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Border-hopping by bike: the Vennbahn celebrates 10 years

Christoph Hendrich, projectleader Vennbahn: I have chosen Bütgenbach as my starting point. It is centrally located in East Belgium, a few kilometres from the High Fens. The town, with its lake, is also about half way along the Vennbahn. This disused railway line was converted 10 years ago into an asphalted path for cyclists and walkers. It runs for 125 km and, along its course, crosses national borders (more than) 14 times.

The name Vennbahn refers to the High Fens (Hohes Venn in German), the nature reserve which the track skirts around in its northern section. The complete route goes from Aachen (in Germany) through East Belgium to Troisvierges (in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg) –125 km of cycling fun in three countries! Those who want to add a Netherlands badge to their cap can start in Vaals, a few kilometres from Aachen… The Vennbahn is free of motorised traffic, so you can concentrate your gaze upon the beautiful landscapes and valleys, as you glide past forests, meadows and villages. What bliss!

Text: Ostbelgien.eu Photos: Ostbelgien.eu

Start and finish

You could of course start in the north, in Aachen, or in the south, in Troisvierges. Fast, experienced cyclists – or those on e-bikes – can complete the entire route in a day; for less-pressed, recreational cyclists a two-day trip is ideal. My choice of departure point in Bütgenbach allows me to cycle first northwards alongside the High Fens to Monschau (in Germany), and then, going south, to explore the plateau that leads to Sankt Vith. Each section: 30 km there, and 30 km back to my starting point.

Bütgenbach - Monschau

The Seestrasse (“Lake Road”) in Bütgenbach takes me out of the centre of the town, down to the departure point on the Vennbahn. As at every stopping place along the track, you’ll find information about the route and the place in question, presented with the yellow and blue colours of the Vennbahn. Lake Bütgenbach stretches away below me: I cycle the first kilometres looking down on the glittering water. The path to Weywertz makes a good warm-up; at the junction there, I take the fork to the north.

Soon I reach the edge of the High Fens. The Vennbahn provides an extended panorama of this nature reserve, with its fens, swamps and grasslands, and its numerous birds.

In Sourbrodt I stop at the old station: here I could take the route into the High Fens to the Signal de Botrange and, beyond that, to Baraque Michel, two of the highest points in Belgium. But the Vennbahn itself continues northwards. In contrast to the open fenlands, the landscape now becomes increasingly forested.

I cycle into Germany without even noticing a border: in Kalterherberg an old railway carriage beckons you in for a break. Then a final dash: from the Vennbahn I roll down into Monschau. Back among people, and the tourists attracted to this old cloth-weavers’ town.

From 1880 to 2012

The original Vennbahn railway dates back to the 1880s, when East Belgium still belonged to Germany.

After the First World War the region was reassigned to Belgium and so the railway also came under Belgian control. The Vennbahn is actually Belgian territory, even though it runs through bits of Germany. As you follow the route you cross the border several times, but you won’t see it.

The old railway ensured economic prosperity in the region by creating a link between the industrial areas of Aachen and the north of Luxembourg.

Bütgenbach - Sankt Vith

Back at the junction in Weywertz I now head south. For the most part, the Vennbahn to Sankt Vith leads through a landscape of fields and forests, and scattered villages. In Faymonville I cross another border, this time not a national one but a language one: the village is a satellite of Waimes, one of the two French-speaking municipalities in East Belgium.

Heading on, I reach the village of Montenau, where the Vennbahn passes through the grounds of the Montenauer ham smokehouse. Following the valley of the River Emmels, I come to the charming village of Born. Time for a reviving sports drink! Back on the bike and on to Zur Eidt, gateway to Sankt Vith. A coffee and pastry in a nice bakery, and then I start the journey home. Now I know the way, I can relax and enjoy the journey even more!

Numerous accommodation options along the route invite you to linger

Walking or cycling

Although the Vennbahn – with its “whisper” asphalt and small altitude differences – appeals particularly to cyclists, you will also see many hikers on the route, enjoying the natural surroundings, away from road traffic. You often meet and re-meet fellow travellers at the rest areas, so you feel a kind of bond with them. Cyclists and hikers greet one another cheerfully as they pass, in Dutch, German, French or English.

There are picnic benches and shelters along the way. The old railway carriages and signal boxes that now serve as cafés are a treat. Here you have the opportunity to relax on a terrace with a (local) beer, soft drink or ice cream. Perfect for those who love slow travel – slow travel far away from traffic and noise.

The Vennbahn: practical information

The route starts just outside the city centre of Aachen. There are good train connections to there from Brussels. After Aachen the route passes through the regions close to Raeren, the charming town of Monschau, the beautiful High Fens, Lake Bütgenbach, the Our valley and the plateau of Sankt Vith. If you want to take several days, you’ll find plenty of overnight accommodation on the route, or very close by. The Vennbahn is part of the Walloon Region’s RAVeL scheme: the Réseau Autonome des Voies Lentes (the autonomous network of slow (i.e. non-motorised) paths).

You can easily reach the Vennbahn by public transport. Trains run daily between the departure and end points of Aachen and Troisvierges. You can also take your car to one of the starting points, and book a shuttle or taxi to bring you back to where you parked.

Make it even easier for yourself by booking the complete trip, including (electric) bicycles, overnight accommodation, breakfast, packed lunches and luggage transport. Everything is possible: just ask. Most accommodation has a place where you can safely park your bike for the night. The Vennbahn website and the Vennbahn app are very clear and easy to use. Take a look at www.vennbahn.eu and explore this very special way to discover East Belgium!

The iconic Vennbahn, which runs right through East Belgium and crosses three national borders, is 10 years old.

Christoph Hendrich, the Vennbahn’s project manager, explains what makes it unique.

Vennbahn celebrates 10 years: from historic railway to a border-hopping bicycle route

The tenth anniversary of the Vennbahn

In 2013, an innovative transnational project was launched. A disused railway line connection Aachen to Troisvierges had been transformed into a bicycle route linking Germany, Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

“At the start of the project, the plan was to create a connection between existing bicycle paths in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands,” explains Christoph. “The cycle path runs right across East Belgium, following the track that was formerly used to transport coal by train. Thanks to the development of the Vennbahn, the special history of the region has been brought to life once more.”

This year the Vennbahn – now internationally famous as a cycle path – is celebrating its tenth anniversary. “The Vennbahn's tenth birthday should be celebrated,” says Christoph, “because the route has been connecting towns, cultures and languages for all that time. Those who complete the entire route cross the border no fewer than fourteen times, one of the features that makes this route so unique.”

Among green hills and picturesque villages

Wooded landscapes and charming villages line the cyclists’ path. “The Vennbahn runs through various types of landscape. Bison graze undisturbed in green meadows. There are beautiful lakes to discover along the route, and breathtaking landscapes. Unspoilt rural villages, too. The combination of nature, history and culture has a very broad appeal. Since the opening of the Vennbahn, bicycle tourism has really blossomed in this region.”

Christoph’s top choice

“People often ask me which part of the Vennbahn is my personal favourite. If I had to make a choice, I would go for the section that connects Küchelscheid to Sourbrodt. On this short stretch alone, the landscape is incredibly varied. You pass the quietly babbling River Roer, and woodlands and meadows alternate in quick succession. You will also find bits of old railway heritage. Everything that makes the Vennbahn so unique – the landscapes, the history and the transition from German-speaking to French-speaking areas – can be witnessed on this short section of the route.”

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