IN THE LUXEMBOURG ARDENNES
Above the forested hillsides stands a castle. A medieval wall rings the towering pitch-roofed ranges that seem to be almost ageless. At the base of the hill a river rushes beneath a stone bridge, framed by the gables of old houses. Occasionally a motor vehicle weaves carefully down the hill, crosses the bridge and turns through the gap two hotels have left for the main road through town. Even if it was not a mild day at the end of March, even if the clouds were gathering, this was a spectacular spot. Steve Dyster has been cycling in the Luxembourg Ardennes.
I sat and chatted with a German banker who had just popped out from home, in Luxembourg City, and had sped past me on a steepish ascent on the cycle route between Diekirch and Vianden, (Piste Cyclable 16 and 3) in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. He had aimed to get there quickly. Strava friends were averaging 28km on the route he had taken from the capital city. He was pleased to have matched this, but we felt that given that there had been a headwind and that he had managed to go past me an average of 30km was probably fairer.
Cycling, he said, was in a good state in Luxembourg; popular as a sport, for utility and for recreation. He did the former two and tried, with only limited success, to get the family to do the third. The roads were usually very well-surfaced and drivers respectful - sentiments I’d echo. There was an ever-growing network of Piste Cyclable, some on former railway lines and often traffic-free. Mountain-biking was strong, too. He commuted from home to the Kirchberg - home of EU institutions and big business Luxembourg City, bit loved the countryside and often used the train to escape, what he called the “wasted hour” in the land before the Ardennes hills begin to bring their stiff climbs and hurtling descents.
The Chateau d’Urspelt provides a warm welcome in a traditional setting with a modern, relaxed ambience, for all guests, but cyclists especially. Set in the hamlet of Urspelt, three kilometres north-east from Clervaux, and recently awarded the Bed+Bike standard, it is a characterful, comfortable place to relax after a day exploring.
The hotel’s restaurant offers a gourmet menu using, wherever possible, local produce, to give a real taste of the Ardennes, amongst whose woods and pastures you have enjoyed your day. In the undercroft is a relaxingly unusual lounge bar for evenings of gentle rehydration. Or take those aching muscles for a spa treatment or the outdoor swimming pool, or just stretch them in the courtyard.
The Bed+Bike award is not uncommon in Luxembourg, but Elodie Francois, Hospitality Manager, and Ludovic Heindrichs, Sales Manager, have big plans to go beyond it. Working with Rent-a-Bike Diekirch, they already provide bikes when guests request them, but soon hope to have a selection of e.bikes on site, ready to go. In the long run, trekking/city and MTBs may be brought in, too.
They also plan to design some routes directly out of the castle gate, taking in local roads as an introduction to the area and, doubtless, with a refreshment stop on the way.
The hotel staff are more than happy to be set a challenge. Get in touch. How many nights, how many people, how many bikes? They’ll be happy to help. And, I suppose, that is the thing cyclists like most; helpful, friendly staff with an understanding of what cyclists need.
And if you can’t make a good many miles on the sumptuous breakfast buffet, you are doing something seriously wrong!
+352 26 90 56 12
When I said my way was north-west towards Clervaux, he suggested that I would enjoy climbing Mont St. Nicolas. I did. In fact, I enjoyed cycling in the Luxembourg Ardennes, full-stop. By the way, the climb of Mont St. Nicolas was impressive. Firstly, where the old railway line used by PC22 was barred for repair, it was impressive to see a full, new tarmac top being rolled to the smoothness of wedding-cake icing. It was impressive that there was so little traffic on the main road. It was impressive that the huge lake shown on the map was not there. Well, I expect major lakes to be in valleys and looked forward to rolling alongside it for a while. In fact, at the top of the hill a steep bank still towered where the lake should be. It dawned on me, as I skirted to the left, that here was a reservoir to power a hydro-electric power station built on top of the Mont St. Nicolas. Ascending the stairs to the viewing platform Max Escher would have felt at home with water above the surrounding corrugated hills and valleys and what could have been a good track, if narrow, for a cycle race around the lake.
