Three years later, when I was cycling Europe for the first time, I remembered the movie line when thinking that I’d rather be on a bike anywhere on the Continent than trying to stay alive riding across town in the US
Thankfully, things have gotten a lot better for American bikers since then, but they’ve improved in Europe as well. There’s better signage, little bike-shaped traffic lights specifically for us two-wheelers in some towns and cities, more bike racks and bike lanes, and best of all a population that’s inherently friendly toward cyclists. How sweet it is not to be treated like we do not belong.
But while almost all of Europe is better for cyclists than is the States, there’s one route that is hands-down best – the paved, mostly flat and winding cycle path that parallels the long, meandering Mosel River in western Germany.
Why best? Well, imagine riding for a week past vineyards stretching up steep mountainsides on both banks of this clean, slow-moving river. Picture yourself pedaling through summer sun-drenched medieval-looking towns of half-timbered houses, past Romanesque churches of intricate architecture, glancing up from your handlebars to see a castle perched high overhead and, as you turn the corner you hear a happy population of Townspeople and tourists enjoying the local wine, or beer and sausages, at outdoor tables around the fountain in the town’s main square. Believe me, it’s a blast, even if you do not sprechen sie deutsch. Many Germans speak very good English.
But a warning: After 200 miles of this (Austin-Lehman Adventures offers its guests choices of routes between 122 and 200 miles stretched over a week-long trip) it’s tough, very tough, to return stateside to your regular workout ride on a highway Shoulder and a Big Mac on the way back home.
Let me back up some, to give you a wider picture of the country before I take you to where we’ll start our Mosel trip at the historic town of Trier. (Uh, that’s “historic” in European terms, which means a very long time ago. Trier, for instance, was founded – I love telling this – in 16 BC, by Emperor Augustus.) If you like me, I appreciate A place more once I’ve gotten a geographical overview.
Okay – we all know where Germany is on a map – in north-central Europe. But quick, how big is it? Most of us know it’s smaller than the United States. But given its prominence in world history we’re amazed to learn that it’s smaller than the single state of Montana. In fact, you could put Germany and New Jersey into Montana (although they’d never get along), and you’d still have room for a course or two of der wiener schnitzel und der appelstrudel. Wunderbar!
Germany is in population the largest nation in Western Europe, yet still it has just over a quarter that of the US – about 82 million people. However, it wallops us in neighbors. We’ve got Canada and Mexico, and a bunch of fish to the right and left. But Germany is bordered by nine nations (Austria, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Holland, Denmark, Poland, and the Czech Republic). It’s as if the US is a ranch with only a couple other big spreads barely in view across the prairie … while Germany occupations the middle unit in a condo where all the other ten speakers speak another language. No wonder they’ve had such a fractious time.
And now back to the Mosel River, in the western region of Germany near its border with Luxembourg. The river begins in a mountain range in France (where it’s called the Moselle) and runs umbilically northward, to where it flows into the larger Rhine. More than two centuries ago ancient Rome sent its armies north over the Alps to this lovely forested and watered region, and tried to push beyond. The “Vandals” kept them from settling for long north of the Mosel, and that the beautiful river towns you’ll be cycling through became Roman frontier encamps, then settlements, and finally the largest of them true Roman towns with public baths, villas, roads, bridges, theaters, and of course the ubiquitous Roman vineyards – the descendents of which you’ll see today.
All of which returns us to Trier, Germany’s “oldest city,” known for housing the “most impressive Roman construction” north of the Alps. That’s saying something, given the other Roman structures you’ll see downriver on your ride toward the Rhine. Pedal or walk in one direction in this safe and fascinating town and you’ll come upon an amphitheater where 25,000 sandaled Romans and Germans watched bloody gladiatorial protests. Make a U-turn and you’ll pass the huge 11th century Cathedral, then enter a Renaissance market area full of bustle and bratwursts and, amazingly (to me, anyway), turn down a street where Karl Marx was born 800 years later!
It will require all of your two days in Trier to wrap your mind around such history, and your tongue around the local delicacies – most of which I still can not pronounce but would recognize immediately if tasted once again. Then comes the enjoyable river ride through picturesque Trittenheim to Neumagen, a fascinating town of Roman ruins and statues and reconstructed villas, plus (thankfully) all the modern creature comforts.
At the height of the Roman Empire a massive fortification of two intense gates and fourteen towers exhausted here, something I had difficulty picturing while walking up quiet streets of flower-potted shops to a coffeehouse just after dawn the next day. I knew I was treading the ancient Roman Road, but all seemed too tranquil for that really to have experienced here, much less all the other wars between then and now. But one obvious truth spurred me on – I needed some caffeine after the fun of the long, pre-dinner wine-tasting the evening before!
I hope you’ll have the same knowledgeable, enthusiastic guide we had during that morning’s walking tour of town, for he made the statues come alive as he told the human stories behind them. What a transition then to leap into the saddle for more miles of sweet riverside cycling, then smack into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance! At least that it was felt like to stroll through the calendar-pretty and oh-so-seemingly-German town of Bernkastel, with its pointed-roof half-timbered houses, cheerful four-hundred-year-old market square, and Landshut Castle high above the wine groves stretching up the steep hills.
(By the way, “half-timbered” refers to the use of only half a hardwood tree log, like oak, which because of its strength did not require the entire log for support of a house or building. The walls filled in later, between the half-timbered structure which we still see today.)
I’ve forgotten to mention another of the pleasures of river riding, the opportunity to view from a distance the small towns across the water water and the ferries and pleasure boats heading upstream or down. The cycle path also provides close-up views of vineyards as you pedal past, and if you crane your neck you’ll find tiny people far above you working in the fields. Oh – and the opportunity to converse with German and other fellow-cyclists on the car-free path. What a great way to get around.
I did not think any town could surpass Bernkastel in visual delight, but the remarkable and busy burg of Cochem – with its huge and lofty castle and even larger market area of flowers and fountains – takes the prize. It was founded in 1332 (!), The town hall was finished in 1620, the whole place was sacked and burned by the French in 1689 … and today it could not look any more peaceful or pretty.
Cochem’s Reichsburg Castle is visible for miles and illuminated at night, and was easily the most resplendent castle I’ve ever seen – until that afternoon. On a pleasant break from the saddle our small group hiked for maybe a mile through a cool and green side valley of trees, when suddenly the massive medieval wonder of multiple tall, slender turrets called the Burg Eltz Castle came into view. You’ll probably recognize it, for it’s adorned zillions of calendars and magazine covers.
I’ve run on too long, so I’ll leave it to you to fill in the blanks (during your own visit) on the remaining miles of fun riding along the Mosel to the Rhine. In my memory it was all vineyards and blue water and high white cumulus clouds one moment, then the cosmopolitan city of Coblence (where the rivers intersect) the next. After a week of towns and villages this burg of 100,000 appeared huge, but still inevitably bike-friendly.
I wish I could close on a more positive note, but Coblence is where I made my biggest mistake of the trip – not making a U-turn for a second taste of the Mosel all the way back to Trier!