Leisure pursuits How green is my valley
To call it the Four Gorges Dam Project might be a bit over the top, but four highland reservoirs near Aachen form a very significant part of the local German countryside.
The rivers Rur, Urft, Kall and Wehe were dammed to safeguard supplies of clean drinking water for the area, and in its day the Urfttalsperre (Urft Dam), built between 1900 and 1905 by Professor Otto Intze from RWTH Aachen University, was a model for the whole of Europe. Aachen never forgets its scientific elite, and Intze now has a street named after him in the university district.
Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff once penned an ode to his homeland with what has since become the archetypal German song “Oh Täler weit, oh Höhen” (Ye valleys broad, ye heights). He may never have come to Aachen, but he may as well have been talking about the area surrounding the city. The Nationalpark Eifel (Germany), the Ardennes (Belgium) and the Mergelland (Netherlands) nestle in forested countryside peppered with highland summits and deep valleys. The summits may not be the highest in Europe, but they’re big tourist attractions nonetheless: Belgium’s “Botrange” mountain, about 30 miles from Aachen, is but 1,800 feet high, and the highest point in the Netherlands, the “Drielandenpunt” where the three national borders converge just outside Aachen’s city limits, just about pips the 900-feet mark. Botrange rises out of a large upland moor called the “High Fens” (Hohes Venn) containing the only natural heritage of its kind in Europe.
Housing estates edged by woodland
Believe it or not, you can get to these recreational spaces by bicycle, although you don’t necessarily have to leave Aachen to fill your lungs with fresh air. Over half of the area occupied by the city is green space, with housing estates edged by natural woodland, and parks both large and small offering oases of peace and tranquillity amid the urban hustle and bustle. One fifth of Aachen is given over to agriculture. Since 2008 the former mining area to the north of the city has been particularly accessible to tourists thanks to the Green Route (Grünroute) and the Metropolroute, and to the east you can visit what is Europe’s largest open-cast lignite mine.
But coming back to our four highland reservoirs: they’re not just economic necessities but also models of ecology. And like everything in and around Aachen, they’re totally natural.
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