My idea of a good vacation used to be discovering somewhere new and doing something active, like running a 10-miler to the ancient Greek amphitheater in Epidaurus or canoeing down a river in Madagascar.
But then the coronavirus happened, most mass-participation events were canceled and international travel became risky. So this year, I looked to Germany’s vast network of bike paths as I planned a summer break from city life.
I’d already biked part of the Glan-Blies trail that goes from Rheinland-Pfalz to Sarreguemines in France, so I looked toward Belgium and found the Vennbahn trail and Monschau. It was the northernmost town involved in the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last-ditch attempt to turn the tide back in their favor in the closing months of World War II.
The 77-mile bike path wends its way from the German city of Aachen to the town of Troisvierges in Luxembourg, taking in Belgium along the way. Much of it follows a disused rail line, which means it’s fairly flat. The Vennbahn.eu website said the entire trail was open without restrictions, even when it crisscrosses the Belgian-German border as it passes near Monschau.
I accessed the path from a small parking lot in Reichenstein, home to a Benedictine monastery, and set out to ride the 5 miles to Monschau, a former textiles hub now best known for its 300-year-old, half-timbered houses and, arguably, its mustard.
After pedaling straight past the sign that told me to turn right to get to the town, I stopped to check the map on my phone and found I was straddling the border between Belgium and Germany. This kind of thing fills me with childlike glee — as if I’m doing something superhuman or breaking the rules and getting away with it. But it also made me wonder if border closures were enforced along the path at the height of the pandemic and, if they were, how.
The smell of fresh-cut grass filled my nostrils as I pedaled back toward the turn to Monschau. A few hundred yards later, a sign warned me that getting into town via a very steep, gravel path might be easy, but coming back, not so much. It was getting late and I was saddle-sore, so I rode back to the car and drove in.
Monschau did not disappoint. Everything, from the covered crafts market to the narrow, cobbled streets and the half-timbered houses reflecting in the waters of the Rur River, was even more stunning than pictures I’d seen.
And for mustard lovers like me, this was heaven. The Senfonie shop on the way into the center sells the mustard equivalent of Heinz’s 57 varieties of ketchup. There’s mustard with figs, with garlic, with tomatoes. You can even get mustard chocolate at the Historic Mustard Mill. The homemade ice cream cafe on the main square probably has a mustard flavor, but I didn’t check because I’d spent my last euros at the crafts market.
There were German, Italian and generic world cuisine restaurants around the main square, one of which had mustard soup on the menu. Most diners were seated outdoors at tables set about 6 feet apart. Many people who weren’t eating wore masks.
One really good thing about Monschau — besides mustard, the houses and the nearby Vennbahn — is that, despite the coronavirus, they haven’t ruled out having a Christmas market. Last year, it was held on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, starting in late November. If it’s snowing then, the Vennbahn would be great for cross-country skiing and I can do one of my other favorite activities, Gluehwein tasting at Christmas markets. All I need is a mask that takes a straw.
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Monschau is about 2.5 hours from Kaiserslautern, 3 hours from Wiesbaden, and just over an hour from Spangdahlem. To get to the free parking lot in Reichenstein, put Venn-bahnweg 52156 into your GPS. If it’s full, there’s a bigger lot down the hill, in the opposite direction from the cloisters. In Monschau itself, meter parking is 2 euros per hour and there’s a multistory lot after the covered crafts market.
Senfonie and the Historic Mustard Mill are online at senfmuehle.de; for the Christmas market, go to monschau.de/en/experience/christmas-market; The Vennbahn is broken into stages on vennbahn.eu, or for more route information go to monschau.de/en/experience/Radfahren.