The Netherlands, as the guide notes, was “popularized as a flat country full of cheeses and clogs.”
The enthusiasts behind Dutch mountain traila 63-mile (101 km) trek across seven glorious peaks – two of which are made from the spoils of old mines – is simply asking, only a bit of a joke, for the world to stop being so narrow-minded.
Coming from a local branch of a annual festival celebrating mountain films and culture Around the world, ‘alpine’ walking in the lowlands was first dreamed up in 2020 as the climatic consequences of travel became increasingly clear and Covid made access to more traditional European peaks difficult.
“That doesn’t mean flying all over the world to chase your big mountains but also to look in your backyard,” said Toon Hezemans, 60, one of the creators of the trail in South Limburg, the region most southernmost part of the Netherlands, advancing into Belgium. and Germany.
A route was devised and word of mouth did the rest. It was an immediate success. An estimated 17,000 Dutch and German copies of a hiking guide have been sold so far. In November, an English version will be published.
As for the potential problem of the lack of actual mountains in Europe’s flattest country, Hezemans, an artist by profession, questioned the very definition. “It’s very interesting,” he said, referring to a comedy by Hugh Grant, The Englishman who climbed a hill, but descended a mountain.
In the film, Welsh villagers are furious when English mapmakers declare that their “mountain” is actually a hill because it does not reach the 1,000ft (305m) threshold. The locals build a mound on top of the summit to trick the system.
For Hezemans and Andrew Davies, 65, his conspirator and translator of the English guide, that’s not a mountain. “I don’t think you should take 1,000 feet as a definition because the word in Dutch is mountainwhich has a slightly different definition,” said Davies, who moved from Manchester to the Netherlands 38 years ago.
“It depends on the environment,” insisted Hezemans, while overlooking the scenic valleys from a bench on the Eyserberg, a peak about 200 meters above sea level. “This one in the Himalayas will not be a mountain. But you can see the church tower in the Vijlen, they call themselves the only mountain village in the Netherlands, and they actually have a football team that recently played in the international mountain village football championship.
With the Alpines, it is, he says, a question of shared points of view. A mountain is in the eye of the beholder.
“OK,” he added, continuing, “maybe there aren’t any mountains here, but it’s definitely not flat.”
South Limburg is the highest region in the country, with deep valleys carved out by fast-flowing rivers and streams, and the trail criss-crosses the borders with Belgium and Germany. You are never more than six miles from an international border.
The walk, which Hezemans says can actually be strenuous in some places, begins at Eygelshoven station near the town of Kerkrade, with the first goal being to reach the summit of Wilhelminaberg, some 225 meters above above sea level, a former spoil heap from the Wilhelmina Coal Mine, which operated between 1906 and 1969.
After that, the walker heads towards the foothills of the Schneeberg, the highest point of which is beyond the German border and literally translates to “snowy mountain”. Its place in the Dutch Mountain Trail is, admitted Hezemans, a bit of a cheat.
But the trail’s count of seven peaks does not include the Vaalserberg, the meeting point of the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany – and, at 322 meters above sea level, the highest point in the country. “It’s too touristy,” Hezemans said. “So we skip that and go here to the Eyserberg, where we are standing now. There is a very beautiful meadow and alpine flowers blooming there.
Next is Gulperberg (155 meters above sea level): “It really is a mountain, with a statue of Mother Mary on top, overlooking the town of Gulpen – perhaps the most mountainous mountain, with a cone shape.” Then it’s Hakkenberg (just over 200 meters above sea level), where “the half-timbered houses in the valley complete the ‘mountain experience'”, according to the hiking guide. This peak had no name until Hezemans named it after a path leading to its summit.
The trail then crosses into Belgium, where during World War I the border was marked by a 206-mile high-tension fence from Vaals to the North Sea coast known as the ‘death wire’ “. The sixth peak is Voerstreek, which in the 1970s was the scene of clashes between French and Dutch speakers over the region’s language.
“Tourism saved the area because at some point they realized the battles weren’t helping to attract tourists,” Hezemans said.
The final summit of the trail is D’n Observant in Maastricht, an artificial spoil heap from the upper layers of Sint Pietersberg, which over the centuries has been extensively quarried for its marl.
Hezemans admitted to being a bit perplexed when would-be walkers writing on a dedicated Facebook page ask if they should bring ropes or wonder if they should risk an outbreak of vertigo. “I don’t understand that,” he laughs.
Passing the third day of the walk, Esther Ruijtenbeek, 46, a textile designer, was just over 30 miles from the trail and said she had two blisters overnight and the heat was proving a challenge . But a Dutch mountain trail? “Maybe I’m a little skeptical,” she laughed. “It’s good preparation for mountain hiking.”