A Two-Wheeled Tour Through Germany
written by TIFFANY WILLARD | photography courtesy of TIFFANY and ZACH WILLARD
I reached across to pinch my left arm to make sure this was real. Yes, there were years of dreaming about this trip. And hours of research. And sleepless nights worrying if it would all come together just right. But that moment when we wheeled our pack-laden bikes onto the path along the Main River was the moment my whole body seemed to be jumping up and down and singing some silent aria from the old church on the hill above us. Our adventure was actually beginning.
My son and I landed in Germany to experience some of its beautiful nature. With more than 200 long-distance cycling trails covering more than 43,000 miles and 125,000 miles of hiking trails, getting outdoors is a favorite family activity for Germans. While we came to get up close and personal with the roots of local beech trees, I also came to get back to my own roots, as I was born in this country some 50 years ago.
WONDERS OF WÜRZBURG
Seventy-five miles southeast of Frankfurt lies the university town of Würzburg. While it lays claim to that distinction, as well as being the capital of the Franconian wine region, it is endearing to me for the fact that it’s my birthplace. With a father in the third infantry in 1960, my parents were stationed there for the first two years of my life. One quick return visit in my 20s never allowed me to locate my first home, so I knew I had to include Würzburg on this itinerary.
Arriving at the train station and being greeted by the Golden Arches, our initial impression was indifferent. One cobbled street over, though, we were immersed in a curvy, winding maze of trams, Baroque buildings and flower stalls. Old Town is a mix of Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque and Modern architecture. A nearly 20-minute barrage of aerial bombs in 1945 destroyed 90 percent of the city, and the women — because the men were all away at war — took to rebuilding it almost immediately with historical accuracy.
The favorite gathering spot in Würzburg is atop the Old Main Bridge. “Alte Mainbrücke,” in German, is also the name of the restaurant that sits directly on the bridge. While the food may be tasty, we never made it that far. The walk-up wine bar dispenses heaping glasses of the best local wines, allowing you to enjoy “wein” outdoors along the bridge, watching the sunset while listening to buskers with guitars play popular tunes. With the Marienburg Fortress to your right and the sounds of Old Town to your left, the gentle current of the Main River beckons you to enjoy another glass.
The Main River also beckoned me to bike. The next three days would be spent cycling the Main Radweg (“Cycleway”), a five-star bike path, to the town of Bamberg. Hoping to have some great conversations with my son, void of technology, I knew biking along the river promised a flat trail with nothing but beautiful scenery and quaint towns to distract us. Our plan was to bike about 30 miles per day, stopping along the way for sightseeing, a glass of wine or an afternoon cup of tea accompanied by the obligatory sweet treat.
Backpacks stuffed and bungee-corded to our bikes after a good night’s sleep, we stepped into the light drizzle and headed toward the river. The weather might have been soaking through my leggings, but it couldn’t dampen my spirit. We navigated the slippery cobbled streets and arrived at the river just as the rain stopped. It must be a sign, I thought. A few send-off photos and practice runs to ensure we could keep the bikes upright with the added weight of our bags, and we were off. As we left Würzburg, a local train whizzed by on our left. The trail, a wide-paved path hugging the river and offering some shade, was otherwise quiet. Soon enough, the river was babbling and so were we.
Our first stop, about 30 minutes later, was the tiny town of Randersacker for a quick look at its beautiful old church. The deep ruts of the hilly cobblestone streets proved challenging for our tires, so we pushed the bikes to the center of the hamlet. An hour farther down the trail, we crossed a stone bridge and stopped in Ochsenfurt to see its timbered houses and the clock in its town hall tower. As the clock strikes noon, figures appear and dance to music in a choreographed play that’s been entertaining viewers since 1497.
The rain started again, so we parked our bikes and ducked into Voit’s Bakery next door. Herr Voit bakes bread daily in traditional ovens that are now disappearing in lieu of newer, fancier technology. It’s obvious he and his wife love their work, as they greeted each customer warmly. We ended up in the kitchen, getting a firsthand look at the ovens and a sample of the cookies that had just come out of them.
It’s hard to pull yourself from such a warm environment only to plunge yourself into cold rain again, but we had to move on to meet our daily mileage goal. The rain became a mist and our clothes were drying as we rolled into Kitzingen with its ancient leaning tower. As legend has it, the tower was built during a drought, so the workers used wine to make the mortar, which could not properly support the heavy stones. We rode through yellow fields of rapeseed, a flowering plant used in biofuel production and an ideal stop for a photo op. Back on the path, wide enough to ride side by side, we talked and laughed as we easily pedaled. Small towns popped up along the trail every 15 minutes or less, but our destination for the day was Dettelbach, and we were ready to change clothes and have a meal, so we biked on.
Dettelbach is known for its wine. It’s also known for a local specialty called “musskatzinen,” a gingerbread-type cookie made with nutmeg. We were treated to both as we searched for a room for the night at the tourist information center/ library/wine tasting room. The combination of these three businesses in one building was a mystery, but we weren’t complaining.
We headed to a local gasthaus with traditional Bavarian foods for dinner. Walking around the quiet town, we discovered the nearly complete, medieval town wall with its 30 stone towers.
The next morning was cool but clear, and we experienced probably the most beautiful section of our ride. Hugging the river, only feet from its edge, the path turned to packed gravel. The current was so slow that the water looked like glass, reflecting the trees and sky, making it impossible to know where reality stopped and the water began.
