Having lived in Heidelberg for 16 years through the 1980´s and 90´s, I am often asked which regions to travel to in order to find authentic German culture. While there are many to choose from, the Romantic Road is most certainly one which I will recommend. Running from the Alps and fairy-tale castle at Neuschwanstein to the River Main in central Germany, the Romantic Road is Germany’s best known and most popular tourist route. The name expresses what you’ll feel on seeing the medieval towns and castles as you’re being transported back in time. While the southern part of the route is dominated by dramatic mountain scenery, it is especially the northern stretch which opens up a wealth of history, art and culture. Bustling medieval towns line the route like a string of rare gems. Nördlingen, Dinkelsbühl and Rothenburg with their impressive buildings have preserved their original appearance over the centuries and constitute some of my favorite places in Germany.
Nördlingen lies in the middle of the Ries crater, the best-researched meteorite crater in the world. Traders and craftsmen settled here, and a trade fair for goods from distant lands was established in 1219, which put the town in second place only to Frankfurt. The town built its encircling wall in the 14th century, and its towers and gateways are still preserved today. This golden age in the town’s history also saw the construction of its major buildings, most of them designed as trading halls and warehouses, but also included magnificent patrician houses and the Late Gothic parish church of St. George. Every night, even now, the call of the watchmen can be heard from the tower, who are the last members of their profession anywhere in Germany: “So, G’sell, so!” which means as much as “All’s well, fellows, all’s well”.
Nördlingen rapidly lost its importance in the Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, and by the time the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 it was not only reduced to poverty but had also lost more than half of its population through death or emigration. Thus there was no need to erect any new buildings for several centuries after that. This also explains why the town has retained much of its medieval architecture. In fact, the same explanation is true for most of the towns in this part of Germany.
Take for instance Dinkelsbühl. It is a town where the past is at one with the present. As you walk through the green belt surrounding the old town, the centuries begin to merge. The best view of Dinkelsbühl is from above. After climbing to the top, the tower of St. George’s Minster offers a panoramic view over the roofs of the old town and the idyllic river valley. The Minster is around 500 years old while the town fortifications are even older. Indeed, many of the houses have survived numerous generations. Even more important, however, is the fact that these buildings are still alive today. In them are families, shops, workshops, cafés and restaurants: sometimes closely packed together in a small lane, sometimes around a square. Up until 1806 this was a Free Imperial Town (practically an independent state with its own rules and laws).
And then there is Rothenburg, one of the oldest towns on the Romantic Road. It overlooks from its rocky crag four bends in the Tauber river. The town is both picturesque and unspoiled. Once behind the ramparts in the car-less central enclave, you are faced with the ancient houses, wrought-iron street signs, fountains and narrow, cobbled lanes, as if a time-warp plunged you back into the middle of the 16th century.
During the Thirty Year War (between the Protestants and the Catholics), the Protestant town of Rothenburg was about to be raised to the ground by the Imperial army commanded by General Tilly. All pleas for mercy had been rejected, when the mayor as a last resort offered the general a goblet of the very best local wine… and a miracle occurred. Tilly’s heart warmed up and he offered a way out. He would spare the town if a local could empty in a single draft a 6-pint mug of the same wine, equaling four bottles of wine. A former mayor named Nusch, who obviously had a great stomach, succeeded and Rothenburg was saved. This is reenacted every year during a big festival…, but I don’t think anyone has been able to follow Nusch in his footsteps (although it is somewhat doubtful he walked after his feat).
North of Rothenburg, the idyllic Tauber Valley opens up a whole other world, which can best be explored on bicycle. The “Klassiker” (Classic) bike trail is a two-day outing along the river, covering 60 miles/100 km from Rothenburg ob der Tauber to Wertheim and the Main River. Known as the “Liebliches Taubertal”, the Lovely Tauber Valley region is absolutely delightful, offering scenic, cultural as well as culinary highlights. The clean, bright streams in the Tauber Valley are famous for their trout, served at inns all along the valley. The Tauber Valley lamb is also top-notch. And, of course, the local wines are the perfect accompaniment: Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner and Schwarzriesling, as well as local favorites such as Dornfelder. Among the four well-known breweries in the region are the Distelhäuser and Spessart, with special country brews.
