Spokesmen Cycling Podcast
Riding a Brompton Along A Belgian Bike Path In Germany
Tuesday 12th November 2019
SPONSOR: Jenson USA
HOST: Carlton Reid
Vitali Vitaliev, author of “Passport to Enclavia”, London.
Gilbert Perrin, technical lead, Chemins du Rail, Brussels.
TOPIC: Cycling along the 128-kilometre Vennbahn rail trail in Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg.
Part of the Vennbahn is a ten-metre-wide, 25-kilometre-long part of Belgium inside Germany. Bonkers!
I travelled to the trail by Brompton folding bike via the DFDS ferry at North Shields and then a series of trains to Aachen in Germany. An article about this journey will be in The Guardian soon.
Carlton Reid 0:20
This is a cycling podcast so why start with audio of steam trains? It’s all to do with a very long sausage.
Carlton Reid 0:31
I’m Carlton Reid and in this episode of the Spokesmen Cycling Podcast brought to you in association with Jenson USA I’m on the road again. Well, bike path. A Belgian bike path. In Germany.
Vitali Vitaliev 1:01
It’s very interesting to see what satnav does, satnav goes absolutely crazy, the flags
Vitali Vitaliev 1:05
keep popping up. That’s Belgium, that’s Belgium.
Carlton Reid 1:08
That was Ukrainian-born journalist Vitali Vitaliev, an expert on enclaves, those bizarre bits of countries that are fully enclosed by other countries. And here’s Brussels-based Gilbert Perrin.
Gilbert Perrin 1:23
Sometimes you are in Belgium, except on the left. It’s Germany. Sometimes you are in Belgium, but the street is German. It changes 11 times along the route.
Carlton Reid 1:34
Both Gilbert and Vitali were talking about a ten-metre-wide Belgian sausage squirming for 25 kilometres through Germany. It’s a bizarre yet unmarked part of the historically-important fennbahn trail. I love mixing quirky history with my riding so last month I left Newcastle in strong Autumn sunshine, got on a big boat and had a little adventure …
Carlton Reid 2:07
So I’ve arrived in Amsterdam, and I travelled on the DFDS ferry from Newcastle overnight, absolute fantastic trip. Gourmet food actually, almost from the Tyne across the North Sea, looking out the window fantastic. And of course I can see lots of bikes here in Amsterdam. I am outside the central station, and I am going to get a train from here to Boxtel and then a bus from Boxtel to Eindhoven and from Eindhoven I got another train and I go to
Carlton Reid 2:38
Heelen, and then from here and
Carlton Reid 2:39
I might get another train, couldn’t buy a ticket to that, or I shall get the bus. No I shan’t. I’ll get my bike. I’ll take my folding bike. I’ll just unfold my Brompton and then I’ll ride from Heelen to Aachen, which will then be the start of the Vennbahn trail.
Carlton Reid 3:04
The full Vennbahn trail is 128 kilometres long but most of those who ride along it probably don’t know that a 25 kilometre stretch that they think is in Germany is actually in Belgium. It isn’t Belgian because of bikes, it’s because of trains. The Vennbahn trail is the former Vennbahn railway, a minerals line built by Prussia in the 1880s but ceded to Belgium after the First World War … to the victors, the spoils. I’ll let Gilbert Perrin explain some of the history. (I should also add that Gilbert was one of the prime movers behind turning the partly derelict line into a long-distance rail trail.)
Gilbert Perrin 3:54
it was built by the German Empire at that time. And then after the Versailles Treaty after World War One they part of this region became Belgian. So the Belgian community, present Belgian community. Part of it remained in Germany, but the railway was Belgian even across Germany. So it’s it’s very strange. It’s a kind of corridor, Belgian corridors through in some places through the German territory and what is very funny is that the border changes 11 times along the route. So sometimes both the ground is it totally in Belgium or totally in Germany except the railway. So if you are on the Vennbahn you are in Belgium, but on the left on the right, you’re in Germany. Yeah, sometimes you are in Belgium except or the left it’s Germany. Sometimes you are in Belgium but the street is German. It changes 11 times along the route.
Carlton Reid 4:59
This switching of borders was once very obvious, with barriers, border guards, and checks. For locals, back in the day, just getting to the shops or to school meant crossing international borders twice in just a few metres. Enclaves are bizarre , as Vitali explained in his book Passport to Enclavia.
Vitali Vitaliev 5:22
But on both sides it’s all surrounded by Germany you know in the places of enclaves so that’s that’s pretty bizarre situation and that’s that’s one of the attractions if you don’t know you know you have to find out the little signs.
