Dutch-German border (see also part 2, Dutch coast)
Cycling along the Dutch border (1): from Delfzijl to Vaals
Just cycling to the horizon is good fun, but a theme can give a cycle trip a bit more cachet. For example, you can make a trip along the Dutch border with Germany and Belgium. A study of a detailed map of the Netherlands shows that you can cycle along small roads and paths, mostly right along the border, and that there is also a lot of culture and nature to enjoy. And so we made a route along numbered cycle junctions ("knooppunten) and adapted it here and there so as not to stray too far from the national border or to visit an interesting nature reserve or attraction. Once on our bikes we discovered that most roads along the border are surprisingly quiet, because they often lead to nowhere in sparsely populated areas. That makes this route quite unique in the populous Netherlands.
From Delfzijl to Bourtange
On a beautiful June-morning we take the train to Delfzijl, which seems a good starting point, considering the expected northwest wind in the coming days. From Delfzijl station it's best to cycle towards the Dollarddijk with your eyes closed, even with nice weather, because the bare, tiled square in front of the supermarket and the dreary shopping streets in the town centre radiate a sad atmosphere. We quickly navigate eastwards and after passing a couple of factory sites, we see a group of remarkable tombstones on the Dollarddijk. They came from the cemetery of Oterdum and were reinstated on the dike, after the village had to make way for industry and dyke raising. From the dike we have a panoramic view over the Eemshaven and the Dollard with its windmills, the first of many we'll encounter on this route. Right at the border, on the German side, there are so many tightly lined up that they serve as immense border indicators on our left.
In the hamlet of Fiemel, near a Dollard-landtongue in the northeast corner of Groningen, we pass a couple of German bunkers from WWII and climb the dike again to look out over the mudflats, with the German city of Emden in the distance. Also at the locks in the Westerwoldse Aa the panoramic views in this open landscape of fields and water are very special. Brilliant when the sun is shining, as in the case of our visit, but undoubtedly quite unpleasant when it's windy and raining. We pass the unattractive border village and spa town of Bad Nieuweschans, where almost half the supermarket has been set up for inexpensive Bohnenkaffee (in Germany there is a coffee tax of over 2 euros per kilo).
More interesting is the picturesque old fortress of Oudeschans a little further on, where the area is suddenly much more wooded, just like in the once-rich Bellingwolde with its green country lanes and impressive farms and mansions. Bellingwolde isn't really on the border, but as said before, our rules for the route to be followed are flexible: cycling pleasure takes precedence over principles. Outside the village we pass more large farmhouses, but some of them have fallen into ruin and are overgrown by weeds -- a rather unusual sight in the neat province of Groningen.
In the fortress Bourtange, completely surrounded by a moat and earthen rampart, everything has been restored so perfectly that we get the idea of walking around in an open-air museum - which it is for the most part, because there is an entrance fee for the historic houses . In any case, the cobblestone streets are ideal for testing the tyres and suspension of your bike.
From Bourtange to Gramsbergen
After Bourtange we have the choice to cycle many kilometers along the border along a straight canal or to follow a route a little bit more to the west through the forested area of the touristic village Sellingen to Ter Apel. The choice is not difficult, all the more so as the road along the canal is bordered by endless rows of oak trees full of processionary caterpillars, as the red and white ribbons around the tree trunks indicate. Hotel Boschhuis opposite the monumental monastery (now museum) in Ter Apel is a good address for a coffee break.
From Ter Apel we cycle along an endless straight canal in drained peatlands, passing former peat settlement villages like Emmer-Compascuüm and Barger-Compascuüm, rather dreary places full of cramped terraced houses and workers' cottages - a characteristic difference with nearby Germany, where we notice again and again that the houses there are much bigger and more solidly built. Fortunately, the supermarket in Berger-Compascuüm is open on Sundays, and the Drenthe cashier here has a completely different accent than her colleague in more northern Groningen. It is always striking how large the regional differences in a small country as the Netherlands are.
Zwartemeer is the gateway to the Bargerveen, the only remnant of the once vast Bourtanger marsh, an almost entirely excavated bog area. The cycle path runs exactly along the straight border of the Netherlands and Germany and it's striking that the German side, where the peat has been dug off, lies a few meters lower than the bog on the Dutch side. Staatsbosbeheer is doing its utmost here to restore the peat bog, we read on the information boards, with the result that the nature reserve looks more like a ploughed up building site here and there. A bit further on we pass the slowly moving nodding donkeys around Schoonebeek, which on the German side are still pumping oil from a depth of 800 meters. On the Dutch side, another method is now being used for oil extraction, with high-rise steam injection installations. A sign warns for an "attacking buzzard", who fortunately has a day off.
