Thursday 29 May 2014

Rolling Along the Rhine: A Mini Holiday Just Down My Local River

Overlooking the Rhine in Bingen

Many years ago I had the opportunity to visit Bonn on business and was able to take time out to rent a bicycle and ride south towards Remagen. I did not get as far as the famous bridge and my rental bicycle was pretty terrible (coaster brake!) but I always thought someday I would like to cycle along the famous Middle Rhine and enjoy looking at the castles, the wine villages and the boats on the river, which is designated under the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage listing. Since moving to Düsseldorf in August 2010 I have ridden short stretches alongside the river that flows through my city but still was unable to get a tour organized. This procrastination came to an end when earlier this year I received a note from my friend in Mainz, Prof. Heinz-Egon Rösch, who was planning his annual Spring Tour with a small group of friends. This year's plan was to ride downriver from Mainz to Bonn and it only took me a moment to check my calendar and call him to add my name to his list of cycling tourists.

I met Prof. Heinz-Egon Rösch last June in Gau-Algesheim at the bicycle museum there. A retired professor of sprorts science who taught at the universities in Mainz and Düsseldorf, he continues to write guidebooks for cyclists for a German publisher (producing excellent photos as well) and has remarkable energy for a man of 82. His Rhine tour was planned for 2 1/2 days and he had selected some interesting places to visit so I was very much looking forward to a relaxing days of riding in what promised to be excellent weather.

Leaving Düsseldorf on the InterCity train meant getting up early on Day 1 of the trip, May 19, but I boarded and left right on time. The tracks run alongside the Rhine and the IC does not stop very often so after passing Cologne and Koblenz I found myself in Mainz just after 9:00, with some time to kill before our 10:30 meeting on the Rhine promenade behind Mainz's modern City Hall. Leaving the impressive old train station I found the traffic a bit too heavy for comfort but was able soon enough to turn onto a quieter side street with a marked bike lane which brought me quickly into the central pedestrian zone of the city.

Passing the impressive cathedral I rode around for a bit looking for a café and in the end returned to the cathedral square and the café there. It was a bit tricky to find a place to lean the bicycle as there were no bicycle racks anywhere to be seen which might have been an aesthetic choice on the part of the Mainzers but was not very practical considering how many people use bicycles for transportation. In any event I found a suitable spot and settled down for a “Dijon Breakfast,” with a huge cafe-au-lait, two croissants and some excellent jam. The people at the next table were speaking French and it was a pleasure to drink my coffee and soak up the warm sunshine and the vista of the square.

Riding the short distance to the promenade I soon found my group of seven and discovered that I was the youngest person there, the next youngest being 75years of age. Even though I was mentally in “touring mode” and prepared to stop a lot for photos, I was a bit worried that the group would be painfully slow. Everyone else was riding the heavy trekking bicycles so beloved in Germany, with front suspension forks, deeply-sprung seats, full mudguards, lighting and sturdy racks with startling quantities of baggage. I had my Marinoni sport-touring bicycle (basically a triple-ring racing bike with a slightly extended wheelbase) with a handlebar bag and a single pannier—and the 23 mm tires were subject of some discussion. But I need not have worried as the group actually kept up a good pace for the entire trip. I simply stayed behind Prof. Rösch to make sure I would not lose touch with the group.

We left Mainz and headed south briefly along the shore before crossing the high Theodor-Heuss Bridge (named after the first President of the Bundesrepublik, as is the one in Düsseldorf), leaving the state of Rhineland-Pfalz and entering Hesse. Oddly the capitals of both states, Mainz and Wiesbaden, are just across the Rhine from each other although the section of Wiesbaden on the east side of the river, Mainz-Kastel, is actually 10 kms from the main city of Wiesbaden. The Romans build a bridge across the Rhine in roughly this location in A.D. 27, which must have taken considerable engineering skill as the current bridge, first constructed in 1885 but rebuilt in 1948-1950 after war damage, is over 475 m in length.

Crossing the bridge and turning onto the Rhine promenade we passed “die Reduit,” a fortress constructed in the 1830s to protect what was then a floating bridge across the river. We continued northwards along a fine bicycle path and at 6.4 kms into our trip we stopped to admire Schloss Bieberich, where I have been twice before for state receptions. The palace is a lovely piece of baroque architecture, constructed as a summer residence by various Dukes of Nassau from 1700-1750. Very close by is a plaque on the bike path indicating that in a nearby house Richard Wagner wrote “das Rheingold.” I was not aware of his connection to Wiesbaden but suspect it was not of long duration as he was always moving to avoid creditors.