The Ardennes hills mix broad ridges with upland plateau of pasture or forest; when the wind blows things can get cold and it can be tough in a headwind. Very quiet roads and occasional purpose-built infrastructure avoided generally quiet roads. Signage was mostly good, but there were occasional missing signs, so the map came in handy. Not all villages are graced with a bar or cafe, let alone a shop. Be equipped and stop for refreshment when you can.
Beyond the eco-centre at Hosingen, at the heart of the Our Naturpark - akin to a British National Park - covering much of north of the Grand Duchy - hairpin bends and smooth tarmac require care to be taken of hikers and their cars, all the way to Lellingen and the end of PC22.
Taking a breather by the ford, I looked back to the forest; peace and quiet, one expected a hay-wain to trundle around the corner and shire horses to drink from the stream. This only reminded me that I felt like a drink, myself.
PC22 links to PC21. The northern terminus of PC21 is currently at Wilverwitz, a village in the right direction for “home” but where no cafe was open. The same was true a little further north at Drauffelt. Both have stations with frequent trains that carry bikes for nothing, but the valley road, the C326/C325 is a ride not to be missed.
Lumpy as the ride from Vianden had been, so was the ride to Clervaux almost flat. The River Clerve slithers vigorously between unremittingly steep slopes with riverside villages dotted amongst forest-fringed pastures; when sun-kissed, it sparkles, but around the next bend the dark shades may return.
River, road and railway attempt to plait themselves, swinging around to make the most of the space, but still bring one to tourist hub Clervaux too soon.The Abbey is a true landmark, the Catholic Church a glorious feature, and the Chateau holds a true Luxembourg must, whatever your mode of transport.
The Family of Man is a fabulous photographic exhibition assembled by Luxembourger Edward Steichen when he was in charge of the New York Museum of Modern Art. Asking top photographers from around the world to contribute, the exhibition is built around common human experiences that unite people of all cultures. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this is “culture” at its best.
The Chateau de Clervaux also houses a museum of the Battle of the Bulge. My objective, however, was another Chateau that had been a big part in the fighting of 1944 and early 1945.
A signed mountain bike route made an alternative to the road climb out of Clervaux, so I took to the rough stuff, and panted up the final kilometre or so. It may be better to travel than to arrive, but I was really grateful to see the pristine white walls of the Chateau d’Urspelt, finials shining in the evening sunshine.
This was home for three nights and this was the second
Built over three centuries ago, the Chateau underwent major improvements in the late nineteenth century, only to be neglected until taken over by the German army as the HQ for northern Luxembourg during the Ardennes Offensive of 1944. The bulge that resulted from its success gave the popular name to the battle. The German advance was eventually stopped and fighting swung back across Luxembourg. The American’s commandeered the Chateau and burned the panelling to keep warm during the late winter. In 2005 restoration began under the guidance of the Lodomez family; now it combines original features with a modern touch; distinctively old, but comfortably modern. Even better, it provides a great centre for any type of cyclist or cycling group.
The Chateau d’Urspelt is close to several “official” routes. A short ride to Fischbach took me to the “Jardins à suivre” route covers some 30km between Troisvierges and Clervaux via Munshausen, linking a series of “art gardens” mixing nature, garden and art installation. Let the train take the strain back to the start if you wish.
There are three themed tours in this northern part of the Luxembourg Ardennes.All start at Troisvierges, which is also the southern terminus of the Vennbahn - Europe’s longest rail path. A ride down the hill from Urspelt to Clervaux and a seven minute train ride will get you there. My plan was to pick up part of the “Jardins” route, sample a section of MTB route and then pick up the Gënzentour” themed route and thence to return via the “Jardins” route.
