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June 2004

Exercise In History

Easy cycling along a gentle river, with historic sights and good food-the Altmühltal

A classic bike path that turns 25 leads cyclists on a trip through the ages and some of Upper Franconia’s loveliest countryside.

Those of us who consider visiting the Alps as being the only worthwhile outdoor destination near Munich will be pleasantly surprised to discover the Altmühltal, a 3,000-sq.-km Naturpark—the biggest national park in Germany. An hour and a half drive north of Munich, it is a paradise for outdoor lovers, geology buffs, fossil collectors, aficionados of Roman culture and, above all, canoeists, hikers and cyclists. The most famous bike path running through the heart of the region—the Altmühl Radweg—turns 25 this year (the whole park celebrates this summer with special activities planned through mid-September; visit for more information). What better reason to round up the family, pack your bags, load up your bikes and spend a few relaxing days cycling downstream to discover another side of Bavaria?

The name “Altmühl” probably derives from the Celtic words “Alk muna,” meaning “holy” and “calm,” and this slowest of Bavaria’s rivers provides a perfect environment for a few days’ cycling. The Altmühltal was covered by the Jurassic sea over 150 million years ago, and is now rich with fossils and limestone. The Romans, the Celts and the Swedes all passed through the region, leaving countless buildings behind. The wide, flat cycle path runs parallel to the Altmühl River. Some 160 km from the start, in Gunzenhausen, to the finish, in Kelheim, it is a level ride and 90 percent of the path is off the road. For those who want more mileage, in recent years the path has been extended by approximately 80 km, to Rothenburg ob der Tauber. However, Der Klassiker, as many a bike guide calls it, is the original Gunzenhausen to Kelheim stretch, created in 1979. Bicycle guidebooks detailing the routes are available from Galli and Bikeline ( Depending on one’s fitness level or interest in sites along the way, a comfortable number of kilometers logged per day is roughly 30 to 40, which gives you a good trip of five days.

The first decision to make is whether to arrange things on your own or to hire a local guide company to organize the trip for you. Being independent is not difficult if you do a little homework beforehand. Making all arrangements (especially for accommodation) before you go is best, though if you plan your trip outside German school holidays, you will be able to be a bit more flexible. Cycle guide-books provide plenty of recommendations of which towns to spend the night in along the way and there are plenty of campsites and bed and breakfast establishments to choose from. The Zentrale Tourist-Information Naturpark Altmühltal in Eichstätt. (Tel. [08421] 9876-0, has information on accommodation, bike rentals and all the most important Nature Park attractions. Most information online is in German, though Park brochures in English can be sent upon request.

As there is a lot to see, it is worth considering hiring a guide company. They can do everything for you, from carrying your bags to providing combination bike/canoe tours and pointing you in the direction of the area’s best beer gardens and Franconian cuisine. Prices vary according to the number and age of the visitors and the package offer you are interested in; some guide companies offer family rates. SAN-aktiv-TOURS (Gunzenhausen, Tel. [09831] 49 36,, Gruber (Gunzenhausen, Tel. [09831] 21 77, and Natour (Weissenburg, Tel. [09141] 92 29 29, all provide an excellent service. If you are planning to do the tour on your own bicycle, make sure it is in good working order before you leave—consult your cycle guidebook for a list of items to take with you—though there are bike rental shops, repair stations and bicycle-exchange services offered along the route. Because the cycle path caters more to a combination of biking and sightseeing, the rentals tend to be of the “beach cruiser” variety, complete with cushioned seats and upright handles for a better “viewing” posture, and even the smallest of children can be accommodated with a trailer hitched to the back.

Gunzenhausen is easily reached by car or by train. Trains run throughout the day from Munich Central Station ( and the journey takes about two hours. Reserve a space for your bicycles (extra charge), as not all trains accept them at the last minute. By car from Munich, take the A9 Autobahn north for roughly one hour, to either Ingolstadt or Kinding, and follow the signs to Altmühltal and eventually, Gunzenhausen.

The official start of the Altmühl Radweg is in one of two places: either just beyond the station or at Iselplatz, next to the Stadthalle. The entire path is well marked by large, rectangular brown and white signs with enough information to ensure you don’t get lost. Cross the bridge over the Altmühl and you are off. The landscape here is typical of Upper Franconia, with green farm pastures interspersed with attractive, small towns. In the distance are the gentle slopes of the Franconian Jura, which you should reach sometime late afternoon. The towns of Treuchtlingen or Pappenheim are good stopping points for the first day on the trail (25 km or 35 km, respectively, from Gunzenhausen).

