In 1979, with my best friend Colin, I cycled from Hook of Holland across the Netherlands and into Germany. We carried on pedalling to the Rhine near Koblenz and continued south along the river, past Mainz to Worms; where we camped for one night before heading for home via Luxembourg, Brussels and the port of Zeebrugge. In two weeks, making up the route as we went along, we rode 700 miles and camped in fields or woods when we couldn’t find a camp-site. We were 16.
I’m now amazed that our parents gave us permission but it didn’t seem particularly odd at the time; and the following year we set off again for three weeks: cycling through the Black Forest, Switzerland, Austria and Lichtenstein; and over the Alps to Genoa. Today, the idea of allowing my 16-year-old boy to bicycle for hundreds of miles on busy roads, for weeks at a time, unsupervised and non-contactable, is laughable. But as L.P. Hartley almost said – “The 1970’s is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. We two schoolboys had an incredibly exciting, fun and formative time; and nothing too bad or scary happened (though an encounter with a group of very drunk, lederhosen-clad, Austrian yodellers came close). Those two teenage cycling trips are up there with the very best holidays of my life.
But when I arranged a recent Rhine Valley cycling reboot with Jim, I ditched the first-cycle-to-Germany plan and caught the train from London to Mainz instead.
At our Mainz hotel, we collected our hire bikes and for the following five days rolled slowly downriver through a Grimm landscape; enduring bright sun, huge breakfasts, beer, picnics and currywurst for the 135 miles to Rüdesheim, Koblenz and finally Cologne.
The sun always shines in Germany – or rather – the sun always shines on our cycling holidays in Germany.
We smothered on the sunblock and rubber-necked past fairytale architecture;
quaint mediaeval towns;
And a castle.
And another castle.
Another bloody castle.
A close-up of a castle.
Until I grew bored at photographing castles and stopped.
I liked old shop-signs advertising long-gone businesses: here the services of an adept, if elderly, boot thief.
And here, erm … actually, I have no idea what business this unfortunate fishing incident is selling. Fishing tackle? Fish? Specially trained attack deer?
I liked modern, sleek things too;
and even industrial complexes that reminded me of 1960’s postcards promising us all a brighter, shinier future.
This section of the Rhine Cycle Route, squeezed tight against the river by the Rhine Highlands and sharing the valley bottom with railways and dual-carriageways, is less peaceful and rural than our last cycling holiday (see ‘And Quiet Flows The Spree’).
Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t as much wildlife either but we did see pylon-nesting storks
and their more conventional brethren.
Cormorants were common too
and curious house martin chicks. One morning I squealed to an impressive, rubber-smoking halt when a red squirrel ran past my front wheel and scurried up a tree.
Only, it wasn’t a red squirrel. Well, it was but it was a grey squirrel … yet red.
Have you ever seen one of these? A red grey squirrel? I hadn’t and didn’t even know they existed. Perhaps it’s a new species and I shall be famous the world over … or more likely it’s a colour variant of the common or garden grey.
In the pretty town of Boppard, I nodded hesitantly at Jim’s suggestion, swallowed hard, breathed deep and climbed anxiously aboard a very-flimsy-indeed-looking chairlift. (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m rubbish with heights).
Good grief but it was high … and my eyes flicked to automatic closing mode; my vocab to automatic squeaking.
The views were worth the anguish (when I did open my eyes but certainly not looking down between my feet) – and Jim forgave the squeak and whimper soundtrack.
At the end of the ride, the stupendous sight from the restaurant GedeonsEck, calmed my nerves
as did a small restorative;
before – “Eeek!” – the return journey.
In early July, wild-flowers were at their peak.
Mile after mile of stunning flowers;
on verges and scraps of wasteland.
No camping in woods this time nor struggling with heavy, overladen bikes. Our tour company* pre-booked the accommodation, provided our bicycles and, after Frühstuck, ferried our luggage from one hotel to the next;
leaving us to pedal a leisurely 25 miles or so a day.
It was hardly a blistering pace but we made it less so. On day 4, Jim realized that he hadn’t overtaken a single non-stationary cyclist. He reddened when I pointed out that even senior pensioners on ancient bone-rattlers (and toddlers on trikes) had whizzed past us for days. Maybe we could increase our speed just a little bit? We did and even reached shirt-tail-flapping speeds.
But not for long. There was always the perfect excuse to slow down and stop again.
At Remagen, the Ludendorff Bridge is no more. This was the only Rhine bridge captured intact by the Allies in 1945 – after Hitler ordered them all destroyed to hamper the Allied advance. Despite several attempts by the Germans, and to the delight of the US 9th Armored Division, the bridge survived. After a fierce battle, the Americans took it, threw five divisions across the river and surged on to Germany’s industrial heartland, the Ruhr.
Two weeks later the badly damaged structure finally, suddenly collapsed – killing 28 US soldiers – but by then its capture had already helped shorten the war. (Interesting aside, huh)?
Five days after leaving Mainz, we arrived in Cologne and the end of our tour. I’d booked an apartment for a further three nights and we were looking forward to the galleries, museums, the botanical gardens and cake of this vibrant city. But surrendering our bikes on arrival was hard: we’d developed a fierce affection for them and would miss the open road, World Heritage Sites, the vineyards and occasional flapping of shirt-tails. Hell, I’d even miss the castles.
If the idea of a cycling holiday appeals, I’d urge you to go. The pace is generally easy; you can stop wherever and whenever you like (without having to find a parking space); and you’ll enjoy an intimacy with the countryside and wildlife that’s impossible from the inside of a car, bus or train. I’m already planning our next trip. You might want to do the same.
*Over the years, I’ve booked three cycling holidays through Mecklenburger Radtour. They offer a wide choice of tours in various countries, at different fitness levels and, as you might expect from a German company, they’re reassuringly efficient. They book all the accommodation; arrange luggage transfer; provide the bike, route guide, information pack, simple repair kit and breakdown back-up support – though we’ve never needed the latter two.
(I haven’t been asked to plug Mecklenburger Radtour. I just wanted to give credit to a company that does its job really well).