Get the route leaflet from the hotel or tourist information. Why? Well, the signage is good, though not always blindingly obvious and occasionally a little ambiguous. The routes are also only signed in one direction. I only went off course by more than a few metres once, where the signs turn one back on oneself in Munshausen. OK, I could have downloaded .gpx files.
Designed to avoid main roads, they provide a grand introduction to the area, even for a cyclist, like myself, who does not really like being organised.
The “All You Can Bike” overview map - just good enough for general navigation - also shows three grades of Mountain Bike Tours; family, intermediate and advanced. Like the themed routes, these are signed in one direction. The black routes (advanced) tend to have more frequent, tougher climbs in more remote areas, and have technical sections. Even so, they are not the equivalent of a black route at a 7stanes trail centre in Scotland, for example.
Technical sections were short, but tough climbs and rough descents should not be underestimated. My mistake was to try to follow a route in reverse. I’d hoped turns would be obvious; that they were not was entirely my own fault. Actually, I accidentally discovered a short cut to the Gënzentour.
A fine 61km ride, the Gënzentour is hillier in the first half and gentler in the second. The country is never utterly remote, but villages are small and opportunities for accommodation and refreshment limited. Alternating between the typical forested valleys and breezy hilltops built an appetite. Taking a closer look at monuments commemorating the USA soldiers who liberated Luxembourg in 1944-5, was the only reason I stopped, so I’d an appetite and a thirst when I came across the Auberge-Restaurant Eislecker Stuff, Derenbach; Diekirch beer, mineral water and a marvellous Assiette de Paysanne. Just the ticket.
I made a brief visit to Belgium. A change in the surface material of PC20, a sign that it had become RAVeL Ligne 164, and a rubbish bin belonging to the Commune of Bastogne, signified that a border had been crossed. The transition back to the Grand Duchy was marked by two mid-nineteenth century cast iron bollards; one bore a faded Belgian Flag, the other Luxembourg’s red lion on a white and light blue background.
The rest of the way to Troisvierges was a joy. Refreshment - yes, another beer - at the Café Orion next to the railway station; train or bike to carry me back? Bike, of course what a good decision it proved. Sunny hillsides, neat villages, all the way home on peaceful roads. Even before dinner, I was replete.
But, you ask me, what is all this conforming to signed routes? You do not need to; the Chateau d’Urspelt is in the countryside. Miles of quiet roads will take you where you want to go. Only the National Roads seems busy. Gentle bummels took in a craft brewery - Cornelyhaff - at Heinersheid, a re-run to Munshausen and another ride along the Clerve valley from Drauffelt to Clervaux, as well as exploring a few dead-end hillside tracks where I may or may not have been legally allowed to go.
Next opportunity, I’ll go my own way, but the countryside around the Chateau d’Urspelt has lots to offer the cyclist, on and off piste.
Steve was hosted by the Chateau d'Urspelt for three nights, bed and breakfast, and received one free dinner.
Rent a bike Diekirch; hiring a bike kept airline costs down and was really very good value. A Specialised Pitch mountain bike - in tip-top condition - gave him the chance to try different routes. They offer mobs, trekking/city bikes and bikes. I could not find a road bike for rent in Luxembourg.
Combining rail and bike in the grand Duchy is easy. though cross border trains make life more complex. At the time of writing, four Euros buys you an all day ticket on public transport. Many buses carry bikes, too.
Visitor info http://www.visitluxembourg.com/en is the official website and links to regional sites. Cycling information is also available in many hotels and other guest accommodation, as well as some cafes and, of course, tourist information offices. English is widely spoken, as are German and French, so phoning and emailing are easy.
The All You Can Bike Map was sufficient for basic navigation and there are specific cycle maps showing both individual routes and the network as a whole. I bought the Kompass Wandern Fahrradfahren 1:50 000 two map pack. these are double-sided and cover the entire Grand Duchy - as well as sections of France, Belgium and Germany. these show hiking and cycling routes in familiar and really useful detail, as well as the road network for those who, like me, like to wander off the signed way.
PUBLISHED APRIL 2017