Monschau, even lovelier the second time around

A few years ago I got lost in the woods near the eastern border of Belgium. I was looking for Battle of the Bulge sites, and before I knew it I had crossed into Germany. The little road I was on rounded a bend and came into a clearing where I saw, in the valley below, a village on a lake. The sign said "Einruhr." I stopped for tea in a waterfront cafe, where I watched people board an excursion boat and wished I could join them. But I had to move on.

A traveler passes many places that cannot be explored, roads not taken. You tell yourself you'll go back, but you never do, because the world is full of destinations. The brochures you saved are thrown away, and eventually it's as if the places you missed never existed.

But like a Brigadoon, Einruhr stayed in my memory. After my sister Martha and I decided to spend Easter at La Gaichel, a country inn in Luxembourg, she dug deep into a drawer and pulled out the brochures I'd gathered at the lost village by the lake.

In a little-known pocket of Europe where Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg meet, the hamlet of Einruhr looks north and east over an upland forest region known as the Schnee Eifel. Rivers run through it, such as the Rur, impounded north of Einruhr to create Lake Obersee, where I had my tea.

In 2004, Germany made part of the Schnee Eifel a national park, returning the region to its primeval beech woods and endangered wildcats. Visitors are welcome at efficient park gateways providing ranger-led programs and information on hiking paths, including a cross-park, village-to-village wilderness trail that takes four days to complete and a shorter walk to remaining parts of the West Wall built during the Third Reich.

I got directions from Luxembourg to the Schnee Eifel by logging onto, which proposed an immensely complicated route we wouldn't have been able to follow if it weren't for Martha's GPS. But who wants superhighways on a spring morning that smells of lilacs?

On the way we passed through the High Fens, with boardwalks across wild subalpine bogs I could hardly believe were a part of densely populated Belgium, and Losheim Gap, where untried Americans fought for their lives against crack Panzer divisions during a German counteroffensive in the bitter Battle of the Bulge winter of 1944.

I'd booked rooms at the Hotel Restaurant Graf Rolshausen in Monschau, tucked deep in the Rur River Valley near the national park. Monschau has a 13th century castle, cross-timbered houses, gray slate bridges, a mustard museum and flower-decked market square. As clean as a German pin and so quaint you can hardly believe it isn't a theme park, the old cloth-weaving town is popular with tourists. Most clear out by dinnertime, leaving Monschau to overnighters like Martha and me.

The Graf Rolshausen turned out to be a cheerful, old-fashioned place with a restaurant in the cellar, run by a former professional ballerina, but reaching it was a logistical problem because vehicles are generally prohibited on town streets. We were given rooms underneath the eaves on the top floor of the hotel, which has no elevator; I counted 81 steps, climbing with luggage from the lobby to my door. The room was endearing, though, with floral wallpaper and a dormer window that let in the sound of bonging church bells and the smell of roasting coffee from a shop below.

That night Martha and I wandered to the market square where we found Rur-Café, a cozy second-floor restaurant that serves hearty regional fare such as medallions of pork and roast leg of lamb. We were there at just the right moment to try the delicious white asparagus menu, offered only in spring.

Breakfast in the hotel the next morning was a buffet with platters of German cheese and cold cuts, so we made sandwiches to take on a hike through meadows of wild daffodils. The path started at an old mill near the village of Hofen, following a brook lined by the delicate yellow flowers. We climbed to a pasture skirted by deep, dark, German fairy tale woods and duck blinds. I'm fairly sure we went astray because the trail markers were in German, but it didn't matter because we found a logging road back to the mill, where we had our picnic as clouds scudded across the sun.

Afterward we drove around the park to an eastern gateway, headed for Vogelsang, a training camp built for Nazi youth. The dour gray stone complex was easy to find but hard to comprehend, stretching almost a mile from an Eifel meadow to the lip of a steep ravine. One of several similar academies meant to mold the bodies and souls of future National Socialist leaders, Vogelsang had sports facilities worthy of an Olympic village, a cinema, hospital, mess hall, dormitories, windowless towers and an eerie Cult Room, designed like a church, where cadets attended National Socialist Party ceremonies.

After the war Vogelsang was occupied by the U.S. and Britain until 1950, when it became an extra-territorial Belgian military camp, closed to outsiders. Reopened in 2006 as an historic site, it now attracts mostly German sightseers who want their children to know about the Third Reich.

It seems to me that in Germany you always travel through light and shadow. Think of Baroque Dresden, risen from the ashes of a World War II firestorm, vibrant Berlin with its landmark Jewish Museum and the bucolic Bavarian Alps where Hitler loved to summer.

So, after a brief drive west, I was not surprised to reemerge from Vogelsang's darkness into the sunshine of Einruhr on Lake Obersee, where Martha and I cruised with pallid excursion-boat passengers who eagerly had stripped down to sleeveless Ts. We saw only sunlight scenes: backpackers along the trail that circles the lake, a man with a big dog on a dock, spotted cows in a meadow. It could have been Brigadoon — only I know for sure that it does exist because this time I did not pass it by.

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