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Travel without borders — get to know the village of Schengen

Evan Woodnorth
May 21, 2019

Lots of tourists think Schengen is just the name of a visa. They don't realize it's a small border town in Luxembourg that has become a symbol of borderless travel in the EU. But the place itself is worth a visit.

Report on Schengen | Road sign of the village
Image: DW/E. Woodnorth

At the mid-point of the Moselle River, which winds its way through the heart of Europe, is a place where three countries meet: Luxembourg, Germany, France. It was here, almost 34 years ago, where the idea of a Europe without borders was born.

Many people are familiar with the Schengen Agreement, which allows free movement of people and goods between the 26 member states in Europe. Those with a Schengen Visa can travel freely to more than half the European continent.

But have you ever stopped and thought about Schengen as a place?

Who knows, perhaps you will decide to make this pastoral wine-growing village in Luxembourg your next weekend getaway.

Not just a historic agreement

As you may have guessed, the Schengen Agreement gets its name from the small village in Luxembourg where the treaty was first signed in June 1985, between Belgium, France, West Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

Bridge in Luxembourg leading to France and Germany
Europe united: Bridge in Schengen leading to Germany and FranceImage: DW/E. Woodnorth

The location in Luxembourg at the tripoint with France and Germany was a symbolic choice, as it's sort of a miniature version of Europe. There was no better place to commit to the idea of open borders than at the junction of three. By doing this, the initial signatories dedicated themselves to their cause and showed what they hoped to achieve.

Back then, however, the notion of free movement between European countries was considered revolutionary.

"This idea of open borders was a bit of a utopia. In 1985, you could not imagine that there would be open borders, especially between Germany and France. This was quite extraordinary," Martina Kneip, director of the European Museum Schengen, told DW.

Around 40,000 visitors come to Schengen every year, to see the small Luxembourg border town that has become a symbol of borderless travel in the EU.

For many, the main destination is the European Museum Schengen.

Out front, the "Columns of Nations" symbolically represent each of the 26 countries in the Schengen Area with a metal star sculpture. On the rest of the square, flags of all the member countries wave in the wind.

Inside, visitors can witness the significance of the Schengen Agreement and its impact and legacy across Europe and the world through interactive displays and archival footage. In a glass case against the back wall, there are 30 customs officers' service caps from across Europe, reminding visitors of the formalities that cross-border travel once entailed.

Columns outside  the European Museum in Schengen
The Columns of Nations in front of the European Museum SchengenImage: DW/E. Woodnorth

The museum is not just there to inform its visitors, it serves as a symbol for a unified Europe and a common European identity. Museum director Kneip, originally from Freiburg, a city in Germany's southwest, located close to France and Switzerland, is a firm believer of this: "There's a danger if people take [the Schengen Agreement] for granted. It's not a given – you have to work on it every day and that is really something we have to do to prevail."

Trekking without borders

The area around Schengen offers so much more than merely a European history lesson. Its rolling countryside is a great destination for day hikes. I chose a roughly three-hour loop hike called "Schengen without borders", which promised to showcase all the countries at the border triangle.

I was a little skeptical at first. It felt like "borderless" was just a trendy touristic label. But I decided to go along with it.

The 7.7 km (4.8 miles) hike starts at the European Museum Schengen and loops through France and Luxembourg, offering stunning views of all three border countries.

View from hilltop of the French wine-making village of Contz-Les-Bains
Rolling hills and the River Mosel - a view of the French wine-making village of Contz-Les-BainsImage: DW/E. Woodnorth

The trail snakes its way through vineyards, thick woods, farm paths, fields overrun with bright yellow rapeseed, narrow switchbacks, and opens up midway to a plateau of shell limestone looking out over river valleys and wine villages along the Moselle river.

Despite my initial doubts, there is something quite captivating about seeing the border triangle from 300 meters (984 feet) above sea level. While the occasional coal barge slowly makes its way downriver, scores of cars and trucks seamlessly cross back and forth between Germany, Luxembourg, and France. No barbed wire fence, no border guards.  

A display of customs officers' service caps in the European Museum Schengen
After borders became invisible customs officers also disappeared - but their service caps can still be seen at the European Museum in SchengenImage: DW/E. Woodnorth

Without border checkpoints, there was only one visual cue that told me which country I was looking at: energy production. Towards France: steam billowing from nuclear cooling towers. Towards Germany: the ever-turning blades of a wind farm.

With frequent changes of scenery and elevation, the hike is challenging but rewarding. For those interested in learning more about the area, information placards tell visitors about the local flora, fauna and geological makeup of the area. Towards the end of the hike, you also walk past former gypsum mines.

Back in Schengen I wanted a look at the other aspect that makes this village so attractive: its winemaking. 

Moselle wine in a no-frills cellar

With three vineyards for a population of 548, there's no shortage of wine in the village of Schengen. Diligently maintained rows of rivaner grapes (also known as Müller-Thurgau) seem to rise from the river up to the Markusberg. Each of the local hillsides where wine is cultivated has its own patron saint. For Markusberg, it is said that Saint Mark the Evangelist watches over and protects the vineyards.

Lucien Gloden is a fourth-generation winemaker, born and raised in Schengen. He cultivates 5 hectares (12.4 acres) of vineyards, with property in each of the countries in the border triangle, and produces 40,000 bottles a year.

Gloden is in favor of a unified Europe: "I think we could not survive without a common Europe and a common currency, and as a small country, this especially applies to Luxembourg," he told DW.

Portrait of winemaker Lucien Gloden in his wine cellar in Contz-les-Bains, France
Reaping the benefits of being in Europe - vintner Lucien Gloden at his wine cellar in SchengenImage: DW/E. Woodnorth

While the other vineyards in the village cater to a more international and gourmet clientele, Gloden's wine cellar is local and down to earth. And that's exactly what I like about it. Just because you're in the richest country in Europe doesn't mean you need to pay a steep price for good wine.

I personally enjoyed the traditional rivaner white wine the most. It's light and smooth, a daily table wine for locals. It's also often combined with carbonated water to make a white wine spritzer.

Before I leave, Gloden tells me to come back to Schengen, on the first weekend in August. That's when the annual "Pinot & Friture" festival takes place, when locals feast on pinot blanc wine and fried Moselle river fish.

I won't be away for long.

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