From the car park on the edge of town, with the Roer river racing by beside us, the only way was up. Monschau is a mediaeval German town close to the Belgian border, famous for its mustard, its half-timbered houses and for being a centre of the cloth industry back in the day. We wanted to explore all these elements of this picturesque place, tucked away in a bend in the river, but first we wanted to get out onto the trail. We were going to get there the long way round.
Indeed, from where we had parked we could not actually see most of the town. Surrounded on all sides by steep hills, Monschau’s setting is typical of the narrow valleys that are a feature of the Eifel region of Germany. This is not a place of high peaks and summit books, but the rivers have cut deep into the landscape and it didn’t make the trail any less strenuous as we climbed up from the riverbank and into the forest.
Our aim was the Perlenbach reservoir, and as we walked we could see the glittering waters of the Perlenbach river – a tributary of the Roer – through the trees below us. In the car park we had sensed that Monschau was full. Cars with number plates from Belgium, Netherlands and Denmark, as well as Germany, and a line-up of buses coming to empty out their passengers into the narrow streets of the historic town, and every so often we heard the gunned engines of the motorbike riders who love the sweeping, winding roads that follow the course of the Eifel’s rivers. But with each step the trail became quieter, and soon all we could hear were the birds in the trees, the rustle of branches and the river below.
Eventually we reached the high point of the path through the forest, and began a long descent to meet the Perlenbach, where the river ran through a tangle of trees that had grown across the water to touch the others from the opposite bank. From a bridge that led across to an abandoned hotel we spotted some white-throated dippers diving into the shallow waters, before the valley opened up a little – as if to make space for the waterworks and the grassy slopes of a dam that had been built to create the reservoir.
The dam was constructed in the 1950s to provide drinking water for Monschau and some other nearby towns, and from the top we could see down the length of the reservoir where we had a number of options as to what route to take. We followed a trail along the water’s edge, taking in about three-quarters of the shoreline before we headed up again and out of the forest.
The trail delivered us onto the plateau, the forest and the steep-sided valley almost tucked away out of sight, as the viewpoints offered up a seemingly uninterrupted flow of rolling fields far into the distance. Most of these meadows were used for cattle grazing, with paths zigzagging between the whitethorn hedges that separated the pastures.
We had been following a trail known as the ‘Klosterroute’ – a roughly 22-kilometre round-trip from Monschau – but we wanted some time to explore the town, so we followed a narrow trail between two fields that dropped steeply back into the forest and down to the valley bottom at the very point the Perlenbach meets the Roer river. As we walked on, our company increased the closer we got to the historic centre of town.
There we found a main street thronged with people. Hikers and daytrippers, the motorbike riders in their heavy leathers, helmets by their sides. Outside the mustard shop queues formed as people patiently waited for the chance to try one of the many flavours, and seemingly every outside table on the terraces of the restaurants and pubs were full, laden with coffee, cake and glasses of beer.
It was quite overwhelming, but a small wooden sign on the wall offered us a temporary respite. It pointed us up a staircase along what was called the ‘Panorama Weg’, and it led us up to a lookout point far above the cobbled streets and crowds, with a view across the rooftops. We imagined what it would be like to spend a night in a mediaeval castle* and steeled ourselves for a return to the fray. We needn’t have worried. In places like Monschau, hospitality means always being able to squeeze another table in, and soon we were sitting with a view over the river, cake and beer laid out in front of us.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton
*It is possible to sleep in the Burg Monschau as, like many such castle’s in Germany, it is the town’s youth hostel.