Monday 5 September 2011

Meandering through Münsterland: Trip No. 1

The View from the Basso's Handlebars: Quiet Backroads of Münsterland

It was with some surprise that I realized that I did not have to work on August 1, which is a holiday in Canada (cleverly named Civic Holiday) but not in Germany. Now that I suddenly had a long weekend, I decided to try and do some more bike touring, although the weather was not so promising. Looking through my maps and brochures, I thought a nice easy weekend would be to ride in Münsterland, which is the northwest corner of Nordrhein-Westfalen (NRW) and borders the Netherlands. I have friends in Laer, near the main city of Münster, and they were gracious enough to accept my self-invitation to stay with them for three nights. An emergency lunchtime trip to the Stern-Verlag bookstore and I scored my detailed cycling map of Münsterland.

So it was on Friday evening, July 29, I rode to the main train station after work with my big backpack and got onto the IC (InterCity) train, which has a bike compartment. I always reserve on train trips as this part of Germany is densely-populated and train travel is popular but this evening the train was pretty empty. My Weapon of Choice for this weekend was the Beautiful Blue Basso (BBB), which has 28 mm tires and extra cyclocross brake levers, as I expected to ride some dirt paths and cobbles on the weekend. It also has SPD pedals which allow me to walk around any of the villages or castles I came into.

After getting off the train in Münster, whose train station is in permanent construction mode, my friends collected me and we quickly got to their village. Laer is about 14 kms west of Münster. I unpacked my cycling gear and then we had a pleasant evening, entertained by the antics of Franziska, Carmen and Uwe’s 18 month old daughter.

On Saturday morning I looked at the map and figured out a course that would allow me to see some of the castles on Münsterland’s much-loved “!00 Castles Bikeroute.” Leaving Laer, I immediately headed in the wrong direction but soon found the quiet sideroad I had seen on the map. This straight road took me past small farms to the crossroads of Beerlage. I then turned west, passing the pretty stone church in Aulendorf, before making my way to Billerbeck, a larger town, where it began to rain very lightly.

Not much happening in Billerbeck on a Saturday morning, so I headed eastwards, following a sign indicating a bike route. It took me behind the little train station and then onto a dirt path between farm fields. The path was dry so I made quite rapid progress until coming back to a paved road.

Going south now, I climbed the edge of what is probably the only “mountain” in Münsterland, the Baumberg, passing the transmission tower of the WDR radio network. The Baumberg is the highest point in the region and I had an actual climb up to the Longinus Turm, whose base stands at a towering 187 m ASL. The tower, which was built between 1897 and 1901, is 32 m in height.

The tower is named after zoologist Friedrich Westhoff, who was a founder and first President of the Baumberg-Verein, a hiking/nature club. He was also the author of a two-volume book, “The Beetles of Westphalia.” He was very tall and wrote under the pen name “Doktor Longinus.” He was born in Münster in 1857 and died of blood poisoning there in 1896 at the early age of 41.
The Longinus Tower served as a radar installation during World War II until damaged by an American artillery shell. In 1952 it was the site of the first television transmission in West Germany. The tower not having an electricity supply, the equipment was powered by a car battery.

Various unsightly additions were made to the tower over time and in 2005-2007 it was restored to its original configuration. There is a plaque commemorating Herr Westhoff and another for television pioneer Reinhold Holtstiege. There is also the Café Longinus at the base of the tower, which proclaims itself to be the highest café in Münsterland.

There was a bit more climbing and then a rapid left turn whooshed me down into Havixbeck, where, peering through the gate and over the fence, I found my first castle, Haus Havixbeck. The building dates from 1562 and survives today much as it was when built. It is typical of the “water castles” which are basically moated manor houses to be found in Münsterland. The moat was filled in in 1850. The Twickel family has owned the house since 1601 and they were not around to let me in. The house is on a very sizeable piece of land on the edge of Havixbeck and like much of the region seems to be given over to raising horses.

It was time for a break so I rode into Havixbeck proper. It has a little pedestrian mall where people were going about their Saturday shopping and I found a nice bakery where I enjoyed a coffee and some pastry. There is not much else to see in Havixbeck (although it turns out that I missed seeing Haus Stapel, another water castle) but it was quite pleasant to enjoy the small-town atmosphere.

Signore Basso and I headed north out of town and along some excellent sideroads and paved bikepaths. The route took us past a charming traditional brewery with an outdoor garden and then I turned east towards Altenberge. The road brought me past the “Schlepper und Geräte Museum,” which was celebrating itself with an apparent festival of old tractors. I stopped to watch for a few minutes and saw some wonderful old machines, including tractors from Lantz, a marque known to me from the Milton Steam Age in Ontario, to Wesselers, which were built in nearby Altenberge.