So what are you waiting for? Los geht’s! (Off you go!)
Spain is hot! No, not temperature-wise (unless you travel in July or August), but as a new/old destination. When we think of travelling to Spain, we often think of Madrid, Barcelona, Catalonia, Andalusia, the many ‘Costa’ and beaches, and – to a lesser degree - Galicia. However, Navarra and Rioja are often ignored as vacation spots, even though they have a lot to offer.
Navarra, in northeastern Spain, was for many centuries a small independent kingdom, and an important player in history. As a semi-autonomous province, it now preserves plenty of that independent feeling. It is stuffed with things to see, from the awe-inspiring Pyrenees to castled plains and sun-drenched wine-country. The principal route of the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela – the Camino Francés – crosses Navarra from east to west and has left some of Spain’s finest religious architecture.
In the midst of it all is Pamplona, a pleasant town which goes crazy for nine days in July for the Fiesta de los Sanfermines, of which the most famous event is the daily Running of the Bulls (Encierro), made famous by Hemingway. It is difficult to describe just how big this party is! The eating options in Pamplona are plentiful, yet I can definitely recommend an evening of Tapas (here called Pintxo: pronounced as Pinchos) as you hop from bar to bar.
Puente La Reina is a small town along the Way of St. James (i.e. the Camino), and a good place to stop for lunch. Not only does it have a couple of interesting pilgrim churches and many restaurants (BTW, often you will first need to wrestle your way through the bar in order to make it to the restaurant, so you may as well have a drink on your way in), but it also has a remarkably well-preserved Romanesque hump-backed bridge spanning the Rio Arga. It was built in the late 11th century by orders of the queen to ensure the safe river crossing of the pilgrims.
The wines of Navarra are centered on the town of Olite. One of the oldest towns in Navarra, it was founded and fortified by the Romans. It wasn’t until the 12th century that the town began to rise to prominence. Olite became a favorite of the Navarrese monarchs and a palace was built, incorporating what remained of the Roman fortifications. This palace is now a Parador, which means it has been turned into a historical hotel. Various bodegas (wineries) are located in and around the town, such as Ochoa (my favorite), Piedemonte and Marco Real.
Rioja, just south-east of Navarra, is known above all for its red wines (even though part of the wine denomination falls in Basque Country). Also Rioja was given semi-autonomous status. The name of this province is derived from the Río Oja, a tributary of the Ebro River. The Ebro runs down a shallow valley of enormous fertility, which also produces top quality cereal, fruits and vegetables, especially in the Rioja Baja. Riojan dishes include giant asparagus, hearty stews of white beans, large roasts of goat and lamb, perfected with a bottle of local red.
The provincial town of Haro (in the Rioja Alta) is the effective grape capital. If you are a wine aficionado, you will want to visit the wine museum. The family-owned Muga winery accepts visitors on a daily basis.
To end this blog on a spiritual note of a different dimension, let me mention the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Born in 1019, Domingo dedicated his life to the pilgrims who were passing through the area. Here he built a hospital, a bridge and a road, around which a town then grew which would eventually bear his name. The cathedral is the town’s centerpiece. The most curious ‘object’ in the cathedral is a live rooster and hen which are kept in a cage in memory of a miracle said to have occurred in Santo Domingo, when a roasted chicken stood up from a platter, and, fully feathered, crowed aloud to testify the innocence of a pilgrim who had been unjustly accused of theft and had been hung. He too was found to be alive, and was immediately released. Pilgrims still collect the bird’s white feathers!
The Dordogne flows between castles, From Souillac to Beynac, many of which date to the Hundred Year War between the French and the English. No doubt, this is mainly because the river was the route of passage, in the days of bad roads over the uplands, or no roads at all. The cliffs that border the valley might have been created to please warriors who sought a high rock to build on and a wide view from their towers. Castelnaud is a fantastic castle with an even more fantastic view…, overlooking its adversary: the castle of Beynac. They are not the palaces of the Loire, raised for princes to visit in the hunting season; but, they are better situated, and they have a human air of habitation.
