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Visiting Orsbach, Near Aachen, Germany: Peaceful Nature, With Subterranean Tensions?

Updated on August 21, 2018
Flag of Germany
Flag of Germany | Source
Nature conservation area, Orsbacherwald
Nature conservation area, Orsbacherwald | Source

A German border village in the heart of Europe

Orsbach and district constitutes a peaceful, rural village to the west of Aachen, in North Rhine-Westphalia (German: Nordrhein-Westfalen), Germany, albeit within the city limits. It must be remembered that large German cities and their municipal leaders have relatively wide powers within geographically extensive boundaries compared with comparable cities in some other Western countries; and thus the situation of the village Orsbach within the City of Aachen is not necessarily unusual.

What is somewhat unusual, however, is not the neighbouring territory to its east with the main body of urban Aachen, but the fact that, to its north, west and south, territory from the Dutch province of Limburg (1) surrounds this German village.

Moreover, the land drainage of Orsbach contains the headwaters of streams which flow into The Netherlands. A plateau upon which which part of the village is situated is named for Bocholtz, a municipality in adjacent Dutch Limburg.

South Limburg (Dutch: Zuid-Limburg) is a region of rolling hill country, and geographically and geologically — if not administratively and nationally — Orsbach is a continuation of this hill country.

Orsbach even has a Dutch name: Oorsbeek.

With both the suffix '-bach' in its German name and the suffix 'beek' in its Dutch name meaning 'stream', it is interesting that a local stream called the Senserbach (Dutch: Selzerbeek) forms part of the southern boundary between Orsbach and the Dutch village of Lemiers. The Senserbach flows at approximately a height of about 140 metres above sea level, but the upper part of Orsbach lies at 200 metres, adjacent to Bocholtz, to the north.

Part of the sometimes steep slope between these two levels — a drop of about 60 metres — is heavily wooded, and this area is known as the Orsbacherwald.

Among the tree species present at the Orsbacherwald are hawthorn (German: Weisdorn), oak (German: die Eiche) and hornbeam (German: die Hainbuche). Flint and limestone occur naturally in the locality. (Interestingly, in neighbouring Limburg, in the woodland known as the Vijlenerbos, tree species present include hornbeam (Dutch: haagbeuk), oak (Dutch: eik); and the hawthorn (Dutch: hagedoorn) is typically used for hedges in Limburg, and, again, flint and limestone occur naturally at the Vijlenerbos.)

The Orsbacherwald is actually typical of a recurring, South Limburg geographical feature known as a 'hellingbos', which refers to a wooded hill; equivalent German words 'Hellingwald' and 'Hügelwald' (2) exist in literature as translations of this type of feature in South Limburg. Interestingly, since the exact feature is replicated at the Orsbacherwald, it would maybe be a moot point — and even maybe an example of toponymic intertextuality? — to attempt to judge which of these features is the ultimate referent.

Edward W. Said wrote about counterpoint and polyphony in comparative literature: the blending of multifarious voices. From a toponymic perspective, Orsbach is a territory of transition, but borderland localities need not represent some kind of monocultural triumphalism. Indeed, from Goethe through Iqbal to Said, exchange and transition encapsulated by the concept of the diwan are arguably at the heart of culture, rather than at its periphery, to which borderlands are sometimes relegated.

During World War Two, it is very well known that Germany's repressive nationalist government subjugated and dominated neighbouring countries. What is less well known is that the government of The Netherlands in the immediate postwar years sought to annex and subjugate areas of Germany adjacent to the Dutch border. (Such efforts did not survive subsequent attempts at economic integration in Western Europe.)

Yet it is an undoubted fact that borderlands have a special character of their own. (Indeed, it might be that some citizens of small countries such as Luxembourg or Uruguay would even argue that to inhabit borderlands lies at the heart of the human condition.)

It might be possible to say that from sedimentary and even tectonic perspectives the Senserbach Valley and Bocholtz Plateau areas are bound together with geological force at Orsbach and beyond the German border.

But then from the viewpoint of flora and fauna can one really speak of cross border influence? because — after all — flora and fauna in their natural state exist independently of human interaction.

During the Cold War, it was the internal border between 'the two Germanies' that wrought furious tension and commanded the intense focus of non-Germans especially. At least to an English-speaking readership, writers such as John Le Carré brilliantly captured the dilemmas and moral decadence associated with Germany's internal cross-border antagonism. (3).

Now with the waxing and waning of ideologies, perhaps it is time for English-speaking visitors to Germany to pay more attention to the subtleties of the country's historic, 'external' borderlands.

Places such as Orsbach, Germany pose questions to the thoughtful visitor which I do not feel qualified to answer, but which — not least in the perception of North America-based observers — surely lie at the heart of the European riddle.

January 10, 2018


(1) There is also a Belgian province of Limburg.

(2) The German phrase 'bewaldeter Hügel' could also be used to describe this common feature. Interestingly, the writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt from Switzerland — which, like this area of Western Germany and, indeed, South Limburg, is far from flat — uses the evocative phrase 'echte deutsche Wurzelwildnis' (roughly, 'genuine, German wilderness of roots'). So, whatever did Dürrenmatt mean by this?

(3) Le Carré has described the cross-border furies at Berlin's Glienecke Bridge, depicting how highly similar Cold War antagonists during an internal German cross-border defection were each striving grimly to undermine each other but each succeeding only in morally undermining themselves: 'He looked across the river into the darkness again, and an unholy vertigo seized to reach out and possess him and claim him despite his striving, calling him a traitor also; mocking him, yet at the same time applauding his betrayal. On Karla has descended the curse of Smiley's compassion; on Smiley the curse of Karla's fanaticism. I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred, and they are his. We have crossed each other's frontiers, we are the no-men of this no-man's-land.(My emphasis)' John Le Carré, Smiley's People, London: Pan Books Ltd., 1980, p. 332. With Germany's internal border now disappeared, one wonders whether the English-speaking world will have occasion to be fascinated by some of the complexities of certain of Germany's traditional, 'external' borderlands? I leave the question open.

Some sourcing: Wikipedia

I am grateful to Margareta Kluge for linguistic guidance; I am responsible for any remaining inconsistencies or inaccuracies.

Wayside cross near Aachen in Orsbach, directly at the border between Germany and The Netherlands.
Wayside cross near Aachen in Orsbach, directly at the border between Germany and The Netherlands. | Source

Also worth seeing

In Orsbach itself, a Medieval fortress (German: die Burg) in Orsbach is not open to the public, but may be hired out for special events.

Lemiers, Germany / The Netherlands (distance: 1.6 kilometres); a moated castle lies on the Dutch side of the border, marked by a stream known as the Senserbach. The Dutch side of the village also has a Medieval, stone chapel.

Dreilaendereck, Vaalserquartier, Aachen, Germany / The Netherlands / Belgium (distance: approx. 6.5 kilometres); this point where the borders of these three countries meet has a monument on a wooded hill known as the Vaalserberg, and an observation tower.

Aachen , Germany (distance: 7.7 kilometres); sights in Downtown Aachen include the historic City Hall (German: Rathaus) and the Cathedral (German: Dom).


How to get there: Lufthansa flies from New York Newark to Düsseldorf, where car rental is available. A46/A61/A44 lead to Aachen. A rail service links Düsseldorf (distance: 91 kilometres) to Aachen. From Downtown Aachen, bus 37 serves Orsbach. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

Map of Region Aachen in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.
Map of Region Aachen in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. | Source


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