Monschau is an absurdly picturesque place. One of those small German towns filled with half-timbered houses and crowned by a medieval castle with a lofty vantage point high above the town. The River Rur flows through its centre, the bridges that cross it provide glorious views of the town houses and mansions that run alongside the water. It’s the sort of place that justifiably attracts the use of the word ‘fairytale’.
Germany is a treasure trove of magnificent medieval towns and villages, but Monschau must surely be one of the finest. The fact that it appears to have survived virtually unchanged for centuries is somewhat miraculous. Especially when you consider that Monschau was at the northern tip of the Battle of the Bulge. In December 1944, US troops fought desperately to hold the town as Hitler launched Operation Watch on the Rhine.
The chaos and slaughter of the Battle of the Bulge is well known, made all the more miserable by the freezing winter conditions. Yet Monschau, with its vital road junction remained in US hands and suffered very little physical damage. The damage it did receive was caused by the shelling of the river crossing by German troops as they retreated. Only one of the grand town houses was destroyed.
For that we should all be grateful, Monschau is a splendid place. Although it would be hard to make the case that it’s untouched by modernity, its relatively out of the way location seems to offer some protection from mass tourism. We were there on a summer weekend and the centre where most of the tourism is concentrated did feel a little swamped. Elsewhere it was quiet, but it would be nice to visit in spring or autumn.
We arrived on a hot Friday evening and once we’d checked into our hotel on the Markt and overlooking the river, we went to find food. Even at the height of the tourist season, restaurants in small town Germany don’t open late. It took a while to find somewhere. In the end we got lucky, a riverside table just next to the dramatically situated Evangelical church.
We were out early the next day to climb the hills to the castle, and a viewing spot next to the cemetery on the opposite hillside, in the cool of the morning. The climbs are steep but the views are spectacular. From up high it’s clear that Monschau is wedged deep into the narrow valley floor carved by the Rur. I imagine that in winter the town gets virtually no sunlight.
Descending from the hills, we spent the next few hours wandering the narrow cobbled streets. Monschau is centred around the Markt, which is surrounded by timber-framed houses, and the Evangelical church, which sits next to the most conspicuous of the town’s buildings, the Red House. This former home of a wealthy 18th century textile mill owning family, is now a museum.
Monschau is at least eight hundred years old, but the oldest surviving building is the 13th century castle. You can also see the remains of what was once a seriously large defensive wall that ran along the hilltops. The town had seen its fair share of conflict well before December 1944. The castle was reconstructed in the early 20th century after a previous owner removed the roof to avoid paying a roof tax and it fell into disrepair.
It doesn’t take long to see most of Monschau’s best bits and by mid-afternoon the town was pretty crowded with day trippers. We decided to leave and head for Düsseldorf where we were visiting friends. First though, it’s not possible to leave town without buying at least one jar of mustard. Monschau is famed for its mustards, and even has a working Senfmühle, a mustard mill that is over a century old.
Judging by the queues and volumes being sold, mustard is big business in Monschau.