We detoured to visit the town of Volkach and its pedestrian zone of shops and restaurants. Just outside town is the Maria im Weingarten Church. In service since the 13th century, the church is reached by walking uphill though a vineyard of Müller-Thurgau and Reisling grapes. Back on the path, headwinds slowed us to half our normal speed and conversation halted as we struggled to push ahead. The path merged with a road and ran through several small towns, abruptly stopping at the river, where we joined two cars and a fellow biker on a ferry to cross the expanse.
We temporarily lost the trail and although maps did not help us find the way, we stuck to the gravel path along the river, believing it would put us back on track. The path morphed into a 6-inch mountain bike trail through grassy fields before our gamble paid off and we emerged from the wilderness with the town of Schweinfurt and the Main Radweg on the horizon. Cafés and pubs lined the river in Schweinfurt, where we grabbed an afternoon snack. We continued into Hassfurt, found a hotel room, then headed out to a dinner of wurst, wine and wienerschnitzel, because biking all day means you can eat and drink anything you want.
On day three, we spied a poster advertising a wine festival in Bamberg. That settled it. The medieval town of Bamberg was our next stop. Booths with local wines competed for our attention as a band dressed like the 1950’s “Happy Days” cast sang sock hop music and everyone was compelled to do “The Twist.” We shared a picnic table with locals and refilled our glasses regularly. Everyone was having uninhibited fun, and we almost forgot we weren’t locals, until we realized we were among the few that actually knew all the words to the American songs.
We repeated it all over again the next day, only with beer. The Bergkirchweih is Germany’s oldest and one of its favorite beer festivals. It may be a bit smaller than Oktoberfest in Munich, but its heart is just as big. Nestled into the hillside over Erlangen, this is a German festival with few international tourists. Brews comes in large, liter-filled steins and pretzels are large enough to wear around your neck. Carnival rides entertain families, while numerous bands with sounds ranging from Oompah to American rock encourage beer sales and audience sing-alongs. It’s impossible to have a bad day at a beer festival, and impossible to leave early to pedal onward. Finally, we purchased train tickets for our bikes and ourselves to Nuremberg, our final stop.
PARKS AND PEDESTRIANS
If the thought of touring Germany’s outdoors by bike is too ambitious for you, hiking through one of 16 national parks is another way to experience its natural beauty. With every building in the country seemingly more than 200 years old, it came as a surprise to me that their park system was created only 42 years ago. While we currently celebrate the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service, Germany is taking measures to preserve these large tracts of land and return them to their original glory.
In the past, most of central Europe was covered in beech trees. Settlers in the area introduced other species such as spruce and Douglas fir, and the indigenous beech was significantly choked out. A major effort is underway to restore the forests to their original state, and once-threatened wildlife is also returning, as visitors can experience at Kellerwald-Edersee National Park. Once used as royal hunting grounds, Kellerwald-Edersee is the youngest of the country’s parks. 66,000 tourists per year hike its 22 square miles, a quarter of which have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protecting one of the largest beech forests in central Europe. Solitude, interrupted only by the sweet, musky smell of wild boar, is what you will find here. For a cool retreat from the land, hop on a boat or jump into the cold waters of Lake Edersee.
Small towns dot the landscape around the park. The Brothers Grimm visited this area and the timbered houses and the deep woods they encountered inspired many of their fairy tales. Nearby, Wildtier Park introduces visitors to breeds of animals that used to roam the woods, and others that still do, but the star attraction is the Birds of Prey show held daily on a cliff overlooking the lake and hills beyond. Not like any bird show you’ve seen before, wild hawks and vultures join the park’s inhabitants, circling overhead as chicken pieces are thrown in the air. They swoop and dive and soar en mass, just over the crowd’s heads. The clowns of the show, however, are the buzzards that enjoy being flung off the cliff by the handler, only to return like a child saying, “Do it again.” The entire show is in German, but the antics of the birds need no interpretation.
On the western German border lies Eifel National Park. This beautiful gem was off limits to Germans for 60 years after WWII while it was used by the Belgians for military training grounds. Bullet holes can still be seen in the rock walls used for rifle practice. Large craters, now masked by leaves and vegetation, are left from Ally bombs dropped during the conflict, but in 2004, the land was returned to Germany and the park was created as a gift to the German people.
With more than 60 miles of biking paths, 150 miles of hiking trails and two cross country ski trails, nature abounds to entertain and captivate visitors. The Wilderness Trail is a 53-mile adventure that attracts many to the area. Over four days, hikers circle the park, stopping in small towns each night for food, lodging and an official Trail stamp. At the end of the journey, each hiker gets a certificate of completion and the satisfaction of a hike well done.
High on a hill within the park lies Vogelsang, a former Nazi education camp, where 1,000 future party officers were sent to be indoctrinated with the ideology of the times. Now a museum, the center aims to be a destination for people from all countries to come discuss peace. From the museum’s vantage point, the park below and the setting sun offer a peaceful end to a busy day of outdoor activity.
The night brings its own set of outdoor activities. Labeled as one of only 39 Certified Dark Sky Parks in the world, The Eifel beckons you to look up. In this protected nocturnal environment with an unusually large number of starry nights, you can see the Milky Way through high-powered telescopes at the observatory, or on a ranger-led night hike.
Indeed, the sky’s the limit on outdoor adventures in Germany. The excitement of new sites, different languages, fine wines, hefty beer and localized foods makes the adventure even more fun. So pick a region, a bike, a path (give yourself a little pinch) and go.