Eifel National Park. It’s a park that only relatively recently came into existence. The Belgian military and NATO used it as a training ground up until 2004 when a legal decree gave it back to the Germans as a national park. A foundation of the decree states that at least 75 percent of the park’s 26,400 acres must be left to develop naturally.
Prior to the Belgians, this was firmly Nazi territory. Ordensburg Vogelsang is a former national socialist estate that has since become a staple of the national park along the 85-kilometer Wilderness Trail that connects Monschau on the German-Belgian border to Heimbach. Though like the rest of Germany, it was nearly impossible to imagine the horrors that once happened here as our train pulled into Kall where we transferred over to Gemünd — a small town with Eifel hike and bike trails tracing through the pedestrianized town center. The only evidence of the destruction was the occasional historical marker with images of what the town looked like following Allied bombings.
Sure enough, Gemünd had been decimated. Much of the town center today has been rebuilt, following as much of the original blueprint as possible. That means densely packed buildings, restaurants, cafés that spill onto the sidewalk, cobblestone streets, shops, and of course, a brewery. This is Germany, after all. A town without a brewery is like an amateur poetry slam without an eye-roll.
Last minute planning for the holiday weekend (Monday was German Unity Day celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall and political reunification) left us with a holiday apartment about a kilometer outside of town. Our host, Evelyn, is someone who instantly feels like your grandmother. Caring, sweet, and she also assured us, “Germans are nice!” with a toothy smile.
Gemünd appears quiet to the passerby on a Friday night, but that’s because everyone is at one of the handful of restaurants that stay open past 6 p.m. The brewery looked at us with pity when we attempted to grab a seat without a reservation, so we resolved to return the next night and instead check out one of the hotel restaurants where the cuisine was decidedly German — meaty and hearty. Judging by the portion size, it’s no wonder the Germans seem to consider anything under five miles a “walk” and are constantly hitting the trails.
We hit the trails ourselves first thing Saturday morning and loved every second of it. The air was crisp with a light fog hovering above that disappeared throughout the day to give way to clear blue skies. 240 kilometers of park trails is the predominant estimate, leaving us with a variety of options to reach key points of interest, like the village of Wolfgarten or indeed Vogelsang. To our surprise, steep climbs along the trails weren’t exactly a rare thing in otherwise flat Germany. Even on day two, trudging west toward Vogelsang with cooler weather and damper conditions, we were continually taken aback with the lack of relief behind every turn.
“After this turn I bet it gets flat,” I said, continually jinxing ourselves. Thankfully, the terrain did ease up a bit once we reached Vogelsang.
“This is my first Nazi thing,” I stupidly commented as the brutalist gray tower of eastern Vogelsang started to poke its head out above the surrounding forest. A carving of a muscle-man appearing to ride bravely into battle was etched into the side of the tower.
The grassy trail runs right into Vogelsang’s main road, which itself drives underneath a main gate. Swastikas once adorned the sides, but the Belgians replaced them with their traditional lion emblem. Inside, the car park was modestly filled with German tourists (German is the only language we overheard) and one Dutch tourist bus. Apparently a guided tour was about to begin, but we didn’t really have an interest in joining. My one rule about visiting former Nazi ground is that I can leave whenever the hell I want to.
We continued through the compound to some viewpoints where we could see that juxtaposition of unspoiled natural beauty with that of formerly prime Nazi real estate. Though truthfully, it’s hard to say how much of that beauty truly is unspoiled. Signs continue to warn of leftover mines from the war that may have never been discovered. Sorry, Robert Frost. I’m sticking to the road most frequently traveled, thank you very much.
(Note to the reader: Google reviews of Vogelsang suggest against reenacting Call Of Duty battle scenes.)
The whole experience was, in a word, creepy. I’m talking a biting, Hitchock-esque sense that something really bad is about to happen. I mean, you’re walking around this beautiful scenery, autumn colors bouncing off the sunlight, then you march into this dreary fortress and the weather suddenly turns gloomy as an ominous fog sweeps over the entire area with a cold, light drizzle to really drive home that eerie feeling.
Then you remember what this place was used for, primarily to educate (brainwash) Germans into believing in and doing terrible Nazi things. The only comic relief came in the form of a statue created for the 1936 Olympic games in Munich. Its purpose wasn’t comic, mind you, as its original text proclaimed something or other about being for the glory of Adolph Hitler. (Though the blocks with his name appeared to have been replaced.) But what gave me some joy was the fact that this naked burly man-statue appeared to have lost his granite manhood.
Hiking away from Vogelsang over Viktor-Neel’s modern bridge, our situation made a fast return to those scenic autumn surroundings that had initially captured our hearts. Flat and smooth with nothing more than the occasional soft turn like a stretched out ribbon.
In the end we only did about 16.5 miles of hiking over two days. I left thinking about that four-day hiking package from Monschau to Heimbach offered by the local tourism bureau, Nordeifel Tourismus.
That is to say, I look forward to going back.