Thursday, May 10, 2007

Act 2 Interlude (Walking in Belgium)

My contract was coming to an end, and I had far too much holiday allowance left over, so I decided to spend four days of it to take all of a bank holiday week off. Three of these days I used for a little excursion into the borderland between Germany and Belgium, south of Aachen. Once again I've made a page of photos to illustrate the trip.

The week was beautiful, weatherwise. I started off on a cool but sunny Wednesday morning from Monschau (see posts passim). My intent was to follow the old Vennbahn railway line further south to its ultimate destination in St. Vith, about 50km away, on foot. After a bracing climb up to a rocky viewpoint, the Ehrensteinley, the path descended into the upper Rur valley. I was now walking the other way along the river that in October had accompanied me to Heimbach. This valley was simply fantastic, and possibly the high point of the whole walk. It was narrow, and green, and there was no road in the bottom, just a track suitable perhaps for cyclists or horses and a footpath. In fact, for those of you to whom this might mean something, it reminded me a bit of the Wye valley between Millers Dale and Blackwell Mill.

The valley soon widened out and came to an old monastery, Gut Reichenstein. Just before this I caught my first glimpse of the railway line as it crossed over a tributary on a small viaduct. soon after, the path joined the track and both met a road which crossed the valley. Here there was a tiny chapel, the Norbertuskapelle, with a little water fountain outside it. On the road next to it, just before the bridge, was a sign warning of "toads crossing" and advising drivers to proceed slowly.

Soon the railway descended into the valley and accompanied me to Kalterherberg, on the border with Belgium. This quiet village was pretty and very rural, and here I looped away from the railway before returning to cross it where it ran along the border. From Kalterherberg station you can hire a railbike, a cunning contraption that runs along standard gauge tracks and is pedal-powered. I'd been yearning to try this out, but sadly it requires at least two people to propel it. I sighed and moved on, rising up a hill and entering a deep swathe of forest. Somewhere within the forest I had my lunch and then progressed across an area of the Venn itself to Sourbrodt.

Sourbrodt had clearly been quite an important interchange for rail, with a large station and goods yard. Sadly the whole setup had fallen into disrepair. I could immediately tell I'd entered a Francophone area, because every yard had a snarling dog, the people regarded me with a surly nonchalance and there was a general air of uncaring decrepitude about the place. From Sourbrodt it was mostly road-walking as far as Waimes/Weismes, with a brief stop for an expensive ice cream and a lemonade and another to munch an apple and gaze over the Lac de Robertville.

In Weismes I stopped to orientate myself (and also to drink a beer). It was an interesting village. The area had belonged to various different countries (France and Germany, mostly) and had only been part of Belgium since the Treaty of Versailles. It also had a history of being sacked and burnt by almost everyone in Europe: the Lothringians, the Burgundians, the French, the Germans... the list goes on. By this point I was knackered, having walked about 28km, and so was not happy to be informed that the place I was staying in was in fact another 3km to the east.

I will not recount my dismal failure to find said place in any reasonable manner. Suffice it to say that I wandered back and forth across the French/German language border, enlisting the help of various locals, before I finally located it. One of them took me for a native speaker, though, so it wasn't all lose. Furthermore, the place itself was gorgeous. A cosy farmhouse in open countryside with incredibly friendly hosts. If you're ever in East Belgium, make sure to go out of your way to stop over there. The food was tasty and filling, the bedroom was welcoming and the prices were refreshingly low. for more info.

The next morning was less interesting, being shorter and mostly road walking, although there was a brief forest interlude. At about noon I rejoined the railway at a place called Montenau. The section of track south from Weismes to St. Vith has been taken up, and is now a footpath/cycleway, although it wasn't shown on my map, so I joined it and followed it south... all the way to St. Vith. I took a stop for lunch and a shorter gawking stop to observe the viaduct at Born, which was built in less than eight months in 1912 for a war railway linking the Vennbahn to the railway running from Luxembourg to Liège. It, too, is disused now, and is in a poor state of repair, but is still a fine sight. That afternoon I took it slow and visited a museum in the old station building in St. Vith, including a magnificent exhibition all about the Vennbahn itself, which was wonderfully illuminating.

I'd been planning to go further the next day, but decided against it, because I didn't have the map, the weather was changing, my foot was jiggered and I'd been sunburnt to a crisp. Instead I had a slow morning sitting and reading in St. Vith and then got the bus to Malmedy. This city, including its cathedral and treasury, was quite impressive, and I spet a pleasant afternoon there before getting another bus to Trois Ponts. Trois Ponts is in the Ardennes, and has many more than three bridges. It is also on the line linking Luxembourg and Liège, so I was able to catch the train I had originally been planning to catch, which turned out to be a loco-pulled compartment train. A waffle, a Thalys, a döner kebab and another bus later I was home.

No rest for the wicked, though, as the next day I had to be outside the company gates at 8:15am to get on the "KulTour" bus which was to take me around Belgian Limburg. (Yes, I know, it's a hard life.) We visited the castle complex at Alden Biesen, former seat of the Teutonic Order. Next up were the wine-makers at Genoels-Elderen, then we stopped for lunch at a restaurant. Our final stop-off was in the "white town" of Thorn, a lot further north. Here the church had been closed for the evening, there were no public toilets to be found, and the centre of the town had been cordoned off because there was an arty-crafty market going on. Visitors had to pay € 4 to enter. I was unimpressed.

All in all, however, it was a nice day out, and I returned tired but satisfied having made a couple of new acquaintances in the company.

Only four full days left at work, now... and I'm returning to England on the 22nd, so my next post is likely to round off Act 2. Yep, Act 2 consisted entirely of interludes. But remember: all work and no interludes makes George a dull blogger.