Living in The Hague, as I do (again) Germany is a relatively easy train ride away. Down to the far south of the Netherlands takes about two and a half hours and costs under 30 Eur (+6 for the bike). So for the Easter weekend I decided to go on a short adventure – a #microadventure if you will – to the Eiffel Region (which if you’re not familiar with German geography lies to the south and west of Aachen – 15km over the border from Heerlen back in the Netherlands). I had planned out a route that would take me through the Eiffel, down to the castle in Manderschide then back up to the famous Nurburgring and back to Aachen.
The weather for Friday morning across the Netherlands was far from great so I postponed my train by a few hours hoping to miss the worst of it. Unfortunately, I didn’t really succeed and set off out of Heerlen into a grey misty afternoon. Ignoring my cardinal rule of bike touring – Avoid cities like the plague unless you’re heading into them deliberately – I ploughed into a damp grey Aachen industrial estate accidentally rolling past the Lindtt Factory. The smell of milk chocolate did little to encourage me and I struggled to pick my way through Aachen following the route I had planned. Finding the other side, I met the first example of what was to be the theme of this trip. I had planned to follow a number of bike paths shown on online bike route maps expecting them to be wide, smooth expanses of tarmac on which a bikepacker could make some serious kilometers with relative ease. However, as I left the city, the bike path turned from smooth tarmac into gravel over tarmac, then into a road more gravel than tarmac finally becoming a muddy rocky track as I rode up into the Aachenwald.
I stared at my garmin and the signpost both unquestioningly pointing deeper into the forest. This surely couldn’t be right! Brakes blocks scraped on rims and became less and less effective as they clogged with mud. The slick tyres began to slip sideways across the road as the limit of their meagre grip was quickly surpassed. The wheels – not the most expensive and slightly out of their depth under a loaded bike even on a road – were squirming underneath me as they flexed and the carbon fork, again not the stiffest available, made me feel like the front wheel was only cursorily attached the rest of the bike. Progress slowed to a crawl as for at last 200m the path became actual singletrack, far beyond the warranty capabilities of my road bike, let alone a fully loaded one. It took an hour to go less than 10km. Suddenly the plan to get down to Manderscheide looked like a very tall order.
Mercifully the forest ended and I was back on Belgian roads (unbeknownst to me I had switched countries again) and I slowly rolled into the forgettable (if I’m honest) town of Eupen at around 4 pm. The climb out of the town gently, almost pleasantly, took me up past a reservoir dam and on up into a damp forest. The temperature plummeted and suddenly there were patches of snow on the sides of the road. On up.
The forest opened up onto a moorland with a nature reserve on my left. It was an hour since I’d seen anyone. On up. Signs forbidding cross country skiing in the nature reserve began to appear and I began to wonder where this road ended (and where Germany had gone!) Finally, the road crossed a main road, the border appeared and the hill stopped. In the gathering gloom I began the descent into Monschau – the place I had originally planned to be a late lunch stop. At the bottom of the hill the bike path signs yet again pointed me down a muddy forest track. By this time, I was cold and more than a little bit miserable and sulkily headed into the forest again. As I descended through the mirk I spied a small hut on the far side of the river, crossed by a bridge. A spark in my chilled brain and I marked the spot as a potential camp site. I continued the short way down into Monschau and discovered a genuinely wonderful little town full of cobbled streets and traditional buildings overlooked by a stone castle. Feeling too cold and damp to test the warmth of my sleeping bag I sought out the youth hostel, which was actually built into the walls of the castle overlooking the town, but the manager, beset with the arrogance that comes with knowing that customer service is irrelevant as he has nothing to sell, told me there was no room at the inn (with it being good Friday and all, it was hard not to suspect that this gentleman would have happily nailed our lord and savior to the cross bluntly pointing out that under the laws of the day he was guilty and he only had himself to blame). So I returned to the town and found a local brewery with a very friendly waitress who fed me their own dark beer and a massive plate of Schnitzel and fried potatoes which warmed and cheered me up. Looking outside the rain had stopped and deciding that it wasn’t that cold so I paid up and rode back up the hut to sleep. The bench was narrow but the hut was well sheltered and I snuggled down into my bivvy bag and failed to fall asleep to the roaring river running by.
Next morning, I awoke with the sun and the dawn chorus (I assume, all I could hear was the river) and sleepily packed up and headed back down into Monschau for breakfast.
The original plan was in tatters now. No way could I make the distance I had planned. Because of its tourist center status there wasn’t a lot of help I could get in Monscahu so I saddled up and rode up the reasonable gradient into the town of Simmerath where I found a café and a map shop. Asking around I got a few ideas of where on the map was pretty and worth visiting and so began to formulate a different, more realistic, more relaxed plan. I had forgotten how much riding a loaded bike slows you down and also I had lost sight of what was the fun in bike touring – using the bike to move through beautiful countryside rather than as a tool to get from A to B as fast as possible. Warm, dry and under a blue sky I could appreciate the beauty of where I was and over a coffee and a breakfast Brotchen, I hatched a plan. I would ride around the large reservoir in the center of the Eiffel National Park and ride over a few hills between towns. The paths were again off road but this time were mostly gravel roads and so not quite so stressful on the bike. The roads over the hills were smooth and built with comfortable gradients and I spent a very pleasant day meandering around the area.
