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The Limes: On the trail of the Romans

In the area around Giessen, you can search for signs of the Roman Empire and explore its former boundary line, or Limes. The best way to get to know the area is on a bike tour through fields and woodland.

by Sophie Nagel

Roman tower © Nagel/DAAD
Roman tower . © Nagel/DAAD

Federal state: Hesse
Suitable for students in: Giessen, Marburg, Siegen
Ticket: Semesterticket

About the region

Approximately 550 kilometres long, the Roman Limes is Europe's biggest cultural monument and the second longest structure after the Chinese Wall. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. Around 180 kilometres of the wall runs through the German state of Hesse. The Limes Trail was created by local communities in 2005 with the support of the administrative district of Giessen. The route runs from the reconstructed observation post 4/49 near Obersteinberg to the Kleinkastell Holzheimer Unterwald, following the Limes along the way and crossing fields and meadows. You can see the most interesting sights by cycling from Grüningen to Butzbach.

The Limes

The Limes is the fortified boundary of the Roman Empire which was built in around 83 AD following Emperor Domitian's campaign against the Germanic Chatti tribe. It consists of entrenchments, log buildings and wooden towers. The wall was fortified under Emperor Hadrian (117-138) and Antonius Pius (138-161). The wooden towers were replaced by stone towers and the palisade fence was erected.

Getting there

It's best to start your cycle tour in Grüningen. From Giessen's main station, the No. 377 to Grüningen operates several times a day. From Marburg or Siegen, you can take a regional train to Giessen. In Grüningen, get out at the bus stop Kirche.

If you don't have a bike of your own, you can hire one from the bicycle shop in Giessen-Wieseck. It costs 17.50 euros a day to hire a bike plus luggage carrier. If you go on a group tour, you may be able to negotiate a special price with the shop owner. From Giessen station, take bus number 5 to Wieseck. After 20 minutes, get out at the bus stop Friedhof and walk to the bike shop. Bikes can usually be transported on buses free of charge. However, sometimes the buses are so full that it's better to cycle back to the station.

Overview of Grüningen © Nagel/DAAD
Overview of Grüningen . © Nagel/DAAD

Wonderful overview over the area

Once you've arrived in Grüningen, walk back a few metres along Taunusstraße from the bus stop and follow the signs to Burg Grüningen. This castle is believed to have been built in the 12th/13th century. It fell into disrepair during the Thirty Years' War but was restored from 1983. Not far from the castle on Untergasse (which runs parallel) is the Diebsturm (literally: "thieves' tower"). This is the best preserved part of the late medieval town fortifications that were built in around 1400. You can still see traces of the town wall eight metres high up on the tower. The Diebsturm was used as a prison. From the top storey, you have a view of the church and Grüningen watchtower, which points to the military significance of the tower. The castle is only open on Thursdays (April to October) from 6 pm, or by special appointment. You can visit the Burg-Café on the first Sunday of every month, from 1 pm.

My opinion

I personally associate the Roman tower near Grüningen with an important part of my childhood. At the beginning of the calendar summer, there's a big solstice bonfire there every year which I always liked to go to with my family. We had lots of parties and barbecues at the Grüningen watchtower.

Around 400 metres away, further up the field, you will reach the watchtower Grüninger Warte. The tower offers a magnificent panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Originally built as a Dutch-style windmill 300 years ago, the watchtower remained in operation for 80 years. The ruined building was restored 50 years ago and turned into an observation tower. It is always open to the public.

Observation post 4/49

North-west of the watchtower on the edge of a wood you'll find the Römerturm tower at the Limes. Cycle along the edge of the wood and follow the tarmacked track back towards Watzenborn-Steinberg. The so-called 4/49 observation post is located on a steep slope above the lowlands of the Flachsbach. From here, you can see how the Wetter and Lahntal valleys are connected. Next to the foundations of the Roman observation post, a stone tower with ramparts, trench and palisade fence was reconstructed in 1967 on the basis of information available at that time. Today, we know that the tower had another storey and generally looked slightly different. Climb the steep wooden steps and enjoy the view from the top!

The hiking trail from Grüningen to Holzheimer Unterwald

Through the fields towards Holzheimer Unterwald, roughly follow the signs for the hiking trail. The small signs depict the reconstructed watchtower. Several information boards along the way provide information about the Limes world cultural heritage and point out where observation posts were once located. Unfortunately, we can only guess what it must have looked like here around 1800 years ago. But the countryside is beautiful and there are plenty of picturesque spots where you can stop for a picnic. The Roman fort near Holzheim is around three kilometres from Burg Grüningen. To get there, you pass horse paddocks, orchards und meadows full of colourful flowers – the attractive side of rural life.

More Photos

If you find the path too bumpy to cycle on, stick to the tarmacked tracks. You will reach Bundesstraße 488. Follow the signs to Bettenberg. After leaving Holzheim, you will pass Gambach and Griedel until, after about 13 kilometres, you reach Butzbach. In Butzbach (situated on the train line between Giessen and Frankfurt) you will find the reconstruction of a wooden tower and the foundations of a stone tower to the west of the town on Schrenzerberg. The wooden tower is one of the first attempts to reconstruct a wooden watchtower along the Limes. The climb up the hill to the tower is very steep (follow the signs to Freibad Schrenzerbad), but at the top you are rewarded by beautiful views from the edge of the woods, you can pick cherries from surrounding trees and in fine weather you can swim in the open-air pool.

Half-timbered houses and a beautiful market square

The town of Butzbach itself, with almost 24,000 inhabitants, is definitely worth a visit. The market square with its fountain, 16th-century town hall and several well preserved half-timbered houses is considered one of the most beautiful squares in Hesse. The 15th-century gothic Markuskirche church is located on Kirchplatz not far from the Stadtmuseum on Färbgasse. Small parts of the old town wall with typical buttressed houses can still be found in Butzbach.

Market square in Butzbach © Nagel/DAAD
Market square in Butzbach . © Nagel/DAAD

For refreshment, you can stop off at the restaurant Deutsches Haus right next to the station. Young people interested in working in the catering trade learn to cook and serve food at this training restaurant. You can enjoy a three-course meal here for just seven euros. In the old part of town, you'll find other inexpensive places to have lunch or an ice-cream. If you're too tired to cycle any further, you can travel back to Giessen by train. A regional train runs approximately every 30 minutes. 

Important information

Note that the bicycle shop Krumme Speiche in Giessen is closed on Tuesdays.

If you want to see Burg Grüningen from the inside, you have to call and make an appointment beforehand because the castle is usually only open on Thursdays from 6 pm. After visiting the watchtower, the Roman tower and Butzbach, however, you will have probably seen enough old buildings!

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