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Pilgrim route to Rome: From Utrecht to Basel (2006)

Germany: Cycling along the Rhine

Taking a trip along the Rhine is one of the oldest tourist excursions for the Dutch. In the Fifties and Sixties the Siebengebirge hills and the castle ruins on the rocks along the fast-flowing river ranked among the most popular foreign holiday attractions. For the spoilt twenty-first century tourist the Rhine and the surrounding landscape are still definitely worth a visit, and the river is also very easy to explore by bicycle, thanks to excellent, signposted cycle paths along its banks. This route through Germany is also a nice alternative to the heavier Ardennes for the many cycling pilgrims on their way to Rome.


From Emmerich to Kalkar

We ride from Utrecht via Nijmegen and Millingen to Emmerich, a distance of over 100 km, mostly over river dikes. After Nijmegen the route leads through the attractive Ooijpolder and the Millingerwaard to the German border, which we cross on a bicycle path over the summer dike. The first German town is Emmerich on the Rhine bank, and we continue in the direction of Kalkar, where we pass the Schneller Brüter nuclear power plant, which was never put into operation. This breeder reactor has found a new use as an amusement park, under the name Wunderland Kalkar.


From Kalkar to Düsseldorf

The next kilometers the landscape is still completely flat and dikes and floodplains give the area a Dutch character. The old Roman garrison town of Xanten is worth a visit because of the picturesque market square and the atmospheric cloister courtyard of the cathedral, the first of many cathedrals, often rebuilt after WW II, that we will encounter on this tour. A little outside the town is a large archaeological park with several reconstructed Roman buildings, such as an amphitheatre and a temple. Especially the accompanying Roman museum is interesting, but a visit takes at least a few hours.

Rhine beach near Düsseldorf

As we approach Duisburg and Krefeld, the first major German cities along the Rhine, the landscape becomes urbanised and soon we pass large blast-furnace complexes (Thyssen, Krupp) along the busy Rhine, where a large part of the raw materials and products are transported. Although the bicycle route now runs through densely populated areas, green areas are certainly not lacking. Arable farming is also important here, given the vast fields of wheat and maize.

The renovated port area in Düsseldorf

From Düsseldorf to Cologne

We arrive in Düsseldorf, the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia. On the Rijnboulevard the many terraces are very popular, overlooking the Rhine bridges and the TV tower, which we pass a little later on our way to the Medienhafen. This old harbour area has been completely renovated and boasts some fine exampless of modern architecture. You will find many trendy restaurants and cafes here.

The Fernsehturm in Düsseldorf

On this Sunday it is particularly busy along the Rhine with groups of cyclists, who tend to ride at a walking pace. When we pass them, this sometimes leads to unexpected shock reactions and outraged faces, especially from elderly cyclists. Well, we ring our bells loud and clear and overtake them as widely as possible, which is not always easy on the narrow cycle paths. Cycling close to the Rhine we reach Cologne, whose cathedral is already visible from afar.

Cologne Cathedral

From Cologne to Koblenz

In Cologne we cycle along the promenade road along the river, which we leave for a short trip to the Domplatz. The streets are full of Cologne's inhabitants, tourists and street artists on this synny Sunday afternoon.. Although the enormous cathedral nave dates back to the Middle Ages - construction began in 1248 - it was not until the 19th century that the characteristic towers were placed on top of it, according to the old building plan. We pass numerous cafés, Biergärten and other establishments and take advantage of it to enjoy a real German snack: Reibekuchen mit Apfelmus. This gives enough strength to cover the last part of the stage to the campsite in Mehlem.

In the former West-German capital Bonn we admire the beautiful town hall from 1737. The pink baroque façade shows that we are now entering a more Central European culture, and the landscape is also changing dramatically: the fast-flowing Rhine is now flanked by the slopes and peaks of the Siebengebirge Mountains, which reach over 400 m in height. On the famous Drachenfels viewing mountain, which once served as a quarry for Cologne Cathedral, we can see the first vineyards, the northernmost along the Rhine.

The romance is complete with Schloss Drachenburg, a romantic 19th century neo-Gothic castle halfway the Drachenfels and on top the ruins of Castle Drachenfels, a medieval castle that has been a popular destination for excursions since time immemorial. After a day trip of 120 km we stop at the campsite of Mehlem, which offers a view of the Drachenfels and Königswinter on the other side of the river.
The cycle route continues close to the left bank of the Rhine and passes picturesque villages such as Remagen and Bad Breisig. The Rhine Valley is wider here; the area is known as Goldene Meile because of its fertility and favourable climate.

The cycle path is a bit bumpy from time to time, but in the afternoon we reach the town of Koblenz, which is worth seeing. Until the end of the Second World War a bronze equestrian statue of Emperor Wilhelm I marked the confluence of the Moselle in the Rhine, das Deutsche Eck. The enormous imperial monument was reinstated on private initiative in 1993, but not without protest. Anyway, the view over the Rhine at this historic place is quite spectacular.

Altes Haus (1368) in Bacharach

From Koblenz to Worms

After Koblenz, the Rhine makes a few sharp twists and turns in order to make its way through the rocky hills. Ships sailing upriver only advance with difficulty in the many rapids. Vineyards on steep slopes along the banks of the Rhine determine the landscape, interspersed with picturesque villages with half-timbered houses. In the narrow valley near St. Goar, near the Loreley Rock, we find a place on a campsite. It's a bit noisy because of the railway lines on both river banks; 24 hours a day the sound of the freight trains resounds between the steep banks.

