Tuesday, January 29, 2013
It is home of some of the world’s most iconic motor car brands but Germany is also a pleasure on two wheels, as MAX BENNETT discovered on a cycle tour of the Rhine Valley, Heidelberg and the Black Forest.
“You are where? You are in the middle of the forest!”
The voice on the other end of the phone was pitched somewhere between concern and incredulity.
It was dark, it was raining hard and we had just pedalled to the top of a vast hill somewhere in the Black Forest, having clearly missed the turn to Herr Ziegler’s hotel. But having called him for directions, we were about to learn that we had used our last few ounces of energy on a leg-sapping climb that we didn’t need to make...
A few days earlier, it had all seemed so straightforward. Starting our tour in Norwich’s twin city Koblenz, my friend Mark and I quickly found our way onto the cycle route that follows the left bank of the Rhine and we were soon clocking up the miles as we headed south towards Bingen.
Cycling in Germany is very easy and safe, thanks to the extensive network of well-marked bike routes – radwegs in German – which take riders away from busy main roads.
There are about 220 long-distance routes giving cyclists easy access to some of the most popular tourist areas. Among these are cycleways that follow the Rhine, Danube and Moselle river valleys.
For experienced riders, there are more challenging routes through parts of the Black Forest and the Alps.
Most cities, towns and large villages also have easy-to-follow cycle tracks – many with their own traffic signals.
Hundreds of hotels and guest houses are also listed as being “cyclist friendly” with storage for bikes.
Cyclists also tend to be treated with much more respect on German roads than in the UK, as many motorists are themselves bike riders. And another big plus is that pot-holes are far less common!
Our ride took us through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Rhine Valley – passing a string of pretty towns and villages, such as Boppard where we stopped for a refreshing dunkel (dark beer), and Bacharach, where handsome half-timbered buildings are tucked behind a 14th-century wall.
This stretch of the river is known as the Romantic Rhine, and it was easy to see why. Winding through a deep gorge, the river is flanked by steep hills covered by vineyards and by a series of castles and ruins that sit atop crags like sentinels overlooking all those who pass below.
On arrival at Bingen, we made our way down to the quayside and were soon heading back up river. Being a Saturday, we were lucky enough to have seats on one of the 70 cruise boats that converge on the towns of St Goar and St Goarshausen for the spectacular Rhine in Flames festival.
As darkness fell, the sky was lit up by a dazzling fireworks display that illuminated the medieval castles on opposite sides of the river and – aided by the acoustics of the valley and reflections in the water – created a breathtaking show of noise, light and colour.
Back in the saddle after a hearty breakfast, Mark and I rejoined the Rhine cycle path, passing dozens of other riders of all ages who were all out enjoying a warm, sunny Sunday. Helped by the superb sign-posting of the many inter-connecting bike routes, we made our way past Mainz, Worms and Mannheim before veering into the quieter but equally scenic Neckar Valley, arriving at dusk in the historic city of Heidelberg.
Nestled in a deep wooded gorge, Heidelberg enjoys a stunning setting and boasts an array of sights and attractions that has made it one of the most-visited cities in Germany, inspiring generations of writers and artists.
With a day free from cycling, Mark and I were booked in for a guided tour, courtesy of the vivacious Suzanne Fiek whose knowledge and passion for the city helped bring its history alive. She took us to Heidelberg’s iconic castle and its hilltop gardens which gave us a wonderful view of the old town and Rhine plain stretched out below.
At midday, we enjoyed an al fresco lunch at Zum Goldenen Hecht (the Golden Pike) next to the city’s Old Bridge, and then explored its atmospheric old town, where the cobbled streets are packed with bars and eateries including the celebrated Roter Ochse (the Red Ox Inn), run by the Spengel family for 170 years.
Heading south-west, the attraction of Germany to any would-be cycle tourist was illustrated by the next day’s ride. We barely needed to glance at our maps as superbly-signed cycle routes took us through woods, vineyards and sleepy hamlets on well-maintained tracks and quiet back-roads where we saw more bicycles than cars.
It had been an enjoyable day’s ride but, after stopping for “one final dunkel” at a biergarten in Baden Baden, we suffered a triple whammy as darkness fell, the heavens opened in spectacular style and we hit our first big climbs.
A couple of hours’ hapless riding later, we finally arrived at Herr Ziegler’s Hotel in Neuweier, where we awoke the next morning to the welcome news that the rain had passed. Our route took us back up the hill we had mistakenly ascended the previous evening and onto the famous Schwarzwaldhochstrasse – the oldest tourist route in Germany.
