Reinhard Diehl: Experience earth, nature and culture

The Bergstraße-Odenwald Geopark, with an area of 3,500 square kilometres, is located between the rivers Rhine, Main and Neckar. To the south it overlaps partially with the Naturpark Neckartal-Oden­­wald in Baden-Württemberg, to the east it meets at the river Main with Natur­­park Bayerischer Spessart. As a Geopark, the nature reserve has been a member of the “Global Geoparks Network” of UNESCO since the year 2004. The park is admin­­­istered as an association, consists of 103 member municipalities and extends over several counties.

A Geopark is a marked territory in which the experience of the geological history and its connection to nature and culture is made possible. The purpose of these regions is to make it understandable to the visitor how landscapes are created, which rocks are found in the subsurface and how geology has an in­­flu­­­ence on the respective land use. The themes are conveyed, for example, through guided tours or information boards.

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The Bergstraße-Odenwald Geopark in­­­vites you to discover a landscape steeped in history. It is characterised by more than 500 million years of moving geological history, a multi-faceted natural environment, thousands of years of ancient culture and not least by the typical hospitality of its people, which attracts many visitors. While the urban regions, such as the science city of Darmstadt, grant special insights into the history and culture and at the same time are popular residential and work locations, the rural areas boast with a pristine, diverse land­­scape, quaint villages, castles and palaces, special tra­­­­ditions and regionally typical culinary treats.

Fascinating geological history between granite and sandstone. World-changing events have left their unmistakable im­­print on the region. Information on these events is given to us by the rocks which were created in this process: due to their composition and formation conditions, they can offer us exact infor­­mation on the environment, the climate and the global distribution of the continents of millions of years long past. The rocks of the Geo­­park territory are therefore something like a “stone library of the earth’s history” of the region.

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The Geopark is characterised by its distinctive scenic contrasts: the Rhine Valley in the western Odenwald, otherwise known as Crystalline Odenwald, in the centre, and the Rear Odenwald, or Sandstone Odenwald, characterised by clearly identifiable landscape sections, whose bedrock was formed in different geological eras. The park is divided into three major units, which with respect to their origin, composition and age significantly differ from each other: Upper Rhine Valley, Crys­­talline Odenwald and Sandstone Odenwald. The extensive lowlands of the Rhine Valley are followed by the gentle curves of the Crystalline Odenwald. By contrast, in the Sandstone Odenwald, vast plateaus dominate, which are crossed by deep valleys. Towards the east, the adjoining limestone landscape is characterised by typical Karst formations (caves and sinkholes).

The landscape was transformed several times in the course of history. And so, in the Palaeozoic era, due to the collision of two supercontinents about 340 to 320 million years ago, the Crys­talline Odenwald (Anterior Odenwald) came into being.

It consists of igneous rocks – such as granite, gabbros – and slate. The sandstone and shale of Sandstone Odenwald (Back-Odenwald) were deposited in rivers and lakes during the Mesozoic era, about 245 million years ago. The lowering of the upper Rhine trench, which is filled with gravel, sand and clay, began approximately 50 million years ago, since then the trench has fallen about 4,000 metres deep. This landscape re­­ceived its present appearance through the formative pro­cesses of weathering, erosion and deposition only, in geological time, relatively recently – during the ice ages (about two million to 10,000 years before today). On this, millions of years old, geological bedrock emerged a multi-faceted natural and cultural space, which invites to be explored as part of extensive wanderings.

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Nature with the professional. Whether you immerse in the past, enjoying peace and quiet, experiencing landscapes or culinary delights – the diversified programme of the Geopark affords special insights into the region. Under the theme “nature with the professional”, guided tours of the territory and family-friendly nature and environmental topics are included in the offer. The rangers in the Bergstraße-Odenwald Geopark, usually geoscientists and biologists, provide knowledge about the natural and cultural history or they initiate children in a playful manner into the secrets of nature. Together with restaurant owners, whine-makers, distillery proprietors and farmers, the Geopark rangers also have put together culinary offerings and products from the region. Here, the visitors spend a day at the Geopark on a so-called “indulgence hike” while tasting regional specialties such as wines or exquisite spirits, farm- fresh cheese and ham.

