One bicycle, two countries and lots of life and nature. DW reporter Andreas Kirchhoff explores the legendary Upper Rhine for 60 km along the Rheinauen cycling route that traces the German and French border.
"Looks like it's going to be a hot, sunny day," says the fellow renting me a bicycle from his shop in the Maximiliansau district of the tiny city of Wörth in central-western Germany. I can pay later - a phone number is enough for now. Shortly before 11:00 a.m., he bids me farewell.
"Ride right, left and then right again, go under the bridge, then you'll be on the Rhine," he says. Within five minutes I reach the the Rheinauen route on the river.
I've decided to ride about 60 kilometers (about 37 miles) today along the 130-kilometer Rheinauen route. From Maximilianau, I'll cross the border into France's Alsace region. Then I'll head back over to the German side.
First, I pass one of the many gravel pits along the Rhine. I finally reach my first goal: a narrow path upstream through the Palatinate region. No cars, no noise, no people. Just the smell of fresh hay, a slight tail wind, and the sound of bicycle tires on the asphalt.
The Rheinauen route is part of the "PAMINA Rhine Park" on the Upper Rhine, a cross-border tourism project of the European Union. The name PAMINA refers to the three participating regions: Palatinate, Upper Middle Rhine and northern Alsace. The idea was to make the cultural landscape along the German-French border more tangible. Nature and history are the focal point, illustrated by bilingual displays and small museums in the villages along the way.
In Neuburg, the first stop on my way, the Maritime Museum is closed. On the banks of an old river channel, a dilapidated boat lies in front of a small rest area for cyclists and bikers. Just before the French border I meet a couple from Freiburg. They're on a journey with two fully packed bicycles. "We're traveling the border of Germany," they say. They're in no hurry. "We're riding along instead of rushing. We have 14 days of vacation, and we'll see how far we get."
They've been on the road for three days so far. "Bicyclists are talkative," says Dietmar. His wife Helga gushes enthusiastically about a chance meeting two days prior. In the village of Nonnenweiher they spotted nuns in dark dresses and white caps. The unique clothing of the deaconesses reminded Helga of her kindergarten teacher from half a century ago. Turns out, the now 90-year-old Sister Karolin lived nearby in a nursing home for nuns and was excited to welcome the cyclists and exchange memories.
Detour to the white willows
"I'm looking forward to Denmark," says Helga as we part ways. And I am looking forward to France, I think, as I leave Berg, the southern-most village in Palatinate. The direct route along the Rhine is closed due to construction work. I almost didn't notice the "detour" sign as I crossed the border.
The tiny village of Lauterbourg in Alsace seems deserted in the midday heat. The thermometer on the former toll house tops out at 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).
For cyclists, redirections can mean misdirection. After an involuntary jaunt through an industrial area - the Rhine is also a commercial transport route - the river is finally back in sight. Near Munchhausen the path leads through a nature reserve, famous for its innumerable white willows. Like precious metals the slender leaves glitter in the sunlight and wind. Thanks to a reflective mirage, the white willows appear to be standing up to their roots in water.
Of gamblers and zodiacs
Shortly before 2:00 p.m. - long after exhausting my water and snack supply - I reach Seltz. Unfortunately, it's still siesta time, or perhaps no one is out and about because it's a Monday. Small restaurants feature "Tarte flambee," but are all closed. So I head around the corner to the brasserie. Outside there are four tables; a bearded man is sitting at one, bare-chested. "Self-service on the patio," I read.
Inside, a dozen older men are drinking beer or the French aniseed liquor, Ricard. Two screens on the walls broadcast horse races. I'd rather not bother the kitchen - a café au lait and a water to quench my thirst will do.
Outside, I encounter Alfons. Apparently cyclists really do like to talk. He's from Germany and bikes regularly from Plittersdorf to the French side of the Rhine. He comes to shop, for the horse races, and because the French are more talkative. "They share tips every now and then and aren't as tight-lipped," he says. Not that he necessarily needs the tips, he says. He's familiar with horses. He has even owned some and has traveled the world. Now he gambles.
If I'm ever in the area again, I should visit his home, Alfons says as we part ways. And he advises me to pay attention to the zodiac when it comes to my relationships with others. He said he'd learned all about it himself and was compelled to pass it along.
Against the wind
From Seltz I take the ferry to Plittersdorf. I encounter a group of cyclists on their return trip. I should try the ice cream in Plittersdorf, they say. I suppose a few extra calories can't hurt. It's still hot outside.
Time for my return trip. First, though, I get lost again and almost regret the detour to the ice cream parlor. But then I find my way back to the Rheinauen route. I encounter my companions again - the white willows and swans.
It's a struggle riding into the headwind. The bike needs to be back by 6:00 p.m. This time around it's more huffing and puffing than awe and amazement. Heat and headwinds can transform an idyllic bike ride into a torturous ordeal. I struggle onward and don't dare ask anyone on the way how much further. In the end I reach the return ferry in Neuburgweier earlier than expected. At this point I'm nearly euphoric, because I've got time to refresh with a beverage at the pier.
It's the last impression that counts, I think. The nature, the river, and the people on the Upper Rhine. Yes, I'll be back.