Klute's traditional brewery

Altenberge itself was pretty disappointing. Towns in Münsterland are inconsistent, with some being completely charming and others, like Altenberge, being the sort of place where there is no reason whatever to linger. I soon found myself back in Laer and at the end of the day’s 57 km ride. It had not involved very much exertion as I climbed a total of 319 m for the day. I had been a bit disappointed in only finding one castle to gawk at but with two more days of riding I knew I would make up that deficit.

Uwe and Carmen (and Franziska) wanted to show me some more of the area, so we drove the short distance to one of Münster’s most charming towns, Steinfurt. This is an impressive place and the Schloss, whose moat was fully intact, was quite wonderful. There was a big park behind the Schloss which took our attention for a while but the town itself is marvellous. The Rathaus looks like one of the structures in the Münster Altstadt, dating to 1561. There are many interesting buildings from the 17th Century and a very good ice cream parlour where Uwe “forced” me to try some bitter chocolate ice cream, which is almost black in colour. Excellent!

The weather looked a bit better on Sunday morning, but was still cool and grey. Carmen, who rode a racing bicycle and did the Jeantex Transalp event a few years ago but sold her bike before she had Franziska, mentioned to me that a neighbour, Andreas, was part of a group of local riders who did a circuit every Saturday and Sunday and that I would be welcome to join them. I took the opportunity and was warmly welcomed. Andreas was joined by a few others and then we rode over to the next village, Holthausen, where we met the majority of the pack.

There were about a dozen of us MAMILs (Middle-Aged Men in Lycra), with a few younger riders mixed in. Everyone was riding fancy carbon bikes except for me but I thought BBB, although 24 years old and of comparatively heavy steel, would be able to keep up well enough on the flattish roads of the region. Of course, I had been warned that our pace would be 25-30 km/h over the 60 or so kms of riding but leaving Holtzhausen the group turned up the speed pretty quickly. The Germans are not very good at riding pacelines (except when I was in Mallorca and Sicily) as they do not like to come off the front. This was fine with me and for a good part of the morning I felt like one of the protected riders of the Tour de France.

Of course, the route had to include some climbing and we powered our way up the Baumberg, a hill that I was to cross several times during my Münsterland visit. There were some other shorter, but steeper, hills as well and I felt a bit out of breath on one of them. The gearing of BBB is not ideal for climbing but it was a good workout for me.

The route chosen by the leaders was quite nice and we even passed a big convent. We rode through Havixbeck and then a bit further south than I had gone on my first ride before turning west and passing Nottuln before getting to Billerbeck and then coming through Aulendorf before returning to Holtzhausen and Laer. It had been exhilerating at an average speed of just under 30 km/h for 60 kms but not much for sightseeing as we did not stop on the road, so no photography and no coffee. And no castles, alas.

To remedy this, I refilled my water bottle, had a sandwich and then left Laer again, heading out of town on Darfelder Strasse south towards, surprise, Darfeld. I passed on out-of-commission ancient windmill and continued down the fairly busy road until I saw another mysterious bike route sign. I followed this, which took me by sideroads and a few dirt paths into Oberdarfeld and then Darfeld proper. The town is quite small but it still took a few wrong turns until I found a sign for Schloss Darfeld.

This water castle, which does not appear with a photograph in my little guidebook to castles in Münsterland where it does not fall into the category “absolutely must-see” or even “must-see,” is quite spectacular. It was built from 1612-1616 and currently has two wings. It originally was supposed to be a baroque structure with eight wings (!) but the owner and the architect had a falling-out. This was probably about money as the castle then went through a number of owners before winding up in the hands of the powerful Droste zu Vischering family (of whom I will write more) in 1680.

The castle was badly damaged by fire in 1899 and rebuilt partly in the original style but partly in a neo-Renaissance style, giving it a rather Italian look. It is privately owned by a Dr. Hamann and can only be looked at from the outside, which I did of course.

After admiring the ducks and taking photos of the old mill near the castle, it was back on the bike and heading east, turning south towards Havixbeck again. Another castle near Havixbeck had been recommended to me and I took the fastest route out to it. It was not actually in Havixbeck but considerably to the east, and I had to ride along the wide paved bike path along the main road for what seemed like a good 10 kms before I saw the entrance to Burg Hülshoff.

This wonderful house, sitting surrounded by a huge moat, is in beautiful condition. The location became the seat of another noble family, Droste zu Hülsoff (not to be confused with the unrelated Droste zu Vichering gang!), in 1417, although the first part of this house stems from 1540 to 1545. Over the centuries it has been remodeled numerous times, most recently in the mid-19th Century. It is particularly celebrated as the birthplace of Annette von Droste-Hülsoff (1797-1848), deemed to be one of Germany’s most significant poets and of whose works I know almost nothing. I suspect she is not much read anymore.

