beers or wines, or soft drinks. We admittedly didn't time our return the best, as we hit the lunch rush dead on and the place was completely overcrowded. But the food was good, and filling enough to suggest that it was recompense for the Volksmarch, and reason enough to need to go out and do it again in some other town the following week! (And I bought a bottle of the winery's Grauburgunder, which was excellent.)
While lunching at the restaurant, we talked with a few of the others there who seemed to take the hobby very seriously. Indeed, we found a couple of Americans who had been doing it on and off for some twenty years and had logged several thousand kilometers!
And why not? It was enjoyable, relaxing, and healthy, and a great way to toss off some of the stress of daily life. No wonder it's so popular here in Germany!
But it is also popular in America, and Volksmarch clubs exist in a number of places. The American Volkssport Association has links to walking clubs and other Volkssport activities all over the states. Check them out and discover why the Germans like to walk their way to weekend fun!
I participated in the Volksmarch in Malsch bei Heidelberg on 28 June 2003 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin