Saturday, August 06, 2011

Between the Rhine and the Odenwald Hills Part II

Ried Club Run Cycling distance 70 km
The weather forecast for July 14 2011 suggested that early sunshine would give way to cloud and probably thunderstorms by the afternoon, but our group was 18 strong as we left Bensheim Station, close up against the Odenwald edge. First along cycleways, quiet roads past a war cemetery where not only combatants but also forced labour camp victims were buried, then into the shady forest bearing gradually northwest. We sped along on gravel tracks heading for Maria Einsiedel, a pilgrimage church and our first contact with the Geopark route. The signs are so discrete that several members of our party did not see them until we had passed at least 10 of them!
Now out in the Ried proper, the former marshes have been drained and the loams and clays aided by modern fertilisers are fertile. We followed country roads, often on cycle ways through farming settlements like Allmendfeld with its half-timbered buildings and flower gardens passing by fields of wheat, barley, oats and maize, interspersed with potatoes and sugar beet. We dodged great sprays of irrigation water jetting over the crops, including a whole field of chives. This had just been mowed as we passed by on our pre-tour ride, the aroma was wonderful and made us hungry! We were cycling over a natural gas storage reservoir, which uses porous rocks from which oil has already been extracted, its existence marked only by occasional fenced off head works. In the little town of Riedstadt, an elderly local caught our group up and insisted we visited the museum just on the corner. It was well worth it, if only for the remains of a Bronze Age 'Lady of the Sands', a fully 5'10'' tall young female complete with bracelets and earings (picture). She was found nearby in 1994 as a field was being ploughed.

We pressed on to Stockstadt, where the Romans probably had a harbour on an old meander of the Rhine. We had passed the shadowy remains of a Roman road on the way here, revealed from the air by crop marks. In Stockstadt we had our picnic, on the southern edge of Kühkopf, a large nature reserve, with a visitor centre complete with huge tabletop models of the whole area. Oil was produced here too, comparatively recently. Kühkopf is well known to most local Germans and has a well founded reputation for its biting insects. We kept out on this occasion. Here, during WW II a wooden decoy model of Mannheim was constructed but many Allied bombers went on to destroy large chunks of that city.
Lunch over we swung in and out of Stockstadt to pick up our route along the high dam of the meander cut off to the Rhine itself, at the spot where the Hesse engineer Krönke had a 7 m trench dug in March 1828 to straighten the river. With the next high water the Rhine widened the trench greatly and the meander was history. The short section south along the river bank was a little hazardous because of families walking and noisy with jetboats. Hmm...getting deafened while metaphorically ripping up 50€ notes isn't my idea of fun, but each to his own. The local historians had been busy weaving the route past fish ponds, now haunted by many herons and waterbirds, locating vanished villages and the old farmsteads and mills as the regions life and working patterns changed. Many sections of Rhine embankment had been seeded with wild flowers and even riding past by bike it was easy to see butterflies, hear the birds and the bees. We turned inland a little making for the large numbers of storks wheeling overhead close to the bird park in Biebesheim am Rhein (picture). Clearly the breeding programme established a few years ago has been a great success. Time for snacks, drinks or large portions of cake at the little cafe there.
As we left the clouds were gathering up and we hastened through the grain mill and harbour town of Gernsheim along the busiest section of road on the trip. Cars and cyclists waited for the Rhine ferry here but we headed along the river for a final short stretch before turning away through Klein Rohrheim. The old village street is lined with tiny cottages end on to the road, some renovated, some apparently dating back before 'Schinderhannes', a robber and thug whose real name was Johannes Bückler. He was hanged after killing a policeman in a brawl in a tavern here. He was evidently the kind of man mothers of the time (1802) frightened their children with...'if you don't stop asking for sweeties, I'll tell Schinderhannes!'
We made our escape by the railway underpass and over the fields to Maria Einsiedel back towards the blue Odenwald Hills to the circuit start. Maria Einsiedel? Well you will have to find that out for yourselves - all the notice boards throughout the Geopark have sections in English. Use the link to access information about bikes and trains in Europe.
Our group seemed satisfied with the gentle scenery along good trails and claimed to have learnt a few things, as we made it back to Bensheim just as the first threatening drops fell. Within 20 minutes the streets were awash as we headed for home, the bikes safely in the car. Our normal train to Bensheim does not operate on Sundays.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Between Rhine and Odenwald Hills Part I

This year our 'Backyard' cycling has focused on the right bank Rhine plain - locally known as the 'Ried', the marshland. It stretches north of Mannheim in a 15 km wide band, bounded to the east by the straight line of the Odenwald, the clear indication of the Rhine Rift Faults. As the Ice Age ended, the Rhine flowed again but as a braided stream like many Icelandic rivers today. Sometimes great floods washed away recent deposits and the river flexed its muscles across the whole plain. In dry conditions windblown sands created a long dune chain, roughly parallel to the river, mostly left as forest today and the home of rare plants and wildlife. Along the edge of the Odenwald the early Neckar meandered slowly to join the Rhine near present-day Mainz. Early settlers lived here in remote communities, the first woods were full of wildlife including bears and only recently has more than speculative information come to life about these settlers. As elsewhere in the Rhine valley, Celtic groups were displaced by Romans, who left both written and much physical evidence behind them. They were replaced by farmers, fishermen and by religious foundations beset by wars, famines and gradual change until the industrial revolution brought rapid alteration. More wars, including those of the twentieth century have also left their mark on this apparently gentle and rather unremarkable part of the Rhine Valley.

As newcomers we often learn our history 'on the hoof, or perched on a bike'. Until the local section of the Odenwald became a UNESCO Geopark most of the small town and rural history, geography and geology was known only to a relatively small number of enthusiasts. Scenically it is easy on the eye, the old towns pretty, the vineyards and orchards stepping away into the distance (see picture) but it is NOT dramatic, no Rhine Gorge, no Neuschwanstein round the corner. However UNESCO status, visitor centres, guided walks and signposted trails have increased numbers of local and far flung visitors which have had a spin-off into the marshland regions sloping towards the Rhine. These farmlands, nature reserves, little towns with hidden corners are ideal places for cyclists to stray into away from the well ridden banks of the Rhine itself.

On the other hand there are some extensive unbroken forest regions, a couple of major autobahns, a few rail lines and a plethera of local and regional cycle trails, often with few directions and we've sometimes mislaid our route. We were delighted to find that the Geopark office in Lorsch, 10 km away on a known trail through the Viernheim woods, had planned and waymarked a bike route through the Ried. This would make a great club ride from Bensheim, around which town most of our members live.

Getting around Viernheim by bike

Viernheim is not ranked amongst the biggest cities in the world. With about 30 000 inhabitants it is tiny. It is however a great place to cycle. Within 15 minutes we can each almost any point of the town. On arrival we can always park the bike which cannot be said for the motor car. When we say this to people,  they nod and agree, but we are still regarded as being eccentric by these very same people. We were both at our dentists this morning and both us were asked by our dentist and his staff whether we had come by bike, even though they agree that it is the best way to come. Our dentist too is a fan of mountain biking.

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