Unlike Schloss Darfeld, where I had been pretty much alone with the ducks, Burg Hülsoff was a happening place, with busloads of old folks being carted in. The grounds are quite lovely and there were many flowers to look at. The castle contains a restaurant and a museum devoted to Frau von Droste-Hülsoff and her work. I only lingered to take some photographs and then cycled the now-familiar route back to Laer via Havixbeck. Another 61 kms completed, giving me a nice total of over 120 kms for the day. To celebrate, I stopped at the local ice cream place for a great big blueberry ice cream parfait.

That evening I treated my friends to dinner. Uwe picked a favourite place, Hotel Steverburg near Nottuln, on top of the inescapable Baumberge. It is a beautiful building constructed in the 1920s from local sandstone and had been originally built as a youth hostel; these conversions usually go the other way around. After an excellent meal, I slept soundly that evening, dreaming of yet more castles tomorrow.

Monday, August 1: a new month and new roads to conquer. I very much wanted to see “the Versailles of Westphalia” in Nordkirchen but it looked pretty far considering that I wanted to be back in time for a late afternoon train to Düsseldorf. But my track south would take me by at least two good castles, as well as a smaller one that Uwe had showed me before we went to the restaurant the evening before.

Riding south again to the Beerlage crossroads, I turned east along the heavily-travelled road (although it was not really too bad at this time) and rode for a short distance until I came to the “Haus Runde” sign. I turned Havixbeck and over the inescapable Baumberge, I turned right and followed the small country road a short distance, past the little Haus Runde fruit packing place to Haus Runde itself. This is a very traditional Münsterland water castle that is definitely not on the tourist track as it is a bit overgrown. The moat around it is in good condition and the 17th Century gatehouse, like a downmarket version of the ones I saw at the castles in Steinfurt and Darfeld, is still standing. It is private property and I did not want to trespass but the manor house (from what I could see through the trees) seems to be in good shape and serving as the administrative centre for the surrounding farm. Haus Runde may be rented for films and the Internet has allowed me to look at the property a bit better than my personal visit. It has a pleasant garden and a 19th Century brewery building, which seems to have been converted to a home. The property was first recorded in the 15th Century and by the 17th Century had come into the possession of the Runde family. The present ensemble of buildings dates from various periods and uses different materials. It came into the hands of the current owners in the 18th Century following litigation according to one source, marriage by another. But today the whole place is quite charming and very, very quiet. Castle No. 1 for the trip!

Retracing my track to the main road, I crossed it and tried to locate the next manor house, Haus Langenhorst, which seemed quite close by on the map. I rode down a side road followed by a nicely-paved farm road that brought me to a complex of farm buildings. I looked around and did not see anything at first but then I saw, far off in the back in the corner, a small building made with the distinctive Baumberge sandstone in the lower half and topped with red brick gables. It was hard to see very clearly and have not been able to get any information about the date it was built but since I made all the effort to look at it I will count this as Castle No. 2.

I next rode back along the main road towards Havixbeck, turning east on a road my friend Uwe had suggested. It led past a veterinarian’s place devoted to horses and soon turned into a gravel road. But this only went for a short distance before becoming asphalt again. It really was an excellent road for cycling (it is marked as a recommended route on my ADFC map). A tunnel took me under the railway line and there was a little bit of very pleasant climbing before I arrived at the Bombeck crossroads and headed south towards Böckinghausen with the idea of passing around the inevitable Baumberg. This did not work, of course, although I only reached an altitude of 165 m instead of 187 m ASL, but I did have a nice fast descent into my next town, Nottuln.

I had been told that there was a baroque ensemble of buildings in Nottuln. I rode over to the imposing church, St. Martin’s, which had built after a big fire in 1749 and looked around. There was a small row of buildings next to it that might have been fairly old but nothing much was marked. Nottuln, which is a township and not just this town, was quite busy and I was happy enough to leave its very bumpy cobbles and traffic behind. My route took me through a section of town that was all single-family homes and then suddenly I was on a dirt path in the forest. This did not go on for very long and I popped out on a road that took me towards Appelhülsen. I came to a crossroads and took the road that was more direct but turned around when it was obvious I was coming to a Bundestrasse, a major thoroughfare with a boring bike lane alongside.

Back on the quieter road, which was marked with a bike route sign, I passed over the A43 Autobahn and then came to some railway tracks. I turned left towards Appelhülsen, passing the non-railway station (ranked by the local radio station as the 5th busiest of 14 in the Coesfeld county area!) and thought I would find a coffee in town somewhere. After a few minutes of riding it became apparent that Appelhülsen was one of those Münsterland towns with nothing of interest at all so I turned around and headed south on the main road in order to reach my next castle.