“Geopark-on-site” is a multi-part training programme for people from the member municipalities who wish to be able to intro­­duce visitors to their region. The “on-site-­­knowledge”, such as the origin of natural stones of noteworthy buildings, working conditions and techniques and workman­­ship of past decades and the memories of local incidents is the focus here. “Geo­park-ab-Hof” (Geopark-direct-from-the-farm) is a cooperation of the Geopark with agricultural establishments which offer holidays on a farm. Moreover, the entrance gates and information centres of the Geopark are well prepared to offer further tips and suggestions. Those who wish to discover the landscape on their own can explore some 30 discovery trails.

Regionally established and internationally networked. The Geopark is working together with many partners in the whole region: the UNESCO World Heritage sites Lorsch and Messel Pit, the Felsenmeer (sea of rocks) in the Lautertal or the drip­­stone cave in Buchen-Eberstadt, to name a few. The more than 100 member communities invite with their scenic and cultural diversity to discover the region time and again. Tourism, agriculture and gastronomy attach particular importance to regional identity, which welcomes the visitors. As one of the world’s 78 regions, the Geopark is member of the Global Net­­work of Geoparks of UNESCO – the highest award for a unique landscape and its diverse tourist development.

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Looking for clues in Darmstadt. In recent years, the Geopark developed, together with partners from Darmstadt and the surrounding area, a number of attractive offers, which provide special insights into the geological history, nature and landscape. These include, for example, the “Planet Trail”, the “International Forest Art Path”, the “Bioversum Kranichstein” and the “Messel Pit”.

The “Planet-Path” Darmstadt: At the Ludwigshöhe (Ludwig’s heights), starting with the national observatory on an approximately three kilometres long path, you can get a sense of the huge distances within our solar system, the unimaginable dimensions of time and the fascination of distant celestial bodies.
Those who are further interested in gaining special insights into space as well as the earth can book a guided tour, which includes a visit to the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC).

The “International Forest Art Path”: Since 2002, the International Forest Art Society (Verein Internationale Waldkunst) has created a total of five thematic exhibitions in the city forest of Darmstadt, which so far extend along a trail of 3.5 kilometres from Böllen­falltor, past the Goetheteich (Goethe pond) up to Ludwigshöhe. The “Forest Art Path”, on which you can view contemporary as well as past artworks, can be used all year. The “International Forest-Art-Center” (Internationales Wald­­­­kunst­­zentrum – IWZ) on Ludwigshöhstraße offers also a series of special events and promotions from April to November.

The Bioversum Kranichstein – Geopark information centre: Under the motto “Re­­searching–Understanding–Experiencing”, the Bioversum (museum of biodiversity) in Darmstadt-Kranichstein offers a variety of exciting events. The modern, interactive exhibition in the arsenal of the Kranich­stein hunting lodge also invites visiting grown-­­ups and children to get to know the regional flora and fauna worlds, to experience what biodiversity means and how we humans are affecting these things.
The Messel Pit – Geopark entrance gate: Awarded by UNESCO as World Heritage site in 1995, the Messel Pit near Darm­stadt offers a fascinating insight into live of about 47 million years ago. The former oil-­­shale mining became famous through exceptionally well-preserved fossils, which provided crucial information on the develop­­ment of the earth and life on earth. The visitor centre of the Welterbe Grube Messel gGmbH at the edge of the pit also invites visitors to immerse themselves deeper into the “Time and Messel Worlds”.

reinhard-KopieThe author was born in 1953. After graduating with a degree as Diplom-Ver­waltungs­wirt (in public administration), he served as Verwaltungsoberrat (senior administrator). He is chairman of the Federal Advi­­s­­ory Council of the Association of German nature parks and managing director of Geo-Naturpark Bergstraße-Odenwald e.V.