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. 

Budapest, imitation, fake or glorious?

“Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East’s exuberant vision of the West, the West’s uneasy hallucination of the East. It is a dreamed-up city; a city almost completely faked; a city invented out of other cities, out of Paris by way of Vienna — the imitation, as Claudio Magris has it, of an imitation.” 
― M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart

IMG_2502

Well, I’m not sure, and to be fair the quote does stem from 1992, but what I am sure about is that visiting places for a third time is a privilege providing opportunity for looking at the same stuff afresh. This was my third visit to Budapest, 26 years after my first.

My first visit was in January 1994, when Budapest and Hungary were actually still busy stepping out from behind the Iron Curtain. In those days you could still feel the cold eastern atmosphere in the Budapest streets.  Strolling the streets in those days, you could see and feel the cold, grey and life’s weight on the residents but from a traveller’s perspective it was gloriously exciting. Since that trip, it has changed a lot. Budapest nowadays is a vibrant city, with a modern feel, many tourists ensuring the worldwide irritation of pedestrians texting while walking, selfie-sticks in abundance and English spoken everywhere. Don’t get me wrong when I refer to the latter negatively, but the globalised impact of being understood everywhere does dilute some of the traveling experience of old. It was exploratory on my first trip in 1994 to struggle being understood, adventuring through menus and using sign language to get to destinations or pointing at which ‘torta’ you want with your coffee. Nothing in Hungarian hints in any way to its English word, not to even think Afrikaans. Sitting in Ferenc Liszt Budapest airport just after arrival I was, for example, trying to find links between the Hungarian I saw on restaurant signs and English. Who would have thought that ‘péksütemények’ means ‘pastry’, or even shorter ‘deeg’ in Afrikaans? On that first trip, 26 years ago, there were no translate apps, no Googlemaps, nor commercial GPS’s, no Costas nor Starbucks and hardly any English; just the decent and proper ‘old world’ classy ‘cukrászda’ coffee establishments, such as Gerbeaud. Furthermore, in those old days, the clientele of Gerbeaud did not stroll in wearing hiking boots, loose hoodies and backpacks, they were dressed in old fashioned classy coats and scarves and vintage Fedora hats. In a sense, travel has become too easy, and dare I, who love wearing shorts, say, too casual?

Continue reading “Budapest, imitation, fake or glorious?”

About Belgium; the Battle, the Bulge, the Beer and the Braai

Belgium was never particularly high on my list. I’ve always loved the relaxed passion of the Mediterranean nations, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Southern France; the language and ‘joy de vivre’ of France and I was naturally intrigued by the Afrikaans heritage from the Netherlands. To my layman’s understanding of Belgium and Luxembourg they were sort of the mix that wondered whether they were French, Dutch or German, not excelling at one of them, yet thriving on their political stance as home base of the EU. Last year’s trip, (see Summer in the sombre ‘The Somme’) to Flanders was the beginning of my enlightenment, but having spent a magnificent six days over Easter in the Belgian Ardenne, opened my eyes and made me realise that Belgium was a full longed and proper travel destination where you need time to meander, read, listen and just sit around to observe. It is rich in history (not all of it is good though), culture, engineering and finesse. Belgium is sort of my new Number One – sorry Jacob.

We were based in a gîte just outside of Bastogne called Savy555 (find Christine on Booking.com – I recommend that) with a cosy fireplace for the relaxed evenings, a nice ‘stoep’ outside with stunning views over the spacious lawns towards the duck pond end. To perfect the amenities, there is a small braai for the good weather dinners I prepared.

Braai ≠ barbeque nor grill, but for clarity’s sake, let’s use those synonyms if you’re not South African

Continue reading “About Belgium; the Battle, the Bulge, the Beer and the Braai”

Summer in the sombre ‘The Somme’

Everybody has that one favourite T-shirt. Maybe you don’t even wear it anymore, for whatever reason. Maybe it is simply too worn-out or it has shrunk too much under your ageing belly, but you don’t have the heart to get rid of it. I have one too and mine has a quote, accompanied by the face of Nelson Mandela, stating

 

‘History depends on who wrote it’.

 

History may have two sides, but sometimes that history is simply so dark, so gruesome, that the different sides to the stories become irrelevant and the horror of the history is the only thing that stands out.

We loaded the grandparents and headed off to such an area, The Somme Valley in North Western France where that infamous battle raged from July 1 to November 1, 1916.

On 11 November this year, at 11:00 it will be the 100th celebration of the end of World War 1. That is the time and date when the armistice was signed between the Allied Forces and Germany – ‘on the 11thhour of the 11thday of the 11thmonth, 1918’.

We started with our round-trip by staying over in the Belgium beach town of Middelkerke. Though we enjoyed pleasant walks on the flat sandy beach with a backdrop of ugly Amanzimtoti style high-rise blocks of flats, I was aching to get into the hinterland and explore some battlefields. We found charming glamping tents on a pig farm Het Zeugekot (saying it like this sounds much less charming than it was), in Belgium near the small town of Beveren (Roesbrugge-Haringe), which was our base for a few days while we explored some battle sights, and the two charming charming cities of Ghent and Ypres. Be careful with some of these European landlords though. We unfortunately left the tent flaps open, as it was a sweltering heat wave of 39° C, and we weren’t back at the tent before a beautiful thunderstorm broke out. The storm did result in a couch cushion getting wet and needing a wash, but that little wash cost us the full deposit – a €150 wash that was!

IMG_7136
Middelkerke beach and ugly Amanzimtoti like blocks of flats

Ypres (or Ieper in Flemish – it is located in West Flanders and called sarcastically ‘Wiper’ by the English during the War) was heavily involved in World War I as the Battle of Ypres seethed here. War cemeteries and even trenches IMG_6409can be seen and visited all over this area. In the town itself I was mesmerised by the ‘Menin Gate War Memorial to the Missing’. Its a war memorial ‘gate’ where every evening at 20:00 the ‘last post’ is sounded as a gratitude from the people of Ypres to those who sacrificed their lives in battle. Its large Hall of Memory contains names on stone panels of 54,395 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Salient but whose bodies have never been identified or found – simply missing.

Continue reading “Summer in the sombre ‘The Somme’”