Nearby is La Roque-Gageac, a strange village built up a perpendicular cliff, its houses clamped against the rock on a few terraces. A bit further up the river is Domme, reached by a zig-zag road from Cénac. Domme is a bastide. It was built in the 13th century, when fortress-towns were being set up all over this country. It was the custom to give the people privileges in order to induces them to build the places and inhabit them…, as well as fight on the right side if this were necessary. Domme still has two gates, and a good deal of its walls; streets of honey-colored houses, and the terrace overlooking the Dordogne far below. Beaumont is another good example of a bastide. It has the typical central market square, surrounded by the arcades called the ‘cornières’. The streets form a grid within the walls and the little town was purely built for defence. Once the town gates were shut, the enemy would have to scale the double line of walls. And if he got through that, the people took refuge in the church and defended it like a castle. Its towers still bear traces of the battlement from which the defenders shot arrows at the invaders, and the windows are set too high to be accessible without ladders.
In Cadouin you will find the majestic austere abbey-church which for many centuries attracted hoards of pilgrims to the Holy Shroud of Christ, which had long been considered as the shroud to have enveloped the head of the Christ after his crucifixion. In the 19th century, a monk insisted on deciphering the inscription woven into its margin, which proved to be a Muslim text, and the pilgrimages ceased to continue.
French cookery is not only unsurpassed, it is supreme. Within her borders, the standard varies immensely. Every region has its specialties, but there are two which are generally outstanding: Burgundy and the South-West including the Dordogne. When visiting the Dordogne you will find yourself in a gastronomic paradise. Though the French were never famous for their breakfasts, the quality and quantitiy has greatly improved with the influx of foreign visitors. Naturally, a smaller breakfast allows you to drop into the patisserie to eat delicious pastries and cakes!
The food in the Dordogne is locally produced, and therein lies its great virtue. Nothing is imported, nothing is stale. The lettuces are straight out of the soil, the apricots off the trees. You eat the fruits of the earth in their season. The great local delicacies are truffles and cèpes, and various conserved meats. The potted Foie Gras, goose and duck, are marvelous and are rich beyond belief. In case you are worried about the welfare of the animals, farmers are no longer allowed to force feed the animals (as they did in the past). Nowadays, the geese and ducks just live on a ‘fattening’ diet.
The preserves of goose and duck (called confit) are also great and should be tried at least one. Combine it with one of the local red wines from Cahors, and you will enjoy life like a King or Queen in France!
I can think of something special to say about every region where we offer our bicycle trips, because otherwise we would not be offering them at all. But the region which is most special to me is the Dordogne Valley. The Dordogne River rises in the Central Massif of France and runs westwards towards the Atlantic. This river region is a land where the towns have hardly spread beyond the limits of their ancient walls, and the countryside is untarnished.
Most foreigners visiting the continent of Europe make straight for Paris, and rightly so; no country, save France, could have made Paris. Yet Paris is not France, any more than New York is the United States. The real life of France is elsewhere, especially in the farms and the little country towns. It is only by observing them that one can understand the toughness, the vitality, the resilience of that manner of living and thinking.
The Middle Dordogne runs through the country called Périgord Noir, or Black Perigord. It is a land of delights. These can be summed up as beautiful form, color, and detail. The Dordogne itself is graceful. Here it is not a great river, but a wide and lively stream. It is entirely natural, flowing along with varied current between banks that usually are tree-fringed, curving to meet cliffs or steep slopes from one side of its bed to the other.
It is a colored country. In spring the flowers succeed each other so fast that the hillsides change their tint daily; in the fall the woods hang orange against the blue sky. But the basic color, revealed in the cliffs, in the soil, and in buildings, is that of the rock. Limestone is naturally white. More often, iron and other metals have dyed the stone with a multitude of colors. In some places it is amber, in others pink. In the rays of the setting sun a circle of cliffs will burn as though the rock is on fire.
