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TOURISM

Riding the Radweg: A guide to touring Germany by bike

From exceptional hospitality to stunning sights - and obligatory Biergartens - here's author and US resident Phil Schaaf's experience of taking a cycling holiday in Germany.

Cyclists in Stuttgart, southern Germany.
Cyclists in Stuttgart, southern Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Tom Weller

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.

One of the many castles along the Rhine river on the way to Koblenz.

One of the many castles along the Rhine river on the way to Koblenz. All photos courtesy of Phil Schaaf

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. 

READ ALSO: Vennbahn – how a historic German train line became a popular cycling path

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.

Richard, one of the proprietors at Bei der Post in Bacharach.

Richard, one of the owners at Bei der Post in Bacharach, playing guitar.

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.

READ ALSO: 10 of Germany’s best (and longest) biking routes

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. 

View of Burg Wertheim taken from Ankerplatz Biergarten

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. 

A view of the Tauber-Altmuehl Radweg somewhere outside of Eichstaett.

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.

The FC Aha club. Five locals and five Americans – fast friends over soccer, beer and sunshine.

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

Member comments

  1. Sounds like a fun trip, thanks for sharing. One day I would love to do something like this along the Rhine and over to Bavaria.

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GERMAN TRADITIONS

10 ways to enjoy autumn like a true German

From scavenging for mushrooms to drinking Apfelwein, autumn is a truly magical season in Germany. Here's how to make the most of the fall months just like the locals do.

10 ways to enjoy autumn like a true German

As summer transitions to autumn, it can be easy to remain nostalgic for the long, sunny days. But the months leading up to Christmas can also be an immensely vibrant time to be in Germany – if you know how.

So as you swap your summer t-shirts for woolly jumpers, why not participate in some quintessentially German customs, from whipping up pumpkin dishes to collecting chestnuts in the park? 

If you’re not sure where to start, here are 10 ways to make the most of autumn in true German style this year. 

1. Give thanks for the harvest

Since the third century, Christian countries have organised festivals to thank God for the gift of the autumn harvest – and in Germany, these religious celebrations continue to this day.

Traditionally, Erntedankfest (Harvest Thanksgiving) is celebrated on the first Sunday of October in rural communities with church services, a parade (complete with a harvest queen), music and a country fair. Food is also collected for those in need. In some regions, the celebrations coincide with the wine harvest, and vineyard owners set up stalls where locals can sample the season’s wines.

A church in Lower Saxony collect food donations at harvest time.

A church in Lower Saxony collect food donations at harvest time. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Friso Gentsch

2. Eat pumpkin with everything

Say goodbye to Spargelzeit, the time of year when white asparagus is served on special menus in just about every German restaurant – autumn marks the start of Kürbiszeit, when Germans get creative with the humble pumpkin. 

From spicy soups to creamy pumpkin risotto, you may be surprised at how versatile pumpkin can be. In fact, if you happen to visit a farmer’s market in the next month or two, you may discover that there are far more varieties of pumpkin than you ever imagined.

And if you do start to get bored of pumpkin dishes as the season wears on, there’s plenty more seasonal produce to experiment with, from Grünkohl (kale) to Pfefferlinge (chanterelle mushrooms). 

READ ALSO: German Word of the Day: Der Kürbis

3. Go foraging for mushrooms

As soon as the first touch of autumn frost is in the air, many Germans wrap up warm and head out to the forest for a popular national pastime: mushroom foraging. The idea is simply to head out into nature, basket in tow, and see what wild mushrooms you can find, from the beefy Steinpilz to the slippery Butterpilz

A word of warning, though. Legally speaking, the mushrooms should only be for personal use (i.e. not to sell), and some mushrooms may not be edible at all. If you’re a beginner forager, it’s a good idea to head out with some experienced mushroom gatherers to start with, or take your treasure to your local Pilzberater (mushroom consultant) who can let you know if your mushrooms are safe to eat. 

READ ALSO: What’s behind the German fascination with foraging for wild mushrooms?

Mushroom foraging in Brandenburg

A forager collects mushrooms in a basket in Brandenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Patrick Pleul

4. Visit your local Herbstfest 

Though the days are getting shorter and colder, there’s no excuse to hibernate just yet. Whether you live in a small town or a big city, there’s bound to be at least one Herbstfest (or autumn festival) going on, which can be a great reason to get out of the house and spend time with friends.

