Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Neckar

Down the Neckar
One of the great joys of cycling in Germany is the large number of routes alongside rivers. The Rhine and the Danube spring to mind but there are many other less known streams like the Neckar, the Main, the Ahr and a host of tributaries which run into the drainage pattern. On navigable rivers like the Elbe and the Mosel old towpaths where horses once pulled rafts or barges upstream and which now serve as service routes to the locks and power stations, form the basis of many bike routes. Their surfaces vary from almost motorway standard tarmac to desperate sections of loose sand or pebbles. Generally however they are well maintained and accessible to walkers, inline skaters and cyclists. Mostly the recommended signposted routes avoid traffic laden highways, apart from short sections through towns. Railways and road links also use these valleys so sometimes one has to ride with the drone of motorways or use level crossings over the railways. However we’ve found that cyclists are always taken care of with bridges, tunnels or provision in galleries under the concrete arches, not so romantic perhaps but relatively safe.
The Neckar river rises on the eastern flanks of the Black Forest, not far from the Danube in fact, than cuts around the northern edge of the hills and turns west through Stuttgart before flowing into the Rhine in Mannheim. Downstream of Stuttgart the Neckar valley is attractive with incised meanders cut into the Rhine valley hills, with more open basins occupied by farmland and small towns. One of our earliest ventures was to cycle out from home on our touring bikes one morning and use the Neckar valley as the start of our journey over the St Bernardino Pass. Fifteen years ago, the route was a bit patchy with some gaps and signposting quality was very mixed. When our local ADFC proposed a day trip from Mosbach, about halfway between Heidelberg and Stuttgart, we thought it a good chance to refresh our memories of the Neckar route. We joined a 10-man strong group on an S-bahn (local train) to a village near Mosbach. For us it was a virtually free journey as our senior citizens tickets covered the journey and there’s no charge for bikes on these trains. Both bike compartments were full, and on our return journey from Heidelberg we counted 18 bikes at our end of the train.
We detrained at Neckar-Elz, high above Mosbach and set off by careering satisfactorily downhill against the tide of churchgoers walking slowly upwards. Mosbach is a delightful ancient town, lots of narrow alleys, crooked half-timbered houses and a Town Hall in an old church building. It was too early for coffee so we headed off through fields and allotments, under heavy clouds to reach the Neckar cycleway, starting on the left bank (taken from flow direction). This is now named the Neckar-Alb Radweg and links into the eastern Black Forest scarplands we’d used on our earlier trip over the Alps. The valley narrowed between dark wooded hills, which suddenly blurred over as a threatened rain showers pelted down, forcing us to stop and don jackets. Sensible Neil also added his ‘Rainlegs’ and kept dry whilst I suffered wet knees for about 30 minutes although the shower soon passed. We were pleased to find that the signposting was excellent, on a mix of surfaced farmer’s roads through fields interspersed with good gravel trails close to the river. Although we were travelling downstream the paths rose slightly here and there, giving short freewheel opportunities which we all enjoyed as we swept through tiny Guttenbach. Over the bridge to the right bank in Neckargerach gave us good views of the castle as we reached a ferry point in Zwingenberg. Here the sacrosanct lunchtime forced an unexpected stop. Just then heavens opened in earnest, fortunately just by an ‘Imbis’ - a roadside pull up offering food and drink. Later we chugged over the chain ferry - 1€ per bike or person and met a great line of oldtimer Mercedes SL cars complete with enthusiasts, awaiting their turn on the four vehicle ferry. A short steep climb and reunion with the rest of the party at a rustic inn followed before we were off on another curving gravel run through the beech, chestnut and coniferous woods of the sandstone Odenwald. This bright red sandstone was used to build Heidelberg’s Schloss plus many bridges and other works in all the little towns. By now improving weather had enticed other cyclists and walkers out of their Sunday torpor and we shared the route in a good natured way.
We wound gently up and around the meanders past Eberbach and the teardrop-shaped loop by Hirschorn, where yet another pink painted Schloss lies above thetown. We were relieved that former rough climbs needed to cross rail tunnel entrances had been considerably improved. A short vertical section into Neckargem√ľnd led us to a pleasant hostelry with views over the Neckar where various Radlers (shandies), beers, coffees were downed with enjoyment. We savoured pieces of rhubarb tart while some tucked into Schnitzel and Fries or the even more ethnic Handk√§se mit Musik - a homemade type of cheese accompanied by onions, tasty if not socially correct! Afterwards we gathered our bikes together and fairly whizzed along the final section, across the Neckar bridge to the right bank and along a busy road. Soon a cycleway appeared and we shot through the almost deserted centre of Ziegelhausen before rejoining the road. The last run into Heidelberg was somewhat nerve racking, at least by German standards being beset by parked cars, tourists, traffic lights - all the usual hazards of urban cycling. We reached the station in fine style, however with time to buy an English Sunday paper before flinging our bikes into the waiting train. After thanks and farewells we descended in Ladenburg and cycled home through the fields, arriving conveniently as the first drops of rain fell. We had completed 92 km, our first major tour of the season. Excellent day out, good company and a reminder that German river routes are improving all the time. The transport links worked wonderfully, as ever. Other countries, please copy!

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