The Battle of my Bulge, and the Hohes Venn

Though most of Europe is nowadays a union, their individual country borders are still very important. Trust me, I have witnessed it this weekend while camping in the picturesque Monschau area of the Eifel. A Dutch guy parked his caravan with the entire a-frame encroaching into the neighbouring German lady’s camping site, and she had none of that (understandably). After an amusing (for me), but serious altercation, and campsite management intervention, the Dutch guy was defeated, and with a lot of ‘brom-brom-brom’ had to swing his caravan by 90°. Only then peace and quiet once again dawned on this little piece of European Union. 

There’s a fascinating piece of borderline between Belgium and The Netherlands at Baarle-Nassau. Baarle-Nassau is closely linked, with complicated borders, to the Belgian exclaves of Baarle-Gertog. Baarle-Hertog consists of 26 separate parcels of land. Apart from the main parcel, known as Zondereigen and located north of the Belgian town of Merksplas, there are 22 Belgian exclaves in the Netherlands and three other parcels on the Dutch-Belgian border. There are also six Dutch exclaves located within the largest Belgian exclave, one within the second largest, and an eighth within Zondereigen. The smallest Belgian parcel, locally named De Loversche Akkers, measures 2,469 square metres – or if it actually is square, it means 49.69m x 49.69m! In political geography, an enclave is a piece of land that is surrounded by a foreign territory. 

On the German Belgian border, where Heleen and I spent three wonderful days of cycling, there are similar, though not as complicated, borderlines. I have previously written about the delightful Vennbahn cycle route and these enclaves, so apologies for the repeat, but it’s such a delightful cycling area, please bear with me.

The Vennbahn or Venn Railway route has been Belgian territory since 1919, under the Versailles Treaty. It was originally built by the Prussian Government to primarily transport coal and iron, roughly between Aachen and the north of Luxembourg. When the Treaty became permanent in 1922, it meant that five enclaves of German territory (originally six) were formed, with the ‘bahn’ (railway track) a thin line of just a few meters of Belgium with Germany on both sides. The smallest German exclave, Rückschlag, consists of a house and a garden, some 155m x 100m according to my rough Google Earth measurements. I think I love cycling the Vennnahn cycle route for the feel and history of it because of the stunning railway remnants still visible; from old station platforms, railway signal posts and stop lights to the old station buildings. Maybe I love it for our daily stop at Kalterherberg station’s Waffelhaus for a cappuccino and sometimes a Belgian waffle, which really is so much better than any other waffle in the world; except maybe the Scottburgh Wimpy in the early 80’s?

A practical benefit of the open borders nowadays – on Sunday we stopped in Roetgen at a small supermarket to by an onion and iced coffees. The ‘left’ side of the road was in Belgium, where shops are open on Sundays, while across the road on the ‘right’ side, the shops were closed, because in Germany, the shops are closed on Sundays. We had onion on our burgers that evening, and ‘woema’ in our tanks for the Hautes Fagnes climbs ahead.

The area of Belgium is known as the Hohes Fenn, or Higland Moorland. The highland moor, which acts as a natural water reservoir, is the source of half a dozen rivers, including the Rur, Olef, Warche, Schwalm and Our. 

The area where we cycled our 170km falls lock stock and barrel in the so-called Battle of the Bulge. The terrain is not all friendly and I indeed did battle with my bulge as well, but then decided I’ll only lose it if I stop those beer and waffle stops! Why would I cycle then?

The Battle of the Bulge was sort of Hitler’s last serious offense to try and prevent Antwerp as harbour to the Allies, before he hit the road, blew up the Bridge at Remagen as part of his retreat and took refuge in a bunker in Berlin for a while (not historically accurate, but you get my drift). However, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the American forces in this mountainous area. ‘The Hürtgen Forest occupies a rugged area between the Rur River and Aachen. This Rur is not the same river as the other Ruhr. The other Ruhr River has a ‘h’ in it, and is the water vein of that German industrial area which we all learned about in standard 4 geography. But this Rur is actually the same river as the Dutch Roer, and which flows into the Maas River at the stunning town of Roermond. In the autumn and early winter of 1944, the weather was cold, wet, and cloudy, and often prevented air support. Apart from the poor weather, the dense forest and rough terrain also prevented proper use of Allied air superiority, which had great difficulties in spotting any targets. The dense conifer forest is broken by few roads, tracks, and firebreaks; vehicular movement is restricted. Conditions on the ground became a muddy morass, further impeding vehicular traffic, especially heavy vehicles such as tanks’ (Wikipedia)

Its in similar terrain, bordering the Hürtgen forest in the Parc Naturel Hautes Fagnes or Hohes Venn where I battled my bulge, but on impeccable infrastructure. It remains, for me as a South African, incredible to be in fairly remote and secluded parts of these European forests, just to see a young lady strolling her Sunday stroll alone, and on two-meter-wide tarmac cycle roads for many kilometres, nogal.

