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The High Fens in focus

On the road with photographer Guido Bertemes

Skeletal trees, untrammelled nature, boardwalks over the wet moorland stretching into the mist – a hike in the High Fens always feels like a mystical and marvellous escape. Amateur photographer Guido Bertemes, who loves to wander here, shows us his favourite places.

Text: Anna Monterroso Carneir Picture: Udo Bernhart

"It usually looks quite different here." Guido Bertemes shields his eyes from the bright sun and looks out over the landscape. He laughs as though not quite believing what he is seeing, then looks through the viewfinder of his camera, focuses and takes a picture. "Normally, if you're lucky, you can’t see beyond the next tree but one." The High Fens has an average of just 20 sunny days a year. Today is one of them.

Guido is a passionate amateur photographer and has already worked on several illustrated books about the High Fens. On his rambles and hikes here, he finds himself drawn to certain particular places. To Les Six Hêtres (The Six Beeches), for example, under which the Fen shepherds used to rest. "When there’s fog, this place is so beautifully mystical," says Guido. But even in the sunshine, the mighty branches of the old beeches look a bit like clawed hands sticking out of a sea of tall grass. A nice composition, says Guido.

There are hundreds of such skeletal trees on this 5000-hectare plateau. Survival in this high moorland is tough. After the last Ice Age, peat bogs began to form here, in some places now ten metres deep. But no one needs to get their feet wet here today: a huge network of maintained paths runs through the area, in East Belgium and over the border into North Rhine-Westphalia. However, not all paths are freely accessible. The High Fens (Hohe Venn in German, Hautes Fagnes in French) are divided into different zones: B zones are accessible to all visitors, C zones may be entered only with a guide, and zone D is off-limits.

A haunting tale of love

The High Fens have a different palette of colours for every season. During spring, the carpets of sphagnum moss are dappled pink by bog-rosemary and cranberry flowers. In summer, large islands of tall yellow bog asphodel float on the moorland, while the grasses take on their lushest greens. Guido's favourite season, however, is autumn, when the mist hovers around the feet of brilliantly coloured trees. There’s a wonderful mix of magic and melancholy at that time, says the photographer.

When it gets dark or fog settles over the moorland, it is easy to get lost. Fortunately, there is a tower that can help hikers orientate themselves. In the past, a bell and a beacon also provided help for wayfarers – until 1867, the bell that now hangs in the Fischbach Chapel, not far from the Baraque Michel inn, was rung in fog and snowstorms.

Baraque Michel is located at the hikers' car park, where numerous circular walks into the Fens begin. “When you come back, you have to stop at the inn," declares Guido enthusiastically, citing especially its homemade Vennbrot (Fenland bread) and the wild boar meatballs with red cabbage. Today, however, the photographer is not here for the traditional cuisine but to mark the memory Marie and François, the protagonists in a famous tragic tale of the Fens. The circular route dedicated to the two fiancés begins at the Fischbach Chapel. Although the path is very beautiful, Guido's footsteps seem to have become heavier. "The story of François and Marie is one of love and tragedy," Guido tells us, walking towards a boundary stone beside which stands a large wooden cross. The young couple wanted to cross the High Fens on a bitterly cold January night in 1871 to fetch their wedding documents. Waving aside the warnings, they walked out into the snowstorm, lost their way and froze to death. The place where the Croix des Fiancés (Cross of the Betrothed) now stands is said to be where Marie died. François, who went to get help, was found about a hundred metres away. "But for me, this is also a story full of hope and love." Perhaps that is why the Croix des Fiancés has now become a kind of pilgrimage site in the Fens.

Although the Croix des Fiancés is mentioned in every guidebook, it’s a very modest monument. If you don't know the story, it seems just like any other of the many crosses in the High Fens. But if you do know it, and imagine that scene in 1871, it gives you goose bumps. But at least today the sun is shining.

More information

Hiking routes, activities and accommodation in the region can be found here:

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