Monday, November 15, 2010

Bikes, Beer, and Bavaria

Men and women don’t always want the same things in a vacation. Women seem to like romantic European towns, quaint villages, and quiet restaurants. Most men would be happy with a vacation that revolved around bikes and beer.

Well, as luck would have it, the Germans built a whole country around all of the above. And even luckier than that, my wife, Jean, likes bikes and beer as much as she likes quaint European villages. We got to see—and taste—it all while cycling in Southern Germany along a route known as the Romantic Road (Romantische Strasse).

The leisurely road ride of about 250 miles extends from Würzburg to Füssen, and packs in more castles and medieval villages than your can shake a sword at. In fact, just outside of Füssen, at the southern end of the route, you’ll find the castle that inspired Disney’s faux fortress.

As the official travel agent in our relationship, Jean does all of the research and planning. I pretty much just show up and carry the luggage. The Romantic Road’s official Web site, (look for the link in the upper left with the British flag for the English version), had just about all of the information needed, including links to make arrangements for hotel reservations, luggage transportation and bike rentals (all of the above for us was handled through Deutsche Touring).

Our trip began with an overnight flight on Lufthansa from Boston to Frankfurt. Incidentally, Lufthansa means “small seats and no sleep.” After a couple of days in Frankfurt and one in Heidelberg, we finally hit the start of our ride in the incredible town of Würzburg. Situated along the River Main, Würzburg has great restaurants, local vineyards, cool shops, the requisite castle on the hilltop, and a “house” known as the Residence, built in the early 1700’s, that is larger than a mall, finer than any American mansion, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

We picked up our sturdy touring bikes from a shop that was only a short walk from our hotel, and set off on our Bavarian adventure.

With only five days, we only did a portion of the route. Yeah, the whole route could be done in two hard days, but this isn’t the kind of ride that’s to be rushed. Who wants to rush a breakfast with fresh fruit, local eggs, good coffee and Nutella? How can you ride by a castle without an hour or two of exploring? Did I mention that the beer was good—and everywhere?

Anyway, setting off from Würzburg, the well-marked bike route takes you through rolling farm land and quiet villages, almost always staying away from busy roads. The brochure declares that the first half of the route is flat, and I’d say for the most part that’s true, but don’t be surprised when you find a couple of occasions when you’re digging deep for an easier climbing gear. From Würzburg, we went through Tauberbischofsheim, Lauda-Königshofen, Bad Mergentheim, Weikersheim, Röttingen, Creglingen, Rothenburg O.D.T., Schillingsfürst, Feuchtwangen, ultimately ending our ride in Dinkelsbühl.

We relied on the signs a little too much, and the map that we had didn’t have actual street level detail for the towns. This did result in us getting lost a couple of times—but that’s part of the fun. I must have had my dialect off slightly, because when I’d ask for directions, I’d start with “Ich spreche nicht Deutsch,” which, according to my Rick Steve’s travel book means, “I don’t speak any German.” However, it turns out that I think I was asking for people to speak to me in German as fast as possible.

As mentioned above, the German idea of a free hotel breakfast (frühstück) is amazing, and can include anything from buffet tables full of local meats and home-made sausages to cake. I’d say, “whatever,” and pile it on. Each day, after a short time to digest, we’d drop our oversized bags (which screamed, “we’re American”) in the hotel lobby and the touring company would pick them up so they’d be waiting for us at our next destination. Then we’d straddle our Fahrrads (bicycles) and head out.

We had a chance to explore incredible Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic castles, cathedrals, fortresses and towers dating back hundreds of years. Ancient walled cities with perfectly preserved architecture were like time capsules and were around every turn. For lunch, we’d try to find a local ratskeller (restaurant under the town hall) or other pub and enjoy a local wine or a refreshing radler (a beer with lemonade made specifically for cyclists as the word “radler” means “biker”); then more pedaling in the afternoon to our next destination.

Highlights included seeing a statue dedicated to Nusch, the mayor of Rothenburg in 1631. Legend has it that the mayor, facing destruction of his Protestant city by a Catholic army, accepted the opposing general’s challenge to drink a giant tankard of wine (about 3.5 liters), in one draught. After Nusch knocked that tankard down, the Catholic army spared the city, and the mayor went down in history as the Meistertrunk (master draught). The Museum of the Teutonic Order of Knights, in Bad Mergentheim, had a bicycle dating back hundreds of years, and, as you’d expect to find in a museum dedicated to knights, a huge collection of doll houses. Oh, and, a pet ferret attacked me.

We sampled several different hefeweizens (unfiltered wheat beers) including Schneider Weisse and Paulaner (which is conveniently available close to home), and a few excellent dunkels (dark beers). Germany’s Purity Law (reinheitsgebot), the world’s oldest food and beverage law, tightly regulates all of the nation’s brews and only four ingredients can be used: malt, yeast, hops, and water. Now that’s a government with its priorities straight.

Some interesting things about Germany: the fashion is very different (not many people in T-shirts and sneakers, and just about everyone wears black or brown), hunds (dogs) are allowed in most restaurants, the food is varied and very good (hausgemacht—homemade), and the pace of life is more relaxed than here in the U.S. All of which makes for a great vacation.

When we go back to finish the route, we’ll bring better maps, and we’ll probably bring our travel ready mountain/touring bikes so we can explore some of the local singletrack and so we can be self-supported. The plan IS to go back, so stay tuned. Until then, Auf wiedersehen.

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