Carlton Reid 5:36
And quite literally, those little signs include border marker stones, place there in the 1920s and which, on one side have the letter D for Deutchland. On the other the letter B for Belgie. The stones can be found in the undergrowth five metres away from the bike trail, marking where the board was placed by international commissioners in 1921 and where technically, it still is, but don’t try and find this 10 metre wide Belgian sausage with Apple Maps. The 25 kilometre long bit of Belgium inside Germany doesn’t exist, according to Tim Cook and crew, but it’s there on Google Maps in all of its glory. Maybe Apple just doesn’t like enclaves? They can be pretty confusing on the ground, on maps, and in terminology. For starters, depending on where you’re looking from, enclaves can also be exclaves. Here’s Vitali.
Vitali Vitaliev 6:41
To me enclaves is the same patch of land as an exclave. It depends which countries use them – for example, just try to give you an example. So, there is a German enclave on sides to Switzerland — Busingen, a German village totally surrounded by Switzerland. So, for Germany, it is an exclave but for Switzerland it’s an enclave. That’s that’s how I define it, you know, it depends whether it’s viewed from the mother country, or the host country.
Carlton Reid 7:15
Despite the fact it’s an enclave — er, or exclave — the Belgian sausage, that 25 kilometer stretch of the Vennbahn trail, isn’t marketed as long, thin stretch on one country inside another. Apart from the period marker stones, set off to the side and which only make sense if you know what to look for, and why you’re looking, there’s nothing on the ground to flag the fact you’re riding through a ten-metre-wide country. The Vennbahn trail starts in Charlemagne’s capital city of Aachen, in Germany, crosses over to Belgium, and ends in northern Luxembourg. It’s the longest rail trail in Europe. The Belgium-in-Germany part of the trail starts a little north of the German town of Roetgen which, incidentally, was where the first allied troops entered Germany in the Second World War. The Vennbahn railway was of major strategic importance back then with many of its bridges blown up by German sappers as the Wehrmacht retreated. In Roetgen, the Vennbahn crosses the road from Aachen, with trail users negotiating a dog-leg road crossing to get from one side of the trail to the other. Do so and you stay in Belgium, but divert a few metres and you cross into Germany. On a bend in the road, motorists are in Germany one moment, Belgium when they reach the crossing point of the Vennbhan, and Germany again a second or so later. I didn’t linger in Roetgen because I was racing against the light to reach medieval Monschau, reached by a dirt track down from the trail. It was dark by the time I got there, and only had a look around while trying to find my hotel. And I was up again early the next morning, when it was still dark.
Carlton Reid 9:06
I’m in the little mediaeval town of Monschau, you can hear the river in the background and I haven’t actually seen this place in daylight yet, because I got here late last night going on the Vennbahn trail and I’m going up again to the Vennbahn trail to see the Rail Bike operation, which is like bogies with bikes on that you go about 7 kilometres and you pedal along. And that’s part of the Vennbahn trail system, although it does kind of go a bit away from the actual old railway trail, but Monschau is in Germany. And of course where I’m going up the top of the hill there
Carlton Reid 9:47
is in Belgium, that 25 kilometre
Carlton Reid 9:50
Belgian sausage inside,
Carlton Reid 9:54
Carlton Reid 9:56
I’m now climbing to the Vennbahn trail via a little, well it’s no longer cobbled, it was cobbled in Monschau. Then there was a bit of tarmac. And now it’s back on to dirt, following a river, up through some woodland up onto the hill, which is where the Vennbahn trail takes over again. I was heading for the former station at Kalterherberg, which as well as having a train carriage cafe, hires four seater rail bikes for a seven kilometre pedal along the rails to a deadend and back. The original Vennbahn line was a double track affair, and along much of the trail, the redundant rails are still in place, some of them possibly waiting for the line to be resurrected. The rail bike place had yet to open for the day when I passed, but according to Gilbert Perrin, it attracts customers year round
Gilbert Perrin 10:48
Because it was a double track it was possible to have the the rail bike just behind the Greenway or the Greenway beside the railway, I had a meeting with the Rail Bike owner, and he was afraid of having a greenway along the rail bike. Because he said, nobody will come for the rail bike, they will all come with their bicycles, and they will forget us. And finally I went back two years after, and he said, Oh, it’s very nice because they come with a bike. They stop. They use the rail bike, they come back and they take their bike again to go on.