We mistakenly miss the castle and the historic centre of the old fortress Coevorden and pass a messy shopping area with a Jumbo, Lidl and Aldi right next to each other (spoilt for choice!), but a little further south we can enjoy a beautiful hedgerow landscape with monumental trees in the Overijsselse Vecht basin. It certainly seems attractive to follow the Vechtdal upstream over the German border in the direction of Nordhorn, and according to the friendly owner of campsite De Vechtkamp near Gramsbergen this is a recommendable cycling tour, but it would take us too far from the border. Another tip: after Gramsbergen we also passed Ada Hofman's renovated Pond Gardens, which are definitely worth a visit for garden and plant lovers.
From Gramsbergen to Overdinkel
For us Twente is the surprise of this cycling tour so far: a sloping, rather small-scale landscape of farms, farmlands with monumental ash and oak trees. It's great cycling, with the occasional beautiful village, like Ootmarsum, that we reach after a descent of over 40 meters -- a considerable slope in a flat country like the Netherlands. The historic centre is teeming with elderly German and Dutch tourists, almost all of them with e-bikes.
Since we've strayed a few kilometres from the border at Ootmarsum, we follow the border as accurately as possible for a while to compensate and we cycle along sandy, unpaved paths northeastwards into the domain of the havezate Breckelenkamp, where we're surrounded on three sides by the German border. According to an information board, the visitor gets the impression to be at the end of the world here, and we can confirm that.
Back in southern direction, the path leads for a while through a kilometre-long wooded embankment right on the German side of the border (look for the border posts!). Twice the busy path is blocked with red and white ribbon because of Bauarbeiten (men at work), without any diversion (unthinkable in the Netherlands...); we have to ignore the barrier, there's no alternative along the border and we really don't want to make a detour of 20 km, just like the other Dutch cyclists we meet. The German lumberjacks aren't happy with all those blöde Holländer (stupid Dutch people).
Right on the border path we stumble upon a restored customs hut, a camouflaged building from which customs officials tried to catch the numerous smugglers in this area. On the farm campsite in Overdinkel we have a beautiful view over the hedgerow country and the meadows with blond d'aquitaine cows of the camping boss.
From Overdinkel to Winterswijk
The name Overdinkel has a certain reputation among border fanatics (they really do exist), because there's a famous, hard-to-reach border post from 1659, which in the 19th century marked the tri-border point between the Netherlands, Hanover and Prussia (and nowadays between the Netherlands and the federal states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony).
We ignore the border post and make a small detour via Gronau (D), in search of the local Konditorei - always our habit when we're cycling in Germany. Bäcker Voss certainly does not disappoint with excellent cappuccino with cheesecake (only € 8.20 for two on the terrace!).
At the point where the small Berkel stream enters the Netherlands, we visit the hamlet Oldenkotte (NL)/Oldenkott (D), which consists of only one street where the border runs right across. On the Dutch side is a café, on the German side a steakhouse. Of course, the barriers and customs offices have long since disappeared. Along the Berkel there's a scenic bike path, which we follow as far as Rekken. We're now in the Achterhoek, where it's a bit less picturesque along the border than in Twente. The information board at Zwillbrocker Venn behind Groenlo promises foraging flamingos, but the entire marsh appears to be dry since the summer of 2018 and the pink birds - most offspring of South American exotics, escaped from zoos - are not to be seen anywhere.
We continue the route along the endless Dwarsweg/Ratumseweg, which runs all the way around Winterswijk along the German border. I’ts a very bumpy road and progress is slow. After four days of cycling the railway station in Winterswijk will be the end point of this stretch of our border route, but first we take a look at the 30 metres deep limestone quarry, which isn't as spectacular as that of the Sint-Pietersberg near Maastricht, but nevertheless is a striking curiosity in the flat Dutch landscape. Until recently amateur archeologists were allowed to tap dinosaur fossils out of the limestone rock with their hammer every now and then, but the quarry management recently decided this was too dangerous, and now the whole area is surrounded by a high fence.
From Winterswijk to Nijmegen
During the scorching July heat wave we continue our border route towards Nijmegen. The landscape after Winterswijk remains agrarian, with the now high maize plants often restricting the view. In the glowing midday sun the cows lie close together in the few shady spots on the edges of the meadows and the sugar beets spread the limp leaves despondently.