There is constantly varying detail. Every bend of the river, every turn of the road alters the view. The river holds its trees growing up and down in reflection. A golden village pyramids up to the church tower in steeped red roofs. A castle shows its turrets coquettishly to the valley below, for it was carefully designed to do so.
The highlight, no doubt, is the prehistoric caves near Les Eyzies. I have probably visited the Grottes de Font de Gaume twenty times with our groups, and continue to get goose bumps each time when I have the privilege of admiring them once more. The walls are covered with outlines, bas-reliefs and paintings still faintly visible. There are mammoths, reindeer, horses and most of all bisons, dating from about 25,000 to 15,000 years BC! The techniques of drawing vary, and are peculiarly interesting because they employ many of the devices of stylization used by artists of the post-impressionist and later schools. Some of the beasts are outlined in a heavy black pigment, while the rest of their bodies are colored in red or ochre yellow. In some cases the softness of animal fur is rendered by what seems like blowing the paint on to the rock.
But there are other things to see in this district. Sarlat is one of my favorite little towns in Europe. During Napoleonic times the town was cut from north to south by the ‘Rue de la République’, which turns its shopfronts to the passer-by. But leave it on either hand and you will see why the whole of Sarlat is a “Monument Classé”. Both sides display Sarlat’s treasure of old streets, alleyways and medieval houses. One of the town churches has been turned into stores, with its gargoyles hanging over the market place. That must be one of the most decorative squares in the world, with its irregular shape and buildings of many dates pleasantly harmonized. To be continued...
Look for part 2 on Thursday!
If – during my 38 years of guiding bicycle tours – I would have gotten $10 for every time someone asked me what’s my favorite ride, I would no longer need to work. Not that I’d ever want to quit my job, because I love it so much!
Naturally, being the salesman that I am, my answer would always be a trip they hadn’t done yet.
But here it is, my official Top 10…, eh….Top 11 best bike rides in Europe (and there’s no way these can be ordered, because they all have their reasons why they should be #1)
1) France: Dordogne valley between Argentat and Beynac (110 miles); One of my favorite regions of France, for its authenticity, the peace, the great food, the old Romanesque churches, the castles and the history (such as the Hundred Years War between France and England). Make sure to divert from the valley every now and then to visit villages like St-Céré, Autoire, Loubressac, Rocamadour, as well as the lively town of Sarlat.
2) Italy: South-Tyrol from Reschen Pass to Merano(50 miles); Starting at the top of the pass, it’s all pretty much all downhill for about 50 miles on specially marked bike paths, and you’re always surrounded by some of the most majestic mountains of the Alps. Pass by villages, lakes, meadows, apple orchards and end your ride in the noble spa town of Merano.
3) Italy: The Tuscan hills around Siena; Tuscany has some of the prettiest hills in the world. Surely you have seen those epic photos of fields of red poppies, the cypresses, the ‘Siena’ colors of the soil, multiple horizons and hill-top towns like Monteriggioni and San Gimignano. Seeing it from the bicycle seat is like immerging into this landscape of Chianti Classico and the eternal ‘Le Crete’ hills.
4) Spain: Rioja vineyards between Logroño and Haro (35 miles); this is best done in the fall (October), when the leaves are turning. The colors are so incredible no matter in which direction you look. And you’ve got the roads to yourself. Villages/towns to include are La Puebla de la Barca, Laguardia, Navaridas, Elciego, Baños de Ebro, San Vicente, Rivas de Tereso, and of course Haro. Prepare yourself for some hills. And be sure to visit some of the tapas bars in Haro for an unforgettable and fun meal while mingling with the locals!
5) Germany: Tauber Valley from Rothenburg to Wertheim (63 miles); Take two days to follow the Tauber river until its confluence with the Main river. It’s easy to follow, and you’ll pass through many villages and medieval towns without having to study the map. Don’t forget to visit the splendidly carved Riemenschneider altar pieces in Rothenburg, Detwang and Creglingen.
