Offering no more than a basic bed of straw in its early days, the German Youth Hostel Association (Deutsches Jugendherbergswerk, DJH) provides modern accommodation with an added value today, helping to spread the ideals of youth hostelling around the globe.
Detmold, Germany. It all started with a bold idea on a cold, stormy night. The idea was to get youngsters out of the big cities and put them back in touch with nature and its wonders in a way that was far from the strict daily routines of school, even for several days in a row, by providing them with a safe place to spend the night. On 26th August 1909, teacher Richard Schirrmann and his class got caught in a storm during a long hike, and it was only by pure chance that they managed to find makeshift shelter in an empty school building. That was when he came up with the idea and the name linked to countless personal memories today: Youth Hostels. Over the decades, his bold idea has turned into a true success story. Today, 111 years after its inception, Deutsches Jugendherbergswerk has almost 2.5 million members, making it one of Germany’s biggest non-profit organisations. It runs 450 hostels, where the unique idea continues to come to life every day through the sense of community experienced in the houses. Tolerance, open-mindedness, inclusion and environment protection are practiced in many different and creative ways.
Despite its age of 111 years, the spirit of Hostelling is as up-to-date as ever. Could Richard Schirrmann have imagined that his idea would span the globe when he opened the first Youth Hostel at Altena castle in summer 1914? It soon did, quickly surpassing the borders of its place of birth. Today, it inspires travellers from around the world: In 2020, over 4,000 Youth Hostels are open to travellers in more than 90 countries. As the largest hostelling association world-wide, DJH has long since supported the foundation of new hostelling associations across the globe, always happy to provide advice and a helping hand to friends of the hostelling idea. The non-profit association also promotes cultural and social exchange among young people by hosting international youth exchanges.
A lot has changed over the past 111 years in the Youth Hostel’s native country: squeaky bunk beds, itchy woollen blankets or curfews before sundown have long been a thing of the past. Instead, DJH Youth Hostels have stepped into the future, with new developments in various areas.
How to get there: The sustainable way
In the early years of hostelling, the question of how to get there was hardly given a second thought, as the whole idea of hostelling was based on the hiking movement. So, for decades, the way to get to a German Youth Hostel was to lace up your hiking boots, shoulder your rucksack, and go! Up to the end of the 1950s, the classic way of getting to a Youth Hostel was by using your own muscle power: travellers hiked, cycled or even came by boat to hostels that were located on the waterfront. “Motorised hikers” were frowned upon. Over the course of the years, attitudes changed, not least in view of increasing motorisation, and coaches became an ever more popular means of transport for school or group trips to Youth Hostels. Today, guests often ask about parking facilities for their car. Many Youth Hostels don’t provide parking spaces as DJH wants to motivate its guests to choose the most climate-friendly option to get to their destination. For instance, DJH members are entitled to reduced train fares. Coaches are, of course, always a great way for school classes or larger groups to get to a Youth Hostel, even if parking may not be available right in front of the entrance.
The food we serve: Variety is better
Simple, but good. That’s how you could characterise the food served in Youth Hostels in the old days. In the beginning, meals would usually even prepared together with the guests, or guests were expected to lend a helping hand in the kitchen if they wanted a hot meal on their plates or in their lunch pail – not least to promote a sense of community. That’s why, until today, guests at Youth Hostels still clear their own table after a meal or make their own beds. However, no guest is expected to peel potatoes or cut onions anymore, and the choice that’s on the menu is a far cry from the old days, too. There is something for everybody, and staff is always happy to cater to special dietary needs, such as allergies or intolerances, or to special requests. Many Youth Hostels have introduced a veggie day, support regional suppliers and producers, and serve up true highlights: culinary speed dating, a sushi bar, a star chef at the stove, family cooking courses, fasting hikes, nutritional or herbology courses are just a few examples. By the way: Youth Hostels still serve the traditional rose hip tea, but nowadays, they also offer a huge range of alternative flavours – and run bars and bistros offering unusual coffees or cocktails
More isn’t always merrier: Why there are fewer Youth Hostels today
By the end of the 1920s, there were over 2,300 Youth Hostels across Germany. These Hostels clearly didn’t compare to today’s standards. Often, they were no more than straw beds in “makeshift shelters,” located, for instance, in village schools that were closed for the holidays. Today, the German Youth Hostel Association runs about 450 hostels. Has interest in them dwindled? Are guest numbers going down? No, that’s not the reason why there are fewer. Rather, the decreasing number of hostels reflects a societal development. In the early days of Youth Hostels, the goal was to make sure there was never more than a day’s hike between two hostels. Hiking was the number one popular activity, and young people joined clubs and groups to discover their country on foot. But over the years, the enthusiasm for hiking wore off, and many Youth Hostels were closed as they were no longer needed. What hasn’t changed, though, is the enthusiasm for the Youth Hostels themselves. Every year, about 10 million overnight stays are booked at DJH Youth Hostels, and the association’s number of members is also growing constantly.
Youth Hostel Managers: A passion, not just a profession
One thing that hasn’t changed over the past 111 years is that a Youth Hostel’s wardens are its heart and soul. What has changed, however, is that they are now referred to as managers rather than wardens, plus a few other things: in the past, Youth Hostel wardens had to be a married couple, they had to live at the hostel and had to be able to play at least one musical instrument. Obviously, today’s job requirements are much less restrictive. Youth Hostel managers come from the most varied of backgrounds: they are former teachers, pilots, wholesale agents or even former music TV presenters. What they all have in common is the passion for their job and the conviction with which they make sure that the idea of Youth Hostels continues to come to life every day, 111 years after its creation.
Activities and programmes: DJH stands by its values
One of the aims behind Richard Schirrmann’s idea, apart from providing youngsters who were exploring the countryside on foot with a simple and inexpensive place to stay for the night, was teaching them about the great outdoors they were venturing into and raising awareness for the environment, the vegetation and wildlife around them. This educational aspect of the hostelling idea is one that the Youth Hostels continue to take just as seriously as its other values – tolerance, international understanding and open-mindedness – today, 111 years later. Of course, Germany’s 450 DJH hostels have much more to offer in terms of activities than the classic environmental education schemes. Guests are spoilt for choice, with over 2,000 different programmes and offers centred on topics such as culture, sports, environment protection, nutrition or music. There are Youth Hostels, for instance, that have their own sailing school, recording studio, circus tent or treetop walk. Many Youth Hostels today have specialised on a specific profile and cater, for example, to families, sports groups, choirs or international backpackers – and of course, even in 2020, every DJH Youth Hostel is an ideal place for class trips, children’s groups or group holidays for teenagers.