We follow the Dutch-German border exactly in the direction of Dinxperlo, first on the Dutch side and later on the German side. For border fanatics, Dinxperlo is a very special place, as the border runs right through the middle of the town, which is called Suderwick on the German side. Until 1963 it was Dutch – just like the regions of Elten and Selfkant it was annexed by the Netherlands after the Second World War. Now Germans and Dutch people have been living here together again for many years, using the same public facilities. The language border here is also rather diffuse; in Anholt, a little further away, we meet a woman who speaks Dutch and German fluently, without any accent. Anholt has an impressive water castle with a beautiful garden, which is definitely worth a visit. By cycling this route we take quite a shortcut, because we don’t follow the border of narrow German jut into the Netherlands here.
After Anholt, the landscape becomes more large-scale and more Dutch, with vast meadows and lots of willows along ditches. In the distance we see the German A3-Autobahn, which runs right along the Dutch border. Now we have to choose whether we will cycle along the north side of the border via 's Heerenberg, Babberich and Spijk or make a detour to Emmerich in Germany. Because we don't realize that there is a regular ferry across the river Rhine from Pannerden to Millingen, we choose to cross the border at Netterden and in Emmerich in Germany we cross the Rhine via the bridge, after which we follow the Rhine dyke to Millingen.
The temperature has risen to around 40 degrees Celsius and we're forced to take a rest and drink break in the desolate, but wonderfully cool, train station of Emmerich. As soon as we have recovered we and after passing the Rhine bridge, we are forced to make a detour via Kleef and Düffelward due to dike works. We cool off for a while at the cemetery near the church of Düffelward, with a striking large number of Dutch surnames on the graves. On the Rijndijk we enjoy the beautiful views of the river and the border villages Spijk and Tolkamer on the opposite bank. After Millingen it's just a short distance along the Beekse push moraine to Nijmegen, the end of this very hot stage with absolute record temperatures.
Alternative route: a year later we cycled the route from Netterden to Pannerden along the Dutch side of the border. Netterden is a nice village, dominated by the Sint-Walburgiskerk, with a beautiful interior that is worth a visit. The next stop is 's Heerenberg, a town dominated by enormous storage and distribution centers, due to the border position near the A3/A12 motorway, which connects Rotterdam with the German Ruhr region. A remarkably large number of mobility scooters and wheelchairs crosses our path; it turns out that a number of large health care centres and nursing homes are located here. The historical centre with the imposing castle Huis Bergh comes as a real surprise, and after a qucik visit we enjoy our ride along the borders of the beautiful, hilly Montferland.
At Babberich we make a sharp turn eastwards; the German village of Elten, which was Dutch between 1949 and 1963 as compensation for the German occupation after the Second World War, is surrounded by the Netherlands on three sides. The village centre of Elten, where you will hear as much Dutch as German spoken, consists mainly of restaurants for German and Dutch cyclists. An ascent of the 82 meter high hill to Hoch Elten is mandatory because of the panoramic views in the direction of Emmerich and the Rhine. After a steep descent through the forest we drive over the Kleefsepostweg - the Dutch-German border is in the middle of the road - to Spijk. This neighborhood has a rich smuggling history because of the remarkable course of the border in this area. We continue the route via the Rijndijk to Tolkamer, with a good view of the busy shipping traffic across the river. If you want to take the ferry from Pannerden to to Millingen, pay attention to the sailing times, because they vary a lot. (End of alternative route)
From Nijmegen to Roermond
After the detour to Nijmegen we continue our trip via Ubbergen and Beek, after which we drive right along the border, with the German Reichswald on one side and undulating meadows and fields on the Dutch side. Just as in the Achterhoek, the landscape here is quite horsey; along the road we see an endless range of horse barns and sheds, surrounded bij fenced meadows full of mares, foals and stallions. The border here is rather vague, around 30 percent of the population of the German town of Kranenburg and surrounding villages consists of Dutch emigrants. Education in primary schools is bilingual here.
We descend the more than 60 m high Sint-Jansberg, pass the provincial border between Gelderland and Limburg and turn left at eatery De Diepen in Milsbeek, a well-known stopping place for long distance hikers and other sporty people. Along the steep moraine (also the state border) we pass an increasingly sandy area with only a few hamlets towards the bulge with the village Siebengewald, which despite the German name is part of the Netherlands. It was once German but in 1817, after several border exchanges, it was annexed to the Netherlands.
It is teeming with Germans from the nearby town of Goch, who come to do their shopping in the H&P supermarket. It is a very peculiar supermarket, which only seems to sell items that are more expensive in Germany than in the Netherlands, as evidenced by the endless shelves with kilo packs of coffee and stacked trays with cans of soft drinks (in Germany there is a deposit on every can or bottle of soft drinks).