After a recommendation I decided to spend the night in (or close to) the small village of Einruhr. Having been given a route by a bike shop I set off up on to the top of the hill overlooking the town and began to follow the supplied route.
As the path left the side of the road I began to notice a similar pattern as the road became less and less “road” and more and more “trail”. Passing through what remains of the village of Wolvenburg – a village requisitioned by the Allied Army after war and used for training the road disappeared completely and I was now riding along slightly flattened grass.
The flex in the wheels caused the spokes to hit the rear derailleur in the easiest gear causing a heart stopping pinging noise every few moments. The train then began to descend increasingly steeply and eventually became a steep rocky forest track down which I slithered at just above walking pace, by now used to this. I slid into Einruhr as the sun was setting and gave up for the day finding myself a bar and wrapping up warm to watch the sunset over the lake. Having identified a likely looking hut on the map I rode up to it just as darkness fell and set up my little camp. Feasting on beef goulash and Einspatze noodles bought from the supermarket and a beer bought from the bar in my little wooden hut overlooking the lake and the lights of Einruhr was a good end to the day.
Sunday dawned to persistent drizzle and having lost an hours sleep to the clock change I struggled to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag. Eventually I dragged myself out and packed up. The plan recommended to me by the lady in the tourist office was to make my way around the lake to the town of Heimbach, 20km away before heading for home. A simple task I thought. This track turned out to be the worst of all and now slick with fresh rain was horrendous to ride. To make it worse, what road bits there were, were all up super steep back road hills which often defeated me with my heavy bike. Again, what was supposed to be an hour warm up turned into a 2 hour slog and I rolled down the hill into the pleasant town of Heimbach feeling very frustrated. Not only were these paths not defined as road, gravel or track on the map, most of them weren’t even marked on the map at all. Having tried to fortify myself with a coffee I began the climb out of the cobbled streets of Heimbach, struggling to regain all the height I had lost. Not only was this road constantly uphill but it was into a brutal head/cross wind that sucked all the energy out of my body. After an hour and a half of what felt like a battle I rolled into the small village of Roetgen and stopped on the church green for a rest and what passed for lunch on a day when the only shops open were petrol stations. Looking at the bike path map board I noticed that there was what looked like a disused railway path between Roetgen and the next village on route and, scowling at my expensive paper map, decided to give it ago. Finally! This was the autobahn for bikes I had been looking for for 3 days. The path followed an old railway and the signs at the end promised a 40km path, straight to the center square of Aachen with no more than a maximum gradient of 2%. What it did nt say was that for me, that whole 40km was downhill! Thus began a glorious hour of riding where I could sit, pedaling gently as I rolled at 35-40kph down through quiet forests into Aachen. I didn’t have to think or worry about the bike or route finding, I could plug the music in (a mix of horrifically cheesy German/Austrian apres-ski anthems I had downloaded from Spotify) and enjoy the sun.
This was gleeful and I was almost sad to roll up to the door of Aachen Cathedral and the spiritual end of my trip. After a slight mishap with a barman who refused to bring me a beer without me having a table number (he’d have been the guy holding Jesus down I reckon) I found a bar happier to take my money by the imposing Town Hall and settled down for an hour in the sun with a clay mug of Aachen’s finest.
After my 2 beers I wearily remounted the bike and started off on the final 15ish kilometres to the train station. Finally the brutal crosswind became a tail wind as I turned north out of Aachen, negotiating the outskirts of the city and breaking out on to the same straight flat road I had ridden on Friday. Instead of a damp misty road it was now bathed in evening sunlight and I pondered as I was blown along the road, pedalling lightly but thanks to the wind still making a good pace, why it is that Germany seems to be so low on many British tourists visit-lists. It is a truly beautiful and varied country filled with friendly people yet we seem to look down on it because, as far as I can tell, they have a better football team than us. The war excuse doesn’t hold water for me anymore. The Netherlands was occupied by the Nazis, and even lost notable young diarists to death camps yet the “bitterness” of the war has been reduced to nothing more than a cheesy joke about bicycles. The border between the Netherlands is almost invisible now, heading into Germany it is marked only by the Kerkrade town limit sign and the sharp end in red tarmac as the Dutch Bike path ends and become a German on the other side of the road. There is an old, apparently, abandoned house which appears to still be Dutch, the equally decrepit hotel 100m down the road has German writing on it and the bus stop takes you back south into Aachen rather than North into Heerlen.
The trip may not have been a success according to the original plan but I had had 3 days of adventure which, until the second beer in Aachen had cost me under 100Eur! For 3 days I had not worried about my barren bank account, the uncertainty of having a temporary contract during a major downturn or any of the (many) other things that usually keep me awake at night. For 3 days I had been stress free care free and happy.
The rain storms silhouetted by the sunset to the west of the train made it look like the whole of the Zeeland was on fire…
(I have to give a helmet tip to Yogi and Joosje (@rideinthemiddle), Alastair Humphreys (@Al_Humphreys) and Emily Chappell (@emilychappell) for giving me the inspiration to get off the couch and get out there. Emily’s book, Ride in the Middle, kept me company in the Bivvy Bag and Al’s book Microadventures gave me the idea).