Our bikepath continued, taking us past a small marina at Schierstein, which boasts a very pretty modern footbridge to an island in the Rhine and surprisingly quickly we reached our first longer stop, the enchanting wine village of Eltville at Km 15.3. It is the largest town in the Rheingau region and boasts, besides being home to some of Germany's most famous vineyards, an impressive 14th Century castle, constructed as a residence for the Archbishop of Mainz. It boasts a filled-in moat with pretty gardens. We enjoyed a picnic lunch pause and a coffee in a nice café overlooking the river before continuing on our way in bright sunshine.

The bike path follows the Rhine and parallels the very busy highway. We rolled past Hattenheim, where I stayed for a night in October 2013 before visiting the state winery at Kloster Eberbach. Next stop was the historic crane near Oestrich, which was set up in 1745 and continued to be used for loading wine barrels until 1926. The winch was powered by people walking on two treadmills inside the structure and similar cranes once existed in other Rhine towns but only a handful still stand today.

We passed the next village, Geisenheim, and at Km 32 we came to Rüdesheim am Rhein, one of the most touristy towns in this region of very touristy towns. However, it was fairly quiet on this warm Monday afternoon and we took a break for some very welcome ice cream before boarding the ferry that took us across the river to Bingen.

Our route was a broad paved lane alongside the main road and we enjoyed fine views of castles high up on the hills on either side of the river and a great deal of shipping, both commercial barges and cruise ships. We stopped briefly to look at the pretty town of Bacharach, which is overlooked by the unfinished Wernerkapelle, a gothic “Rhineromanesque” church ruin with some nasty anti-Semitic connections. Werner von Oberwesel was supposedly murdered by Jews needing his blood for Passover (the infamous “blood libel”) and in 1287 a massive pogrom was launched that wiped out the Jewish communities not only on the Middle Rhine but also the Lower Rhine and Moselle and started a cult that was not shed until 1963.

Continuing onwards we came to the famous Pfalz, a castle actually located on an island in the centre of the Rhine near Kaub, one of the most picturesque locations on the river. Time for some photos! And with only 3 more kilometers of travel on our excellent bicycle path we came to our stop for the night, the excellent old Hotel Römerkrug in Oberwesel. I enjoyed a large room (with a canopied bed!) and we had a pleasant dinner sitting outside in the warm evening. White asparagus for me since I can never pass it up in season. The day ended with a stop in the “Historische Weinwirtschaft,” a wine bar and restaurant where we enjoyed some of the local product, served in cooling earthenware jugs. A most enjoyable day with 57 kms of riding and a rather surprising 317 m of climbing during what seemed to be a very flat route.

On Tuesday we enjoyed a relaxed breakfast before a brief walking tour of the town, which still has some of its old defensive walls intact. We rode over to look at the Liebfrauenkirche, a 14th Century Gothic church but it was not open until later so we left lovely Oberwesel and returned to our reliable bike route again. After only 5 kms we dismounted as across the river was the famous Loreley rock, which rises 120 m above the Rhine in the narrowest part of the valley, known as the Rhine Gorge. Of course, the rock was also the home of the Rhine maidens/water spirits/mermaids who sang so irresistibly that sailors on the river were lured to their deaths by shipwreck against the rocks. This is the subject of Heinrich Heine's most famous poem, which was set to music by Friedrich Silcher in 1837. Our little group assembled and proceeded to sing the song, with the exception of the non-German who only can recite the first two lines.

the Liebfrauenkirche, Oberwesel

the famous Loreley Rock
We rode past Sankt Goar and Hinzenich and Bad Salzig through the spectacular valley, arriving at Km 21 at another famous wine village, Boppard. The name appears to stem from Celtic origins and the area may have been settled as long as 13,000 years ago and was the site of a Roman town, Vicus Baudobriga, after Caesar's conquest of Gaul. A few traces remain of the Roman fort but with the withdrawal of Roman forces to Italy in the 4th Century the town faded for a while before become significant again under the Holy Roman Empire but then suffered through a series of wars and was occupied for twenty years by the French after the Revolution. We paid a brief visit to the Carmelite Church, part of a complex built between 1320 and 1730 before riding out of town and heading off for lunch.

A couple, Theo and Marga, had invited us for lunch and we enjoyed visiting them in their beautiful home in Brey, where we enjoyed much excellent food and a few glasses of superb wine. The view from their garden included the spectacular Marksburg, the only castle from the Middle Ages to have survived intact on the Middle Rhine. Construction began in the 13th Century and it has been the home of a foundation to protect castles and palaces since 1906. Oddly, there is a replica of it in Okinawa.

We were running behind schedule and with full bellies we rode off into the afternoon heat, which was unseasonably strong. The first part of the ride went well as our path took us through shade as we passed Rhens and soon enough found ourselves on the outskirts of Koblenz, riding through some magnificent residential areas before coming to the famous Deutsches Eck, where the Rhine and Moselle meet. A very ugly monument dominates the point and I took cafe to avoid having it in a photo.