We continue in the direction of the Maasduinen, a national park along the eastern bank of the Maas with sand ridges and dunes that were formed in the last ice age. In spring and autumn you can observe the shy cranes near the many pools from a distance . The national park is no more than a few kilometres wide, but uas far as Arcen with its chain of holiday paradises we have the idea of cycling through a vast nature reserve without any habitation. In Arcen along the river Maas you can visit the famous castle gardens at Castle Arcen, definitely recommended for plant and garden lovers. You'll also find plenty of bars and restaurants in this touristy neigbourhood.
The area between Arcen and Venlo is full of market gardens, where tomatoes and cucumbers are grown in greenhouses on a large scale. A surprisingly steep climb brings us to the Herungerberg; an older man on an e-bike overtakes us with ease and says sorry: "This isn't fun, is it?" On our bicycles without auxiliary motor we are an exception in this region (and elsewhere as well) -- almost everyone cycles on e-bikes, including many Germans. On this beautiful September Sunday they are all on their way to one of the many outdoor cafés in the border area. They are clearly less skilled cyclists than the Dutch.
One of these tourist hot spots - restaurant Oelespot - can be found at Ulingsheide Abbey in Tegelen, a 20th century building where the last monks left in 2007. Since Roman times Tegelen has been a place where clay from quarries near the Maas is used for tile and pottery manufacture; the name Tegelen comes from the Latin tegula - roof tile. Just after the abbey we suddenly descend into such a former clay quarry, which looks rather exotic with its white steep loam wall and blue-green water.
For over 12 kilometres we follow the border closely, partly over a winding forest path at the top of a steep edge of about 25 meters high that borders the German Brachterwald. Along the path a fence with electric fencing has been placed to keep the German wild boars in their own country. According to an information board, the animals cause a lot of inconvenience to the farmers of Limburg and damage the crops. The provincial authorities have come to their aid. At border post 425 we pass the Grietjens Gericht, a gallows field on prehistoric burial mounds where in 1651 the maid Grietje was beheaded on accusations of killing her newborn baby. Afterwards it's not far to Roermond, a cosy town that is unfortunately plagued by too much car traffic, especially at the well-attended terraces along the Roer river.
From Roermond to Vaals
After a winter break we pick up the border route again in April 2020, with COVID-19 restrictions forcing us to make daytrips. This means we have to cycle back to our place of departure every time (the gpx files show this). From Roermond we cycle on one of the first spring days through the surprisingly wild and deserted National Park the Meinweg, which is bordered by a steeply ascending river terrace of about 80 m altitude. The Dutch-German border follows the edge of this terrace and shows a strange rectangular bulge to the east, a consequence of earlier logging concessions. At the end of this bulge, the Wolfsplateau, you'll find the Dutch café Jägerhof and the former café Zum Deutschen Eck, once a smuggling paradise with a Dutch front entrance and German back exit. Between 1954 and 1962 two shafts were constructed on the Wolfsplateau up to a depth of 700 m for the Beatrix state mine, which was never put into operation. On the German side, coal has been mined for years.
At the hamlet of Vlodrop Station we pass the rusted rails of the Iron Rhine, the former railway connection between Antwerp and the Ruhr area, which has been interrupted since the 1980's between Roermond and the German Dalheim (2 km across the border). From 1990 onwards, the headquarters of the transcendental meditation movement of the Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which included The Beatles and The Beach Boys among its clients, was located in the dense forests here. After we've passed the river Roer at Vlodrop, the trail becomes flat again and we cycle through a horticultural area with a lot of asparagus cultivation. The ribbon development along the N274 near Koningsbosch is reminiscent of Belgium because of the rather shabby looking houses -- we're experiencing a real sensation of desolation here.
For a few decades the N274 between Koningsbosch and Brunssum was a curiosity, because this road ran like a Dutch corridor through the German region Selfkant. To prevent smuggling, there were no exits and cars were not allowed to stop on the German route. This situation had arisen after Selfkant, which had been annexed by the Netherlands after the Second World War, had been returned to Germany in 1963. Since 2002 the road has been under German management again and the signs are German.Selfkant has another peculiarity: here, along the Red Brook, is the most western point of Germany (border post 310), i.e. the most western point of the Dutch eastern border. Along the IJsstraat near Susteren, the Germans put a plaque on a border stone in front of it, and information boards recall the transfer of Selfkant to Germany on 1 August 1963, when trucks full of butter and coffee were parked here, a clever way to avoid import duties. Nearby is also the narrowest part of the Netherlands. The distance between the German and Belgian border is only 4.8 km as the crow flies. In short, this area is an Eldorado for border fanatics and lovers of senseless facts.
