The Altmühl River is a true Bavarian, meandering comfortably towards the Danube. We follow the river over 165 Kilometers downstream.
It’s about 250 kilometers from its source to its mouth, always going eastwards, past monasteries and castles, crags, meadows and juniper heaths. In doing so, the Altmühl never leaves its Bavarian home. But as is customary here, it welcomes hikers and bicyclists along its curving way, because hospitality is as certain in this region as morning fog is in the autumn.
If you get an early start, you can see the mist rising from the meadows. Flocks of crows perch on the branches of beech trees, which have already lost nearly all their leaves this year. Even storks feel unruffled in the morning. They strut over the trails that are actually meant for cyclists. But there are only a few tourists on bicycles at this time of year. Most prefer the summer months.
For visitors to the Altmühl Valley, one perfect day follows another in the autumn. Restaurants, hotels and guesthouses are still open, but everything goes more slowly. The landlord enjoys a chat with diners, the lady of the house is glad to welcome guests. There’s no jostling at the bar. The season is over and it’s been a good one. The Altmühl Valley Nature Park is very popular. Some 700,000 visitors come year after year.
A tour along the Altmühl offers just as much for anyone cycling for pleasure as it does for fitness enthusiasts. If you want to enjoy the scenery while pedaling along, ride downstream, towards the mouth of the river. If you want a thorough workout for your muscles, ride upstream. You’ll be going uphill, gently but steadily.
Our tour starts in the town of Gunzenhausen, in the northern Bavarian region of Middle Franconia, on Lake Altmühl. It’s steeped in history: the outer frontier of the Roman Empire once ran along here. Vestiges of the 500-kilometer-long fortifications with their watchtowers are still in existence. The "Upper German-Raetian Limes" is now considered the longest existing archaeological monument after the Great Wall of China, and was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site ten years ago.
We turn the handlebars of our bicycles eastwards. We're not among the athletic tourists. The topographic profile on our cycle map looks like a wedge-shaped doorstop, on whose incline we can slide right down to Kelheim. That's our destination, 165 kilometers downstream. A difference in elevation of 73 meters isn't really enough to slide, but it's ideal for cycling. We don't want to get through it in one fell swoop in any case. We're planning to take a week. We're perfectly contented to be pigeonholed as mere "leisure cyclists".
Bavaria at its leisurely best
The Altmühl Valley is Bavaria at its gentlest: instead of high peaks and deep ravines, it's a mellow, fertile river landscape that was first settled in prehistoric times.
Castles and their ruins, as well as the remains of Roman structures, bear witness to times past. Many are well worth a visit: the city palace in Treuchtlingen, Prunn Castle near Riedenburg, Willibaldsburg - a spur castle near Eichstätt... the list goes on and on. The historical gems notwithstanding, the real allure of the tour lies in gently rolling along and in the Altmühl itself. In a way, it’s a bit like the famous Monument Valley in the U.S. It's an impressive subject for a photograph, but you can only experience its real charm when you're there, because that’s due to the breadth of the landscape, which a camera can't capture.
History along the way
At Pappenheim Castle, we treat ourselves to a lengthy stop. We've already ridden more than 30 kilometers, and our legs are feeling the effect. Although most of our way has been level, along the riverbank, viewing the castle ruins means climbing a hill.
The effort is worth it, and not just because of the castle's historical significance. The view over Pappenheim and the river valley is expansive and awakens our anticipation of what's to come. There's a German saying, "Ich kenne meine Pappenheimer", which roughly means "I know them inside out", and we search for its origins in the museum shop. It turns out there are several explanations, all of them wordy. We leave the castle with the feeling we know at least this Pappenheimer better than before.
It's already afternoon when we cycle past Pappenheim's "Weidenkirche" - a church made of willows. We've already made one long stop, so we have enough energy to keep going. But we've never seen a church that lives and grows. So we dismount again to take a closer look at this unusual place of worship. If you gaze at the sky from the middle of the chancel you can't help forgetting time and, it's said, your cares.
A week passes quickly
As planned, we reach the ducal town of Kelheim in five days. And it's never been different from the first day: it's always been exciting and we've always received a friendly welcome. After pedaling long enough, things gain a sort of equality in our awareness: the ensemble of Baroque buildings in the episcopal town of Eichstätt and a gigantic pile of turnips by the wayside; the lock near Dietfurt and the flock of sheep that forced us to dismount; the wavy timber bridge near Essing and the bus stop in Pfalzpaint that an artist has dedicated to the Simpsons. They’ll all be happy memories.