In the hilly forest of our daily start, is the interesting Kloster Reichenstein, which is currently being restored and where monks will soon again reside. In 1639, in the middle of the 30 year war, Stepfan Horrichem was put in charge of the Reichenstein Monastery as prior. Horrichem dedicated himself with full commitment to the consolation and assistance of the suffering population. Sometimes disguised as a farmer, he went from farm to farm and village to village to protect himself from infringement. In doing so, he earned respect, prestige and even admiration from the needy population. Next to the forest road, is a remembrance plague to Prior Horrichem, which unfortunately reminds us of the many many conflicts of Europe, as we actually see in the Ukraine at the moment.

You don’t have to be a cyclist, nor a camper, to visit and explore and enjoy this amazing part of Germany and Belgium, but to spend time in some of these slightly more remote nature-based camp sites in Europe, is highly recommended. The beautiful clean rivers, lush forests and green farmland hills all convert into real and peaceful scenic beauty. 

The Eifel of flowers, forest and war

The Eifel is not a tower; that one is spelt with a double ‘f’.

The Eifel is a low mountain range in western Germany and eastern Belgium, which spans a renowned scenic rural area. It’s a favourite daytrip destination of mine within an hour’s leisurely drive from Köln and which rewards me with something new and spectacular every time I venture there.IMG_7398

This past Easter Weekend was no exception. When my friend Rudi suggested that its blooming time for the wild daffodils in the Eifel, I bunched the family into the car, packed a picnic of breads, cheese, hams and pesto and headed east.

Flowing hills, bushy meadows and yellow blooming canola fields broken up by patches of forest ensures scenic splendour all the way, that type which is often difficult to capture in words. I did find the ‘Fuhrbachtal’ valley outside of the small village of Kalterherberg easily enough and enjoyed a cool and leisurely stroll down the valley to do some flower searching. It didn’t take much of a search, as in Germany everything is so well organised and well kept that nature walks simply entail following the path. That’s simply what we did, and sure enough, we found some beauties.IMG_7403

The ‘Fuhrbachtal’ is on the border of Belgium and southern Holland, which also means that this is a World War 2 hotspot area. I, however wanted to enter Germany from Belgium, the direction the Allied Forces did on 12 September 1944. So I first drove into Belgium with some small country roads through some magnificent scenery, stopped on the edge of the Hürtchenwald for a picnic and photoshoot before driving through the ugly town of Neu-Moresnet. I had to visit Neu-Moresnet simply to mark of some irrelevant fictitious to-do list item that I have been in the town where Heintje Simons nowadays live. Remember Heintje? He was a darling little singer from the Netherlands who wooed amongst others the South African radio listeners in the seventies with songs like ‘Mama’ and ‘Heintje Boembantje, boem, boem, boem’ or something in that vein. (I have no idea what he was actually singing, but this was how my brother and I sang along in those days).

We didn’t see Heintje, and I didn’t even stop in this town, as what I saw in the drive through was not inspiring at all, plus I was on a mission to enter Germany through the Hürtchenwald and the town Roetgen, find some remains of the Siegfried Line and take some pictures.


The so-called 'Dragon teeth' of the Siegfried Line at Roetgen. These concrete structures were the tank stoppers
The so-called ‘Dragon teeth’ of the Siegfried Line at Roetgen. These concrete structures were the tank stoppers

Roetgen is the first German town to fall under American control. They marched into the town on September 12, 1944 at 14.30. After the American forces entered Germany at Roetgen, they engaged the German forces in what became known as the Battle of Hürtgen, a fierce series of battles in the inhospitable terrain of the forest which lasted to December 1944 and in which the Americans lost at least 33 000 men to death or incapacitation. We too entered the town of Roetgen from Belgium and I found some excellent remains of the Siegfried Line. Fascinated to find these remains, I walk amongst them and let my mind wander to the ghastly historic events, which took place at this exact place where I was wandering around; I took some pictures and simply contemplated the insanity of war. As Chris de Burgh so aptly states in ‘Borderline’,

‘But these are only boys, and I will never know,

How men can see the wisdom in a war…’

Hürtgen Forest is however not only the venue of these battles and the beautiful thick forest scenery, but also, according to local folklore, the forest where Hansel and Gretel were kept, fed and oh so nearly served as dinner. We did keep an eye out for them too, but (fortunately) didn’t see any traces of them, nor of the witch.

As always, I chose some further ‘small roads’ back to Cologne and with the usual luck of discovery found a stunning piece of ‘watered castle’, the ‘Weiße Burg’ in Friesheim, complete with moat providing stunning photographic opportunities.

Sunset and canola fields
Sunset and canola fields

The Weiße Burg Friesheim
The Weiße Burg Friesheim

Tomorrow we head off to Holland for an extended drive.

The route of our day-trip
The route of our day-trip