To avoid the built-up conurbation of Sittard we cross the border at Nieuwstad, drive through pretty villages like Tüddern and Wehr in the once Dutch Selfkant and climb the 101 metre Schlounerberg, from where we have a fabulous view with this super clear weather. Only a circling AWACS up in the sky disturbs the peace.
Back on Dutch territory it's pleasant cycling in the direction of Jabeek and Brunssum, which we reach via nature reserve Rode Beek-Heringsbosch.
The insignificant farming village of Brunssum experienced strong growth after the First World War thanks to mining; until 1973 coal was mined here in the state mines Emma and Hendrik, which at its peak provided work for ten thousand people. A total of 178 miners lost their lives in the mines; a monument in the Akerstraat in Brunssum bears witness to this. After the mine closure a NATO Headquarters (AFCENT) was established on the Hendrik mine site. On the Waubacherweg we drive along the huge slag heap of the mines; Since afew years the whole area, including some deep gravel and sand excavations just along the German border, is being completely redesigned.
The whole region from Brunssum and Heerlen to Kerkrade, euphemistically called Park City, is densely populated and intersected by busy roads, but along the border there still exists a narrow strip that gives the illusion of emptiness and free nature. Rimburg is a lovely village (sometimes plagued by German drug tourists) in the Worm Valley, which was once situated on the important Roman main road to Cologne. There is still part of a Roman milestone to be seen. We cross the Worm, which forms the border in this area for a while, and cycle through the beautiful Worm valley to Kerkrade; the quarries here supplied Nivelstein sandstone, which was building material for the cathedral churches of Aachen and Utrecht.
The cycle route through the quiet and green Wormdal runs all the way to Aachen, but we bend sharply to the left in the direction of Kerkrade. In the meantime we've reached the southern hill region of Limburg and a steep slope brings us to the impressive abbey of Rolduc, the largest monastery complex in the Benelux. It now houses a conference centre annex hotel, which unfortunately did not survive the corona crisis - it would be a nice place to stay.
The 2 km long Neustraße/Nieuwstraat/ in Herzogenrath/Kerkrade is on one side Dutch, on the other side German (Herzogenrath); the fence that once ran through the middle of the street to prevent smuggling has long since disappeared. But there still are subtle differences between the two sides: the number of parked BMW's and Mercedes is much higher on the German side of the street. The Lidl, Aldi and Mediamarkt are right on the border, but all on the German side because it is cheaper there. On the Dutch side shops advertise with "billige Bohnenkaffee".
Until Bocholtz we have to wriggle through industrial estates and motorways, which is not easy. But at last we reach one of the most beautiful stretches of the entire border route: a hilly valley of Burgundy allure (the Orsbacher Wald) to the hamlet of Mamelis, a steep climb to the German village of Orsbach, enclosed on three sides by the Netherlands, and then a fast descent to Vaals, with beautiful views over the hilly country.
The grand finale of our cycling tour along the German border is the ascent of the Vaalserberg (323 m) with the three-country point, which was even a four-country point until 1920 at the time of Neutral-Moresnet. Due to the pandemic the large parking lots are completely empty and all catering is closed. A fence full of threatening warnings obstructs the passage to Belgium, and a little further on the German police patrol, as if Schengen no longer exists and the sixties have returned, when you risked a fine from suddenly appearing Dutch customs officers for buying too many packets of cheap Belgian cigarettes in the kiosk.
The few day trippers on the Vaalserberg can only wonder about the fences. We will encounter many more of such blockades in the coming weeks, on our trip along the Dutch-Belgian border in the direction of Cadzand(see part 2 of the border route).
|Delfzijl - Bourtange(camping 't Plathuis)||66|
|Bourtange - Gramsbergen(camping De Vechtkamp)||87|
|Gramsbergen - Overdinkel(camping Erve Beernink)||91||50|
|Overdinkel - Winterswijk||83|
|Winterswijk - Nijmegen||90|
|Nijmegen - Vierlingsbeek||60|
|Vierlingsbeek - Roermond||81|
|Roermond - Koningsbosch||47||400|
|Koningsbosch - Brunssum||33||280|
|Brunssum - Mamelis||37||470|
|Mamelis - Vaals, Three-Country Point||10||300|
* Includes detours for groceries, routes to train station, camping etc.
** Based on corrected GPS data (in our experience these are approx. 25% higher than those of a barometric altimeter)