The long climb gave us amazing views over the pine-clad hills and distant villages below and eventually brought us to the mummelsee, a picturesque lake formed in the Ice Age. From there it was all downhill, as we plummeted into the rolling countryside around the Tonbach Valley.
Our destination was the town of Baiersbronn, where we were given a warm welcome by Jörg Möhrle and his wife Julti at the Hotel Tanne. We spent the afternoon relaxing in the hotel’s swimming pool and sauna, and it was then time to find out why this area has become something of a Mecca for fine food lovers.
The five-course meal we enjoyed that evening – consisting almost entirely of locally-sourced produce – was as good as anything we had ever tasted. “People come here for the clean air, to hike in the green hills and enjoy the environment,” Baiersbronn’s tourism director Patrick Schreib told us. “We have seven Michelin stars here which is an amazing feat for a town our size but it is our friendly atmosphere that makes us special – a chance to relax and get close to nature.”
Cycling deeper into the Black Forest, our route brought us to a town synonymous with two of the region’s most iconic products. Along with its spectacular waterfalls, Triberg is the “cuckoo clock capital” and its main street is lined with shops selling timepieces of every shape, size and design. If that was not enough, it is also regarded as home of the original BFG – the Black Forest Gateau. As the bakeries were all closed, Mark and I had to make do with a modest slice at our hotel restaurant.
The next day’s ride was one of the highlights of the trip. After a short, sharp climb, we emerged from thick conifer forests atop a high ridge near the top of the Elz Valley. Over the next 30 minutes we barely touched our pedals as we rocketed downhill – passing roaring streams, lush meadows and charming villages where the window boxes overflowed with bright pink and red flowers.
Max Bennett was a guest of the German National Tourist Board and flew with Germanwings which has flights from Stansted Airport to Bonn, Stuttgart and a number of other cities in Germany.
For information visit www.germany.travel or www.germanwings.com
For information on cycling in Germany, visit www.germany.travel/en/ebrochures.html and for details of cycle tours of Freiburg, log on to www.freiburg-aktiv.de
A few hours later, we were pedalling alongside hundreds of other cyclists on the cobbled streets of the city regarded as southern Germany’s “green capital” – Freiburg im Breisgau.
After stashing our bikes at our hotel, we headed into the historic old town, which is easily explored on foot. Our guide Bernhard Müller was interested to know I was from Norwich. “Ah, home of the Canaries,” he said, before revealing that his wife was a keen City supporter hailing from Bury St Edmunds. He then took us on a stroll around the bustling heart of Freiburg which ended with a sumptuous meal at the cosy Ganter pub-restaurant in the shadow of the city’s magnificent Gothic Münster.
Surrounded by wooded hills and blessed with the country’s sunniest climate, Freiburg has a wonderfully-relaxed air and its pioneering approach to urban planning – evident in its tram system, car-free zones and energy-efficient, solar-powered housing – has won it international renown. So, in this greenest of green cities, there was only one way we could round things off – with a guided bicycle tour, courtesy of Fernando Schüber and Werner Sessler, of Freiberg-activ.
They took us on a two-hour ride which helped to illustrate why this go-ahead, university city was considered by Germans one of the most popular places to live, work – and ride a bike.
Max Bennett stayed at:
Mercure Hotel Koblenz, Julius-Wegeler-Strasse, Koblenz; Tel +49 (0)261 1360; email email@example.com
NH Bingen, Am Rhein-Nahe-Eck, Bingen am Rhein. Tel +49 (0)721 7960; email firstname.lastname@example.org; www.nh-hotels.com
Hotel Holländer Hof, 66, Neckarstaden, Heidelberg. Tel. +49 (0) 6221 60 500; www.hollaender-hof.de
Hotel Restaurant Rebenhof, 58, Weinstraße, Neuweier , near Baden-Baden. Tel. +49 (0) 72 23 96 31 0; www.hotel-rebenhof.de
Schwarzwaldhotel Tanne Tonbach, 243, Tonbachstrasse, Baiersbronn. Tel. +49 (0) 7442 833 0; www.hotel-tanne.de
Hotel Pfaff, 85, Haupstraße, Triberg. Tel. + 49 (0) 07722 4479; www.hotel-pfaff.de
City Hotel Freiburg, 3, Weberstraße. Freiburg. Tel. +49 (0) 761 38 80 70; www.cityhotelfreiburg.de
“In the 1970s we had about 50km of cycle lanes here; now we have more than 460km and the network is growing,” said Werner. “People here don’t see it as a weakness, or unusual to arrive at work by bike. Our biggest traffic problem is how to accommodate more bicycles!”
Riding on UK roads will never be the same again...