At this point the trip became more difficult as we were riding fully exposed to the glare of the sun. We crossed a busy bridge over the Moselle and soon were riding through unattractive industrial areas. The Rhine, it is easily forgotten, is a commercial river as well as a touristic one and we were seeing the less pleasant parts now. Prof. Rösch had calculated our ride to be around 60 kms, the same as the first day, but he was mistaken as it became apparent that it would be closer to 90 kms. We were all getting pretty hot and tired when we had the chance to stop for a bit of recuperation in a park on the river in Weissenturm, overlooking a pond with ducks and geese.

Feeling somewhat more refreshed, we steadfastly resumed our tour. Passing around Andernach at Km 68 the group fell apart somewhat and it was decided that those who could should press on. Prof. Rösch particularly seemed to be suffering from the heat and the route now took us a bit away from the river to the west, parallel to a railway line.

I managed a steady pace with Eberhardt, who was an experienced mountain biker, and we kept going at over 23 km/h for the remainder of the ride. Unexpectedly we passed another impressive pile, Burg Namedy, which is owned by the Catholic branch of the Hohenzollern family and is used for cultural events as well as private functions such as weddings and conferences. It was built as a water castle in the 14th Century but expanded to become the current palace in the late 19th.

We rode past Bad Breisig and near Sinzig before reaching our goal in Remagen-Kripp near the ferry. The hotel had actually changed names but it was the only one in sight so in we went. I had another large comfortable room and very much enjoyed the welcome shower after riding more than 88 kms in the heat, with over 500 m of climbing. We had originally planned to take the ferry to Linz across the river for some wine drinking again but everyone was exhausted so it was pizza and beer in the hotel and an early night for all.

Wednesday, our final day, saw us depart the hotel on foot and take the ferry to Linz to look around. I had not heard of this town (the much more famous Linz is in Austria) but it is quite wonderful, with many half-timbered buildings. I was fascinated by the clock in the town hall, installed in 1743 and still working nicely. As we came back to the ferry landing to return to Remagen-Kripp, everyone was thrilled to see a Canadian flag on the quay so of course I had to have a picture taken in front of it.

Now remounted on our bicycles, we continued northwards in excellent spirits. It was only 3 kms to the famous bridge at Remagen, of which only the two pairs of massive towers remain. To stop the Allied advance into Germany in World War 2, the Wehrmacht had destroyed all the bridges on the Rhine but this one still stood when troops, primarily American, arrived in March 1945 and for ten days were able to use it to cross the Rhine. Heavily damaged, it collapsed on March 17 but not before a powerful Allied force had been able to cross on it and pontoon bridges adjacent. The towers on the west side house an interesting museum devoted to the Battle of Remagen and the history of the bridge, which had been built to further the Von Schlieffen Plan for the invasion of France in World War 1 but was only completed in 1919.

Our last stop in Rhineland-Pfalz was at the Arp-Museum in Rolandseck, where we enjoyed some refreshments in the elegant café housed in the restored 1856 railway station that makes up half of this museum of modern art, the other half being further up a hill in a modern building designed by Richard Meier and opened in 2007. Alsation sculptor/painter Hans Arp (d. 1966) and his wife Sophie Taueber-Arp (d. 1943) were involved with the Dada movement but the only connection to Rolandseck appears to have been an art dealer, Johannes Wasmuth, who lived there and was the moving force behind having the railway station converted into an arts centre. In any event, the buildings are quite attractive and an asset for the region. Rolandseck is only 18 km south of Bonn.

And Bonn was our final destination, easily reached on the pleasant ride along the excellent bike path that brought us past the old diplomatic enclave in Bad Godesberg. We stopped briefly to look at the office building that had housed parliamentarians for the Bundesrepublik from 1969 until the relocation of the capital to Berlin in 1999. It is now used for offices for the United Nations. We also rode past the Villa Hammerschmidt, once the residence and office centre for the Chancellor of Germany.

A final ice cream in the square in front of the Bonn Rathaus and we all departed for the railway station. My northwards trip back to Düsseldorf was a quick hour while the others returned to Mainz. It had been a very enjoyable mini-holiday covering 176 kms and thanks to Prof. Rösch I finally managed my tour of the Middle Rhine.


Scott said...

Thanks for taking us brought back many great memories. I lived in Bad Godesberg (Plittersdorf) for 22 months many moons ago and rode to Remagen quite often.

Evangelic said...

Thanks for the great trip down the Rhine. It also brought back many memories for me as I lived in Wiesbaden for 3 years back in the '80s. I hope you don't mind that I used several of your photos on my Pinterest page.

Hope you get to take many more lovely trips.