Just before Pappenheim, the river runs through a 100- to 200-m-deep gorge and the countryside becomes truly breathtaking. The variety of trees along this stretch is a range of pine, beech, spruce, oak and larch and the first dolomite stone structures begin to dot the way. In town, a trip up the hill to Pappenheim Castle allows a stunning sunset view of the valley through which you just cycled. The next leg of the journey holds important treasures for palaeontologists of amateur and serious interest alike. In the area near Solnhofen, fossils of the first prehistoric bird, Archaeopteryx lithographica, were uncovered. And, further down the trail are several opportunities for fossil hunters of all ages to rent a hammer and chisel in the hope of finding their own treasures in the stones, near Blumenberg.

Scenic treasures abound. The “Twelve Apostles,” a row of 12 chalky stone structures, lie close to the river bend just before Esslingen, the houses of which are graced with traditional Altmühl stone roofs, so-called Legschieferdächer—flat, stone shingles that look haphazardly thrown upon the rooftops. For those who choose a guided bike tour, the next several kilometers will serve as a popular point for abandoning the wheels and jumping into a canoe for a while, passing over some of the only rapids on the Altmühl. (Don’t be fooled by the name “rapids”though: the white water here might garner a 1/2 point on the scale of 1 to 6.)

The path meanders through the valley, which widens gradually all the way to the next night’s stop, Eichstätt (about 32 km from Pappenheim). The impressive hilltop castle of Willibaldsburg greets you from above, signaling that you are just a river’s bend away. Cycling into the Baroque Old Town, with its cobblestone streets, colorful ornate buildings and the buzzing of an occasional motor scooter, you might imagine you are in Italy rather than the middle of Bavaria. All credit is due to the Italian architects that rebuilt Eichstätt after the Swedes razed it to the ground during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48). In the midst of this otherwise sleepy valley, the town has an almost cosmopolitan feel. Eichstätt is home to the Zentrale Tourist-Information Naturpark Altmühltal (mentioned above) and has the only Catholic University in Germany, where most of the year students inhabit the streets and cafés—though, in summer, the town is quieter. At its hilltop position, the Willibaldsburg houses the Jura Museum and the Museum of Pre- and Early History, complete with an enormous 6,000-year-old mammoth skeleton (Tel. [08421] 47 30,

Leaving Eichstätt, the Altmühltal offers a contrasting landscape of forested hills and Trockenrasen (scruffy, uneven terrain with bushy trees). Other sights the cyclist will see: in Pfünz, Kastell Vetoniana, the only completely rebuilt Roman castle in Bavaria; Walting’s famous, original Altmühltal beer garden (Gut Moierhof, Tel. [08426] 987 80,; and the Gungoldinger Heide (heath), the largest protected heathland reserve in the park. And the next attraction is just around the corner, in Kipfenberg, a town whose claim to fame is its location as the geographical center of the State of Bavaria. Beyond the formidable Kipfenburg Castle is a rock with a plaque on which it is said that every Bavarian must step at least once in his or her lifetime.

The final stretch to another night’s stop, in Beilngries, takes cyclists to the Krätzensee, just east of the Autobahn crossing, where you can take a refreshing swim. As Beilngries lies between the Altmühl River and the Main-Danube Canal, cyclists here can choose to peddle the last 44.5 km to Kelheim, or board a ship that will take passengers (and bicycles) down to the final Radweg town. Staying on the bike means accompanying the Altmühl as it joins forces with the Main-Danube Canal further on, and not missing out on the whimsical sights along the way, such as the Chinese Fountain in Dietfurt; the many castles of Riedenburg; and the longest wooden footbridge in Europe, suspended over the river at Essing. Kloster Weltenburg, near Kelheim, is a final “must” before returning home.

In whatever combination of forms, a journey down the Altmühl River, through the heart of Bavaria and along a trail strewn with fascinating sites of historical interest, is a refreshing experience for those yet to discover its secrets. Take it at the river’s pace—relax, sit back and enjoy the ride.

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