Castle No. 3, Kleine Schonebeck, is directly on the main road and is clearly a lived-in kind of place. The major part of this brick manor house was constructed around 1520, and an eight-sided tower for stairs dates to 1587. It has stepped gables. The place originally had the typical layout of a Münsterland water castle with a gatehouse on a little island connected by bridge to a second island where the main house was located but parts of the moat have been filled in and the outer buildings are gone. It may have been spun off of the larger property of Gross Schonebeck but its earlier history is not completely clear.

With this successful viewing, I headed for Gross Schonebeck but could not actually find it although I think I did locate the street it was on after I made several exploratory detours. It is supposedly viewable from the road or the bike path that runs along the Stever River but this was not the case. It was at one time church property and the oldest section of the existing buildings dates to 1400 so it was a disappointment not to see anything, even from a distance.

I rode now along a bike path following the Stever River. This was dirt but quite rideable on the Basso and I made good time as I enjoyed travelling alongside the meandering little river. It eventually brought me to the edge of the Dortmund-Ems-Kanal in Senden and I followed another bike path that brought me to an impressive castle, Schloss Senden.

Parts of the castle probably date to the mid-15th Century and it has had a remarkably varied history, having been attacked by the Spaniards in the 16th Century and the French in the 18th, half-burned down in a fire in 1900, heavily damaged in World War II and used to house 2,000 Russians, Poles, Czechs and Italians for 8 months in 1945. Renovations in the 1950s took place as it became a private school, a hotel with a casino, a residence for refugees from the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and a student home at various times. It has been empty for several years and parts of it are now falling apart. There is a recently-launched committee looking at how to save this historic and interesting building but it will be a major task to do so.

Leaving Senden, I made my way through a big construction area as work takes place on the canal and crossed it on a small bridge, heading south. Castle No. 5, Haus Kakesbeck, suddenly appeared on my right. I backtracked along the road to get a better view. It too is in private hands but the view from the road is very good if you are not adverse to making your way through some underbrush.

Haus Kakesbeck (whose aristocratic owners had once owned Schloss Senden as well) has been the site of very extensive archaeological excavations. It is situated on a former Roman road and a pair of Stone Age graves, dating back 5,000 years, were found there. There was a small Roman settlement here and Roman artifacts dating to 50 B.C. have been dug up. It continued to grow and by 1300 Kakesbeck was already an important fortification. The main house has components going back to 1290 and the other buildings, located on several islands are very old. The complex under went a transformation to the baroque style in the 1700s. A three-arched bridge with a double gate was built, although a wing of this was destroyed by American tank fire in 1945. Haus Kakesbeck is an equestrian centre today although a a restoration project is apparently still underway after 40 years.

The bike route took me through very quiet country backroads as I approached my primary goal for the day, the town of Lüdinghausen. Nordkirchen was still 14 kms away, which would have added an additional 28 kms to my trip there and back and I thought I had ridden fairly far already. It was very easy to find Castle No. 6, Burg Vischering.

Burg Vischering is one of the best castle in Münsterland and dates primarly from the 16th Century. The family that owned it relocated in 1681 to Schloss Darfeld and subsequent building activity was primarily repair only. This castle was not damaged in World War II. The gatehouse was built in 1519 and the impressive octagonal stair tower is from 1622. The castle is surrounded by a moat and is in excellent repair. On this Monday I was one of the few visitors there and the restaurant that occupies part of the main building was closed. There is a museum devoted to the castle as well but it was very enjoyable just to walk around it and gawk a bit.

The castle was taken over by the County of Coesfeld in 1971 and there has been renovation work since then and the opening of the museum. It is certainly well worth the visit.

Castle No. 7 was not nearly so interesting. Located in the middle of Lüdinghausen, Schloss Lüdinghausen has a nice gatehouse and is surrounded by a moat. However, it is currently undergoing renovations to be turned into a Nordrhein-Westfalen archive building so there is nothing much to see at the moment. It is a very attractive building nonetheless. The oldest parts were constructed in 1568 in the Renaissance style and additions were made until 1907. A major renovation was undertaken in 2000 and the building has served a variety of purposes, including use as a school, cultural centre and municipal offices.

Lüdinghausen is an attractive town and after enjoying lunch I began the ride back to Laer. It had taken me over four hours to get to Lüdinghausen but by choosing a more direct route (which was still quite traffic-light), I was back with my friends two and a half hours later. It had been a very successful day with no fewer than seven castles visited, lots of photos taken and 105 kms ridden.

After I had a relaxing Radler at Klute's, the traditional brewpub I had passed several times in my travels, I left the Basso with my friends in Laer for the next Münsterland excursion as there are still a lot of those 100 castles for me to look at. I took the very crowded InterCity train back to Düsseldorf and was back home in just over an hour.

A reward for a great long weekend of cycling!

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