Out of Aachen, Asylum

Having spent an afternoon and evening finding our way around, it quickly became apparent that by no means of transport can you get anywhere fast in Aachen city centre. Every direction is dogged by red lights whether driving, riding or walking.

Jaywalking seems to be culturally frowned-upon in Aachen and even so, opportunities are few and far between in this jungle of busy ring roads circling the centre several layers deep like an onion, and cars, bicycles and mopeds popping out of narrow cobbled streets and underground car parks in all directions. Seeking some asylum, we had our sights set 15km south of Aachen, on the Hohes Venn Natural Park (or High Fenns / Hoge Venen / Hautes Fagnes, depending on your vernacular preference).

But first: to find our way out of the Aachen onion. Hubs found the Vennbahn, a long-distance cycle route between Aachen and Luxembourg, which passes close to the nature reserve. (The whole route is 125km long and is split into several ‘stages’ with recommended things to do along the way).

You don’t need a map once you’re on the Vennbahn route, but it can be helpful when finding your way to it. The paper one we were allocated with mirthless efficiency by the lady in the tourist information office was useless; there’s a much better, interactive one on the Vennbahn website.

That said, the signage can be tricky to follow, being quite small and situated amongst a lot of other roadside clutter and much higher up than eye level when on a road bike.

But once out of the city limits, you’re briskly whisked away from the urban sprawl and onto a well-maintained byway that’s well-used by cyclists, dog walkers and families (and sometimes cycling families with dog in tow). Within 5km you’re into countryside vistas that open up over wide bridges, and thickets of forest where, we’re told, the wild boars live.

Hubs and I love a cycle on a disused railway; he for the old rail paraphernalia, I for the easy elevation profile. This route did not disappoint on both fronts. Although the route goes ever so slightly uphill all the way to Raeren, it’s almost imperceptible (but makes for very speedy cycling home). Instead of being laid on top of the old tracks, as I’m familiar with in the UK, the Vennbahn actually runs alongside the vacated track, making for slightly unnerving barrier-free level crossings but providing eye-candy aplenty for ferroequinologists among us (old-fashioned train cars, abandoned signalling boxes and original station buildings adorn the route). Some of the latter have been renovated into cafes, restaurants or museums.

We left the Vennbahn at Raeren, and had to rally our legs for a little more horsepower to conquer this hilly two-horse town in German-speaking Belgium and our springboard into the nature reserve.

What a breath of fresh air. Along arrow-straight roads through dense woodland, past a black woodpecker sunning itself regally in a mossy glade, then helter-skeltering this way and that, following grubby orange signs now, along majestic wide tree lined passes to the man-made shoreline of Lake Eupen (Lac d’Eupen / Wesertalsperre) and over its’ impressive barrage with vertiginous drop off the back. At a picnic stop we sat still and were mesmerised by the sounds of a tall forest of Scots pines in the wind; the tightly-packed trunks protecting us from a soothing roar that brushed across the tops high in the canopy, a feeling akin to being swaddled or cocooned, perhaps like a foetus packaged up in a womb while arterial blood from its mother whooshes fiercely around it on all sides.

After the barrage we followed car-free gravelly trails past steep sandy shores and switchbacks looking up into chiselled cliffs, down into snaking ravines. Mature forests mixed with spondylotic trees steadying their overheavy limbs towards the ground encouraged a gentle reflection on my own ageing body; of all the small asymmetries and weaknesses that accumulate with time, leading to an ache in the back here, a tightness across the knee perhaps, a tension in the shoulder from the constant craning and extension of the neck to look at all the spectacular sights in the forest which stretches on for miles.

Our tour of the nature park ended on the periphery of the German small town of Roetgen, onto roads in disrepair and with heavier traffic; mercifully we only had to skirt around it and make a pit stop at Aldi for sustenance (ketchup-flavour Pom-Bears, anyone?) and we were back on the Vennbahn, pedalling with the wind behind us through beautiful woodland and into Aachen again.

If you can’t make this trip, try the following routes:

For the ‘leaving the city behind on the disused railway’ vibe, follow National Cycle Network route 7 from Glasgow to Kilmacolm. Scotland’s version has more (short) hills to conquer as you’re leaving the city, and sadly the route is spoiled by broken glass and litter to keep on your guard for between Govan and Pollok, but you’re rewarded with a beautiful pootle through Pollok Country Park along the lazy White Cart Water. (In spring look out for wild garlic carpeting the boulevard of silver birch trees by the water’s edge). Beyond Johnstone the route is almost completely flat, well laid, and reminiscent of our Vennbahn jaunt with gentle farmed countryside vistas and passing by lots of small towns, albeit with a bit more going on than Raeren and Roetgen! For sustenance, start with a coffee and doughnut at the Good Coffee Cartel in Govan, treat yourself to a mid-ride brew at Brew in Paisley (a coffee comes with vegan tablet on the side) and finish up at Cairn in Kilmacolm where the clientele is upmarket but the staff are canny and the food is bangin’.

2. Like the sound of cycling on quiet roads through forest to a beautiful lakeside – with cool hydro engineering to boot? Then you can do a lot worse than a visit to Lake Vrynwy, just out of Bala in Oswestry in Wales. Or take a tour of the Elan Valley’s iconic Victorian barrage system, now a hydroelectric scheme, also in Wales. Hydro power requires gravity, and gravity means you guessed it… lots of hills to climb…

24 April, 2023

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