The most famous autumn festival in Germany is obviously Oktoberfest – an enormous fairground and beer festival that runs in Munich from late September to early October. If you can’t make it to Bavaria, there are usually little copy-cat festivals dotted around Germany, as well as other local events where you can enjoy delicious seasonal favourites from Apfelwein (apple wine) to Flammkuchen and Käsespätzle

5. Celebrate the reunification of East and West Germany

October 3rd is a special day in the German calendar, marking the date on which East and West Germany were reunified after 41 years apart. Though reunification can bring up complex feelings for some Germans, Unity Day (Tag der Einheit) is a national bank holiday, which is reason to celebrate in itself.

This year, the date falls on a Monday, meaning people can look forward to a long weekend with fireworks and local celebrations. Why not get a group of friends together and check out what’s going on in your area? In Berlin, for instance, stages are set up all around Brandenburg Gate each year, with music performances, comedy and street theatre. 

6. Make paper lanterns on St. Martin’s Day 

Largely celebrated in Germany’s catholic states, Martinstag (St. Martin’s Day) on November 11th is a charming German custom that has a fair bit in common with Halloween. Traditionally, children dress up and head out onto the streets in a little procession with paper lanterns. In some regions, they also go door to door and sing for sweets, fruit or cookies. 

Families marking St. Martin’s Day will generally eat a Martinsgans (Martin’s Goose) for dinner. This is in reference to a part of the legend of St. Martin in which Martin, believing himself unworthy of becoming a bishop, attempts to hide himself in a stable filled with geese. 

In protestant Berlin and other parts of northern Germany, the processions have been rebranded as the secular Laternenfest (Lantern Festival).

St. Martin's Day procession Thuringia

Thousands of people join a St. Martin’s Day procession in Erfurt, Thuringia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Reichel

READ ALSO: Six signs autumn has arrived in Germany

7. Collect chestnuts in the park

As the leaves starts to fall, you may notice something else lying on the ground on your street or in your local park: chestnuts. Heading out on a walk to collect chestnuts can be a great way to while away a bright autumnal afternoon, but more than that, these versatile nuts have a million uses that may surprise you.

From making your own face masks to creating organic cleaning products, not to mention using them in seasonal dishes and as home decorations, you’re bound to find a way to use up the chestnuts. But if not, animal parks and forest wardens are often thrilled to get a chestnut donation for feeding wild animals throughout winter. 

If you do go chestnut collecting, however, make sure you follow the rules: only chestnuts that have fallen to the ground can be picked up and taken home.

8. Dress up for Halloween

Though celebrating Halloween is much more popular in the United States, some American traditions – from fancy dress to trick-or-treating – have slowly but surely taken hold in Germany over the past few decades. 

Instead of saying “trick or treat”, German children tend to say, “Süßes oder Saures” (sweet or sour?) as they blackmail their neighbours into emptying their sweet cupboards.

But even if you’re not keen on an American-style Halloween, there are ways to celebrate Halloween like a true German. Why not spend the day carving pumpkins and then head out for a spooky tour of a haunted castle in the evening? 

READ ALSO: What are Germany’s 8 spookiest places?

9. Fly a kite 

The hot, humid days are over and a chill wind is in the air, so what better time to indulge in another German obsession – flying kites? 

Adorably known as Drachen (dragons) in German, autumn is prime kite-flying season in Germany, so be sure to take your kite (and your family) out to your park on the next windy Sunday afternoon to see what all the fuss is about.  

Kite flying in Berlin

People fly dragon kites at the Drachenfest on Berlin Tempelhofer Feld. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

10. Remember lost loved ones 

In a more sombre autumnal tradition, All Saint’s Day on November 1st is a time to remember loved ones who are no longer with us.

Taking place on November 1st, the day after All Hallow’s Eve, many Germans will take the opportunity to place candles or wreaths on the graves of their relatives. Churches will generally hold sermons dedicated to the theme of remembrance and in the evening, religious families may gather together for dinner. The following morning, on All Soul’s Day, there are more religious services and prayers for the dead. 

Even for those who aren’t believers, November 1st can offer an opportunity for reflection, contemplation and most importantly, a chance to spend time with the people you love. 

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