6) Germany: Mosel Valley from Trier to Koblenz (132 miles); You’ll need four days to do this stretch. Every couple of miles you’ll pass another quaint wine village, each tempting you with its delicious white Riesling wine. Throughout the trip you will always be surrounded by the steep hills covered with vineyards, whereas you stay on you bicycle down by the river. Essentially, it can be considered as a downhill trip (very, very gently) and you are even making use of the prevailing winds. Numerous Roman buildings to be discovered in Trier, and a hilltop castle or ruin around every bend of the river .
7) Austria: Salzach Valley from Gerlos Pass/Krimml to Salzburg (115 miles); This could very easily be the most scenic of all the routes listed here. With the snowcapped Grossglockner and many other mountains by your side, enjoy lots of downhill and flat meadows (and a few ups) as you descend from Gerlos Pass (1628m = 5340 ft) to Salzburg (443m = 1450 ft).
8) Austria: Danube Valley from Linz or Enns to Krems (80 miles); Easy cycling along the wide river makes this an unforgettable experience. Especially the stretch through the wine region Wachau between Melk and Dürnstein (23 miles) is some of the most pleasant cycling you’ll encounter anywhere in Europe. And be sure to visit the Baroque abbey of Melk: it’s a masterpiece!
9) Netherlands: the canals of Giethoorn (4 miles); This community is nicknamed Venice of the North because there are no roads as all transportation takes place on the canals. One cyclable path passes through the village, consisting of an endless string of humpback bridges. Stay in low gear and do it either in early in the morning or evening. It’s outrageous! However, you should feel comfortable on the bike, because it does take some skill to negotiate the bridges.
10) Netherlands: Tulip fields near Keukenhof (in April: 20 miles); does this need any further explanation? The colors and the scents of the flowers (tulips, narcissus, hyacinth) get you high…, in a natural way! And the North-Sea is nearby, across over the dunes.
11) Denmark: Danish Riviera between Copenhagen and Helsingør (30 miles); the route consists of bike paths along Denmark’s ‘gold coast’, consisting of sumptuous villas, quaint fishing villages, and dotted with interesting museums such as the Karen Blixen Museum (author of Out of Africa), the Nivagaard art museum and the supreme Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in an incredible setting overlooking the Sound.
your friendly European expert,
Ron van Dijk
Cycling is truly a journey of the senses. And there is no better place than Europe, where the villages, castles, cathedrals and museums are unrivaled and the reward of breezing along under your own power is an exhilarating experience. What you see, what you feel, what you encounter is sharper and more relaxed, more complete, when the warm yellow sun, the lush green pastures and the crystal blue lakes dissolve the tension of our everyday lives.
You see the details that are only a blur to most tourists. You meet the country folk – on bicycle just like you. You come to understand the tranquility of a pace of life that is no faster than the pumping of a pedal. Free of gas…. Free of schedules and crowds!
But how to go about it? Well, first you will need to decide whether you wish to do an organized Europe biking tour, or whether you prefer to do it on your own, or maybe something in between. Here are your choices:
1) Sign up for a bicycle tour with a tour operator: This is certainly the most convenient way to travel by bicycle, because everything has been taken care. In effect, all you need to do is show up, pedal, enjoy, sightsee, eat, drink, sleep. When you are tired or don’t want to climb a hill, the support van will help out. The multi-lingual guides share with you their local knowledge and passion. The group size will normally range between 8 and 20 participants.
2) Do it yourself: This means a lot of preparation, because you will need to bring your own bicycle (or rent one abroad), find your own route, arrange your own hotels, fix your own flats. You are likely to end up on roads which you would not have chosen, had you know the alternatives. Last but not least, you will have to carry your own luggage on your bicycle.
3) Do a self-guided trip: In this case, an organization supplies you with a bicycle and maps. The hotel reservations are made on your behalf. Often, your luggage will be transported from one hotel to the next. However, there will be no support during the day (i.e. no sag-wagon, no repair service, no snacks, no water refills). There are no tour guides to share with you their stories. Nor will you experience the camaraderie with like-minded travelers as you would on an group bicycle tour.
