It started with a simple statement: “I’d like to go on a bike trip.” That’s all my good friend, Todd, said as we discussed what the freedom of getting the coronavirus vaccine would mean. It was the fall of 2020 and I had no idea where he wanted to go, but it sure sounded like “Biergarten” to me.
About 11 months later, we pedalled a ceremonial lap around the Cologne Cathedral and began a 13-day trip that took us south along the Rhine to Mainz, and then east to the city of Wertheim, where we met three friends to ride the Tauber-Altmühl Radweg as a quintet. Our motto was: “very little to do and even less to prove”.
Part I: The Rhine
If your idea of a dream vacation in Germany is to see majestic castles and stop at outdoor cafes and restaurants, then cycling the Rhine checks all those boxes and more.
The river winds through small towns that seem to be placed as part of an interactive model set, telling a story that is as impressive as its beauty. Just north of Koblenz, for example, we talked to a man walking his dog and he pointed to a mural commemorating the place where Caesar built a bridge over the Rhine in 55 BC. To put that in perspective, the most famous span in America, the Golden Gate Bridge, opened in 1937.
Bacharach: ‘Getting one back’
There is a meditative quality to the rhythm of a bike trip, and the phrase we used to express our appreciation was: “getting one back.” Day three was all about that vibe, taking us through hillside vineyards, past the mythic Loreley rock and ending in the fairytale city of Bacharach; a town whose charm shines even in darkness.
There are many cities in Germany with sturdy timbered buildings, arched gateways and narrow cobblestone streets, but Bacharach possesses a palpable medieval magic where everything is better simply because you are there. The highlight of the stay, however, had nothing to do with the town’s well-preserved antiquity, but the hospitality of Anna and Richard, the proprietors of Pension Bei der Post, an inn located about a mile up the hill from the centre of town.
Checking in, Anna told us they opened their lounge in the evenings if we would like a nightcap, so we decided to have a dessert beer after returning from dinner. As we sat at our table, Richard turned on CNN International, but soon recognised that we weren’t interested in the business plan of television news.
He then asked if we would like to hear some music and gestured at a nearby guitar. We nodded, the TV got switched off and Richard began to strum, breaking into “Feelings,” the Morris Albert hit from 1974; an unlikely, but perfect song to deliver us to the present tense of our setting. The mood established, he then played songs from the Beatles, Credence Clearwater Revival, Dire Straits, Eagles and many other artists, making each song his own. Bitburger never had a better accompanist.
The next morning, Richard and Anna gave each of us a parting gift, a journal with Bacharach embossed at the top and our name at the bottom. As we left, they followed us out of the Pension, waving like proud parents sending their kids off to school.
Riding away, Todd smiled and said: “think we got a few back there.”
Part II: The road to Wertheim
Leaving the Rhine wasn’t so much saying goodbye to a river, but being greeted by a scene of endless greenery on the way to Wertheim, the northern most city on the Tauber-Altmühl Radweg. This region of Germany is a popular destination for cyclists and it’s easy to see why, for it’s beautiful in the way that natural settings slowly absorb into one’s senses. You can literally feel your blood pressure go down as farmland dissolves into small towns and villages before returning to endless vistas of manicured countryside and forests.
Arriving in Wertheim, we met our friends, Ed, Jack and Marty, and caught up over dinner at the Ankerplatz Biergarten, a fabulous establishment situated on the Main River across from Burg Wertheim, the storybook castle that overlooks the town. Enthusiasm was high as we discussed our imminent tour down the Tauber-Altmühl Radweg, the 347-kilometre route that follows the Tauber and Altmühl rivers to the Danube.
Part III: The Tauber-Altmühl Radweg (bike path)
Riding the Radweg is straightforward in terms of planning, as it conveniently divides into 30-mile sections that will take you to accommodation-friendly cities like Bad Mergentheim, Rothenburg, Herrieden, Treuchtlingen, Eichstätt and Beilngries.
Along the way, you ride through Gemütlichkeit-drenched towns such as Creglingen, Leutershausen, Gern, Bad Abbach and other picturesque destinations to stop for lunch, a little bit of sightseeing or simple relaxation.
Most importantly, the hospitality one encounters on the Radweg is excellent, a remarkable thing given the challenges of the Covid era. The majority of hotels and restaurants are short-staffed, reeling from many months of pandemic realities, but it does not impact the quality of service. The Tauber-Altmühl Radweg is replete with generosity, sincerity and good humour. It is, in every way, an ideal and inclusive experience for cycling enthusiasts of all skill levels.
Trip highlight: A day that can’t be manufactured
What we knew on the fourth day was that we were riding to Treuchtlingen. What we didn’t know is that we would stumble across Germany’s own Field of Dreams, or FC Aha, a soccer club on the edge of a cornfield; a setting so idyllic that you think Fritz Walter and Franz Beckenbauer might walk out of the cornstalks and onto the pitch.
We came across FC Aha as a game was being played under a cloudless sky, circumstances that mandated a stop. Finding a table just below the clubhouse terrace, we were soon joined by new friends, trading jokes and sharing stories over the course of a long afternoon. When the sun began to set, we departed in the game jerseys they had gifted us, singing the chorus to the club song we had just learned. It was the kind of unexpected encounter that cannot be manufactured, but that you hope every vacation day might become.
Enduring lesson of the Radweg
With three days of riding left, the emphasis was solidly on the journey, not the destination. Our end point, the Old Stone Bridge in Regensburg, was approaching with each turn of the sprocket and we did not want to get cheated out of one sight, beverage or experience in our path.
About 10 kilometers outside of Regensburg, we were riding in a line and slowed down as we came upon the open umbrellas of a Biergarten. Our discussion over its appeal was uncharacteristically muted and lacked focus when Todd called out: “You might never get the chance to drink here again!”
All five bikes made a 90-degree turn and came to a stop. The Old Stone Bridge would have to wait; our priorities were still in place…we simply needed a reminder.
Keep an eye on TheLocal.de for Phil’s tips on making the most of a cycling trip in Germany