Sunday, November 6, 2011
Ride of the Falling Leaves: the Ahrtal
After watching a recent episode of my favourite German travel program on television featuring the Ahr River, I checked the map and realized it was fairly close to Düsseldorf and since the weather looked like it would be good enough for cycling on Sunday, I enlisted my friend Henri to tackle another German river bike route. We both hoped it would work out better than the Sieg’s not-always-there bikepath.
Leaving the main train station at 7:02 on a slooooooooow S-Bahn train, we reached Cologne and transferred to the Eifel-Bahn, which took us west and south and brought us to Blankenheim’s station in another 90 minutes. The station is actually some distance from the town and it was a bit strange to get off and see nothing much besides the little station and some fog.
The route was well-marked, however, and we were soon swiftly rolling down the 5 kms or so to Blankenheim proper. Stopping to get our bearings in a park near the rather ugly 1950s Rathaus, we saw the impressive castle overlooking the town. It is now a youth hostel. There were signs for the Ahr bike route, including both regular ones and a big stone bike. We did not see the source of the Ahr, which apparently begins in someone’s basement, but we were soon following the tiny river eastwards.
The Ahr route is around 85 kms in length, and for the first 25 or so from Blankenheim it takes cyclists through fairly wild and unsettled countryside. Many of the trees had already shed their leaves so we took care riding the well-paved bike path. Where it was not paved, it was packed earth that allowed us to travel nearly as fasted. No ruts or holes. The Italians maintaining the bianca strada in Tuscany could learn something from German grading!
We passed around Ahrdorf and then on to Müsch, enjoying a generally downhill ride. It became apparent to us pretty soon that the Ahr bike route has been constructed on an old railway right-of-way, with very gradual grades. In one spot, the old railway retraining wall had been made into an exhibition showing the various kinds of rocks to be found in the Ahr Valley. There was also an interesting sign telling the story of a Wehrmacht supply train that got stuck here in March 1945 and how the locals cleaned it out, enjoying real butter for the first time in years.
We passed a very charming little chapel, built in 1620, near Antweiler. Soon after this our path ended and we found ourselves on the main Landstrasse. The path has a 5 km gap in it and the main road has to serve for the moment, although the speed is limited to 70 km/h for cars. Near Schuld we were back on our path, including a nice ride through a nicely-lit and -paved tunnel that brought us into Insul.
Continuing to follow the now-larger river (and getting a bit lost at one point), we made swift progress. When we arrived in Altenahr just after 1 pm we decided to find a place to eat. The weather was warm enough (just) to allow us to sit outside. We had some hearty food (pea soup for Henri, chanterelles in cream sauce with homemade spätzle for me) in this busy little town with its ruined castle high above before we rode through another short tunnel and into a gorge as the Ahr became more dramatic.
We were passing dramatic landscapes now, with hundreds of acres of vineyards all around us. There were many people as well, both cyclists and hikers, so we had to take care as we rode the bikepath.
Just before reaching Ahrweiler, we came to the massive convent, Kloster Clavarienberg. This is a huge building dominating the floodplain. Apparently founded in 1440 by a crusader who thought the hill looked like Calvary in the Holy Land, it was the site of series of chapels until the Franciscans arrived in the 17th Century and built a monastery. It had its own Stations of the Cross, which are still to be seen, and became a destination for pilgrims until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1803. After several unsuccessful attempts to operate a school there, it was taken over by Ursuline nuns in 1838, and new buildings were constructed at the end of the 19th Century. It remains a Catholic school today.
Time to take a break in Ahrweiler for a few minutes! Inhabited by the Romans (there are foundations of a large villa to be seen), the town’s existence was first recorded in the 9th Century. Ahrweiler was jammed with people on this Sunday afternoon, an unusual sight in Germany. All the stores were open and the restaurants were doing good business, primarily from senior citizens. This very charming town has an impressive gate, which was badly damaged in World War 2 during the battle that led to the famous taking of the nearby Remagen bridge. It had been walled entirely during the Middle Ages but suffered a great deal during the Thirty Years War. On May 1, 1689, the entire town was destroyed, leaving only ten buildings intact.
We had thought about having a coffee but decided to press on to Sinzig as it was getting cool and the cloud cover meant that we were not enjoying all that much light. We wanted to get the next train back as the line would take us directly to Düsseldorf. Ahrweiler marks the northern limits of the Eifel Mountains and as we passed nearby Bad Neuenahr the landscape gradually turning into a flatter, marshy environment. The signs continued to be excellent and we were soon in the rather unattractive town of Sinzig which, being directly on the Rhine, has an autobahn going right over it, and train tracks cutting it off from the river.
After buying our return tickets, we turned back to the only open establishment we saw in Sinzig, which turned out to be a most excellent café. Enjoying some homemade apple cake let us put everything into perspective. The Ahr route is beautiful and would have been better on a sunny day. I will come back to look into some of the vineyards and spend some more time in Ahrweiler and some of the other little towns. The return trip, on a rather crowded Regio train, was only 80 minutes. Although my GPS went beserk at one point and suddenly awarded us an unearned 26 kms, we did ride 85 kms, with a descent of around 500 m vertically over the route. Recommended!