Travelling with a bicycling tour operator gives you the fullest experience, in terms of overall enjoyment and efficiency. But how do you choose the bike tour operator that is right for you? Here are some aspects you can consider asking/investigating regarding the tour operator(s):
1) What kind of hotels do they use?: Do they openly list their hotels, or are they somewhat secretive about them? In general, two-star hotels are considered to be low-budget, whereas three to four-star hotels are quite comfortable. Five-star hotels are more difficult to find in the countryside. Checking the websites of the hotels will give you insight into the amenities.
2) What kind of bicycles do they use, and is the bike rental included in the trip price?: Which brand? What type of bicycle (road bike, hybrid bike)? Unless you are planning to ride through very hilly terrain, a hybrid or touring bike will suffice. The medium-width tires make for a comfortable ride no matter what the road surface is, and a back-rack plus a front pannier facilitates you to carry your ‘day-stuff’. Watch out for hidden costs, such as surcharges for the bicycle.
3) Do they operate their own trips?: or do they simply act as a travel agent? Tour operators which run their own trip are closer to their product and therefore tend to do a better job because the ‘own’ the product, feel responsible for it and constantly make adjustments based on direct feedback from their guests and guides.
4) Which meals are included?: Usually, all breakfast, some lunches and most dinners are included in the trip price. What kind of restaurants do they use? Are the drinks during dinner included?
5) Which events are included in the trip price? e.g. museums, castles, wine tasting.
6) What is the maximum group size? Groups of 16 or over become a zoo, especially if the number of guides and support vans are kept to a minimum. This leads to the next question:
7) What is the guide to guest ratio? i.e. how many guides are on the trip? With a ratio of 1 guide per 6 guests, you can be assured of perfect service. With a ratio of 1 guide per 10 guests or more, there is no way they can keep track of you and you practically end up on a self-guided trip.
8) Are there daily mileage choices? Does everyone ride the same route or are there longer/hillier routes for avid cyclists and shorter/flatter routes for those who wish to ‘take it easy’?
9) Do you get route descriptions and maps? Or do you always ride in one group? A detailed route description will give you the freedom to ride at your own pace and choose your own distance. Having a guide on a bike gives you the opportunity to simply follow. A good touring company can offer you both choices on the same trip.
10) Do they allow children on the trips? Or do they offer separate family trips?
11) How long have they been in existence? Have they just begun operating trips, or do they have decades of experience? Go for the latter, because nothing is as frustrating as being ‘misled’ by people that don’t exactly know what they are doing or where they are going.
12) What is the level of difficulty? Are the trips rated? And what is your level of experience? Needless to say, this is all very subjective. See below for recommended regions and their expected ratings.
13) Has the trip already been confirmed? Or is there a chance that it will be cancelled due to insufficient demand?
14) And don’t forget to read the small print: What if you need to change the dates or cancel the trip? What about travel insurance?
15) What will the weather be like? Naturally, no tour operator, no matter how upscale, can control the weather. But what they can do is offer the trip during the most agreeable months. For example, be aware of companies which offer Italy during the (usually) grueling hot months of July and August. Nor do you want plan a bike tour in Holland in October. And by November the days get very short no matter where you are in Europe.
Last but not least, you need to decide where you would like to travel and what kind of terrain you are looking for.
Easy destinations (flat or gently rolling) include the following:
If you don’t mind a few hills, you could consider:
The intermediate cyclists will enjoy:
Avid cyclists will have a ball in:
Some last advice: if you have never been on a Europe biking tour and aren’t sure which trip is right for you, why not start with an easy destination. If you find out during the trip that you want more miles, your guide can always find them for you! Another piece of advice is that you will enjoy your vacation more if you plan several 20-mile rides during the weeks before your trip. It gets your body (especially your behind!) and mind in shape for the riding position.
Your friendly Europe expert,
Ron Van Dijk
If you have any question about Europe bike tours, please email me at email@example.com