Carlton Reid 11:27
Like many other rail trails around the world, the Vennbahn boosts the nearby tourism-related business. For instance, annual occupancy rates in local hotels increased by a fifth soon after the Vennbahn trail opened in 2013.
Gilbert Perrin 11:41
It was really abandoned almost everywhere except one section, who was used as tourist steam historical museum railway. But after that the steam runway stopped because it was too expensive to renew the track. And then the Vennbahn was almost totally abandoned, except some short sections, and the director of tourist resources of our German community said we should do something we organised a tour with our association to show the potential of one of the sections and the local press was there and they were very interested — it’s around 2004 or something like that. And, and the press was present and they said, yeah, it’s impossible to leave this abandoned as it is now etc, etc. And the Minister for tourism of the German community read this in the newspapers, and he said, we have to have a meeting with you, you have to explain what you can do. And we made the first feasibility study for one of the sections between Waimes and Saint Vith. And we made a feasibility study. And then he had some money to help the municipality to build the first section as a greenway. About 17 kilometres was the very beginning. And after that, all the regions said yeah, we we would we need this greenway., we also need a greenway.And after that, it was a very important project with many people with a lot of money coming from Europe and from the partners.
Carlton Reid 12:52
And here’s Vitali again.
Vitali Vitaliev 13:43
You know, I think it’s great, it’s a great story, and it tells you a lot about Europe as well, if you kind of look deeper into it, so good that they tried to preserve it.
Carlton Reid 13:54
I agree, it’s a great story, a great rail trail and I’ll be back to do the full 128 kilometres at some point. I turned around at Kalterherberg and rode back to Aachen so I could catch a series of trains to Amsterdam and the ferry home …. And I got to Amsterdam from travelling from Newcastle, and I travelled from Newcastle on – I’m sure you can probably hear this – on a very loud ship DFDS ferry from Newcastle to emerged in, in in Amsterdam. And it was a fantastic crossing. I’ve got to say if you can get across the North Sea this is a brilliant way of getting across – and I had a restaurant meal. Fantastic to sit there in the evening. And instead of a train journey where the country’s whizzing by,
Carlton Reid 14:49
Details about the Vennbahn trail and how I got there can be found on the show notes at the-spokesmen.com There will be an article about my fennbahn trip in The Guardian soon. This was show 229 of the Spokesmen Cycling Podcast released on Tuesday 12th November 2019. Here’s my co-host David with a short message from our show sponsor.
David Bernstein 15:16
Hey, Carlton, thanks so much. And it’s it’s always my pleasure to talk about our advertiser. This is a long time loyal advertiser. It’s Jenson, USA at Jensonusa.com/thespokesmen. I’ve been telling you for years now years, that Jenson is the place where you can get a great selection of every kind of product that you need for your cycling lifestyle at amazing prices and what really sets them apart – because of course, there’s lots of online retailers out there -but what really sets them apart is their unbelievable support. When you call and you’ve got a question about something, you’ll end up talking to one of their gear advisors and these are cyclists. I’ve been there I’ve seen it. These are folks who ride at lunch who go out on group rides after work because they just enjoy cycling so much. And, and so you know that when you call, you’ll be talking to somebody who has knowledge of the products that you’re calling about. If you’re looking for a new bike, whether it’s a mountain bike, a road bike, a gravel bike, a fat bike, what are you looking for? Go ahead and check them out. Jenson USA. They are the place where you will find everything you need for your cycling lifestyle. It’s Jensonusa.com/thespokesmen. We thank them so much for their support, and we thank you for supporting Jenson USA. Alright Carlton, let’s get back to the show.
Carlton Reid 16:38
Thanks, David. Oh, and thanks also, to Twitter’s @Revchips for sending me a link about the Vennbahn trail which by the way is Vennbarn, as in Vennbarn, it means it means fen way or venn way in German, but it’s pronounced with an F. Anyway, that’s a wrap for today’s show. And like the Gino Bartali and cycling-in-Cambrils stories on the previous episode, today’s show was more engineered than the usual roundtable ramblings.
Carlton Reid 17:13
If you like this, make sure to give the show a shout out on our podcast or leave a comment on the show notes at the-spokesmen.com and we’ll do more of them. However, the next few episodes will be one on one interviews starting with Yanto Barker,
Carlton Reid 17:32
founder of the high-end cycle clothing brand Le Col. That’ll be out in a week or so.
Carlton Reid 17:38
Meanwhile. get out there and ride!