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Battles, bikes and blooms - Adventures around Osnabruck, Lower Saxony, Germany

PUBLISHED: 20:16 21 September 2011 | UPDATED: 20:01 20 February 2013

Varusschlacht - Varus Battle Museum

Varusschlacht - Varus Battle Museum

When Karen Bowerman visited the area around Osnabruck in northwest Germany she discovered a region rich in history, a landscape perfect for cycling and locals in love with their gardens

When Karen Bowerman visited the area around Osnabruck in northwest Germany she discovered a region rich in history, a landscape perfect for cycling and locals in love with their gardens

I hover over the button; people gather round. When I press it, the battle that humiliated the Roman Empire will begin.

Im at the small village of Kalkriese, 20km north east of Osnabruck, in the state of Lower Saxony in northwest Germany. The areas characterised by forests, marshy ground, trickling streams, rolling moors and the green, gentle slopes of Kalkriese mountain: features that all played a part in making a slither of land here one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe.

For at Kalkriese in 9AD, three Roman legions, their servants and families (more than 10,000 men and women) were killed in a fierce battle, after being lured into an ambush by tribesmen of Germania.

Im not a fan of battlegrounds and the idea of traipsing round a field doesnt really appeal. But just like her German ancestors, my guide, Ute Buhning, lures me in.

Within minutes Im reliving history. Local warriors dressed in hessian cloaks and carrying spears, slip out of the forest, skewer a couple of Romans and retreat into the trees. Approaching soldiers have no idea whats happening ahead - theyre marching in a column thats 10km long.

We climb to the top of the sites 40m viewing tower. Ute points out a strip of land sandwiched between Kalkriese mountain and an area of dense forest. It was here that the German warriors, led by local lad and former Roman soldier Arminius, launched their attack. From above, its easy to see how the lie of the land was the key to victory in this David and Goliath style encounter.

Back in the museum, Im given the nod and press the button. Thousands of tiny balls roll through a model of the landscape. Within seconds most disappear into holes and gullys. Only 10 (representing 1% of Romans, around 1000 men) survive. No wonder Ute refers to Kalkriese as a Roman graveyard.

I leave the museum for a lighter take on history: Roman meatball and spelt soup

On a lighter note, the museum displays many of the 6000 finds unearthed by archaeologists. Among them are tent pegs, rings from chain mail, bronze cloak buckles and intriguing glass eyes soldiers used to carry as lucky charms.

But its an iron mask (thought to have been worn in parades) that most visitors want to see. Completely in tact, with its slits for eyes and a small bump on its nose tracing the shape of its wearer, it stares back at you from its dark, glass cabinet. Its eerie to think what its owner may have seen, more than 2000 years ago.

I leave the museum for a lighter take on history: Roman meatball and spelt soup at the museums airy caf. But I cant dally for long, for outside, a jovial fellow, sixty-odd, is sitting astride a bicycle, waiting to share the delights of one of Osnabrucks cycle ways.

Our group, all girls, obviously delights him. He takes a photo to show his wife what beauties we are. He wears neatly pressed shorts and woollen socks up to his knee. His names Lachlan Macdonald, obviously not German, although he speaks of the country with pride; Osnabruck has been his home for more than twenty years.

Two things, Lachlan advises, as we hit the first of many empty country roads. Cycle on the right and follow the rose, the sign that marked our route. It was to become his catchphrase.

Our nine-mile ride took us into the countryside, through fields of maize, along streams and past traditional timber framed houses with gardens of hollyhocks.

Our pace was relaxed and leisurely, affording plenty of time to take in the surroundings and dip into local life, without appearing intrusive.

A bride in a simple, sandy-coloured dress beamed for photos

We criss-crossed the canal as massive barges, their decks piled high with gravel, thundered beneath. We pulled over at a Neolithic burial site belonging to some Big Cheese, and stopped at an old farm where our guide pointed out an owl window high in the roof to encourage the birds to nest in the rafters and keep mice away from the corn.

At Ostercappeln-Venne a horse and cart decorated with sunflowers stood outside the village church. A bride in a simple, sandy-coloured dress beamed for photos. Her young bridesmaids stood beside her, wearing crumpled dresses, cardigans and colourful wellington boots. The younger one had a pink, dressing-up veil in her hair. Theyre much more relaxed about weddings here, Lachlan said, as we dismounted to cross the road.

Our final stop was a few minutes on, at a replica Iron Age house, set against the Wiehen Hills. Here, in a small walled garden, scientists are growing herbs, flax and millet from 2000-year-old seeds discovered in local forests. With time marching on we popped our heads into the thatched dwelling before grabbing our bikes and following the rose.

Our ride ended on the outskirts of the town of Venne, with coffee and homemade cake in the garden of Erwin and Gudrun Kuhn, members of Germanys Open Garden scheme.

Wooden benches, pale blue wrought iron furniture and even a life-size model of a Friesian cow, hide in leafy alcoves

I lean my bike against their wrought iron fence and dig out the lock and chain. No need to do that! Lachlan exclaims, This isnt London, you know! As we stroll up to the cottage he draws my attention to the privet hedge. (It was trimmed so immaculately that if youd laid a spirit level along the top of it, the bubble would have settled right in the middle). I made sure I commented how nice it was as Gudrun lifted the latch of the gate and welcomed us in.

The Kuhns bought their former almshouse (and the marshy land at the back of it) 34 years ago and have since created what they describe as a corridor garden with rooms and views.

Wooden benches, pale blue wrought iron furniture and even a life-size model of a Friesian cow, hide in leafy alcoves. Beds are planted with hydrangeas, azaleas, camellias and rhododendron. Maple and horse chestnut trees tower over boxed hedgerows. There are sculptures of birds, and of poppies three metres high, while the deep blue walls of the cottage and its massive white shutters are reflected in a small pond.

Its a hobby, Erwin says, looking around him, a very big hobby. But when I bought the house, I wanted to bring nature close to me.

He pours me another coffee while his wife cuts more cake. Cows chew cud in the neighbouring meadow; a bird sips water from the pond; the late afternoon breeze weaves through the fronds of a sprawling fern. The battlefield of Kalkriese suddenly seems miles away. In this little pocket of Saxony, nature seems very close indeed.


Varus Battle Museum: Varusschlacht Museum


Admission: Adults 7; children; 4.50 Family tickets 16.00

The dream-garden bicycle tour is one of numerous bike routes in and around Osnabruck. www.gartentraumtour.de. Free maps available from tv@osnabruecker-land.de. More information from Onsabruck tourist office.

Iron Age house & garden, Venne. www.eisenzeithaus.de

Osnabruck tourist office www.osnabrueck.de

Stay at: Steigenberger Hotel Remarque, a 5 minute walk from Osnabrucks historical centre from 106 per room. www.steigenberger.com/Osnabrueck

Getting there: Air Berlin flies regularly from London Stansted to Osnabruck and Dusseldorf (approx 2hrs away by train). www.airberlin.com. Osnabrck-Mnster airport is a 30 minute drive from the city.

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