At the famous Loreley, a 193 m high, protruding rock, the Rhine makes a sharp bend and at this point the river is only 113 m wide. Many ships have gone to the bottom in the shallows and rapids here. Meanwhile, the waterway has been safe since the most dangerous rocks were blown up in the thirties, but shipping is still regulated by light signals because of the narrow passage.

Pasta with goulash and local white wine...

Beyond the Loreley the Rhine Valley remains very narrow. In the riverbed lie elongated willow-covered islands and steep slopes, often planted with vines, rise up to 300 m above the river. We pass one castle after the other. Villages like Oberwesel and especially Bacharach fully correspond to the classic image of the romantic Rhine: intimate squares with half-timbered houses, churches and chapels and lots of cafes, restaurants and Biergärten where you can get a nutritious meal in the afternoon for little money.

Kaub with Gutenfels Castle

Just before Bingen, where the hills suddenly give way, we drive along the Binger Loch, a breakthrough in the river rock that was cut out in the 13th century, so ships could pass here safely and cargo no longer had to be transported by land between Rüdesheim and Lorch.
Until Mainz we cycle through an almost flat landscape with orchards and grain fields; the river is rarely visible behind the wide, wooded floodplains. bunch of grapesIn Mainz, which has a beautifully restored town centre, we again reach an important confluence, this time of the Main, which flows into the Rhine from the east. We check in at the campsite of Mainz, on the other side of the Rhine from the town, from where there is a nice view of the shipping traffic and the city centre.
We continue our route on narrow roads through the vineyards, where the vines are full of almost ripe bunches. We are now in Rheinhessen, Germany's largest wine-growing region with well-known wine villages such as Nierstein and Oppenheim. Here you will find the oldest documented vineyards in Germany, with Riesling (white) and Spätburgunder (red) as grape varieties.

former concentration camp Osthofen

Just before Worms we take a look at the former concentration camp Osthofen, where opponents of the Nazis were imprisoned between 1933 and 1934. This was the first concentration camp in Hessen, located in an empty paper mill. A little later we arrive in the historic town of Worms, known from the Concordat of Worms (1122), which ended the investiture battle between Pope and Emperor. Worms was also the town where Luther was banned as a heretic in 1521. Unfortunately, the famous Romanesque cathedral is closed today because of festivities, much to the regret of many German tourists, who gather at the portal with angry faces. Better have an ice cream at Vannini's on the square opposite the cathedral, with an amazing choice of delicious Italian ice cream. Definitely not expensive and definitely worth it!

Speyer cathedral

From Worms to Offenburg

The city of Ludwigshafen is not the most beautiful to pass by bike. BASF's huge industrial complex dominates the entire Rhine bank. A more attractive alternative might be to cross the Rhine at Worms and then cycle along the right bank to Mannheim, a city with an exceptional rectangular street pattern from around 1700. We continue the Rhine route along vast floodplains in the direction of Speyer. The map shows a large number of campsites, but without exception these are only equipped for mobile homes. On one of them we can still camp for a night. The next morning we reach the beautiful town centre of Speyer, home to one of the largest Romanesque cathedrals in Germany. Many houses are decorated with colourful geraniums and numerous pot palms give the inner city a Mediterranean look. The Rhine has largely been canalized after Speyer and the bike path here runs straight over the endless dike. The fortified town of Germersheim with its heavy defences provides some variety.

tobacco at Offenburg

From Offenburg to Basel

We are now riding through the mildest part of Germany, the wine region of the Kaiserstuhl, where the hills reach as far as the Rhine. In the distance we see the foothills of the Black Forest and the Vosges. Tobacco growing is still important here; the large leaves are hung up in carts to dry.
It's tempting to wander a little further away from the Rhine here and cycle through the Alsace region the French side, where picturesque villages like Riquewihr and Barr lie between the vineyards. Between Obernai and Colmar there is an attractive cycle route along the slopes, which due to its short but sometimes steep ascents is a bit more sporty than the route just along the Rhine.

Rapids of the Rhine near Basel

The last part of the Rhine before Basel has its own character. All shipping traffic uses the canal dug on the French side and here the river still shows its original character. Shallows and rapids alternate and along the banks nature is given free rein. Just before crossing the border with Switzerland, enormous weirs regulate the water stream. A little later we reach the city centre of Basel, where a promenade offers a beautiful view of the river and stately mansions.

Cycle stages

Stage Distance*
1. Utrecht - Emmerich (D) 119 km
2. Emmerich - Langstkierst (Dusseldorf) 112 km
3. Langstkierst - Mehlem (Drachenfels) 114 km
4. Mehlem - Sankt Goar 101 km
5. Sankt Goar - Mainz 62 km
6. Mainz - Otterstadt (Speyer) 100 km
7. Otterstadt - Stollhofen (Bühl) 113 km
8. Stollhofen - Offenburg 60 km
9. Offenburg - Neuf Brisach (F) 96 km
10. Neuf Brisach - Frick (CH) 118 km
Total 995 km

*Including detours for groceries etc.

bike path along the Rhine at Speyer

Pilgrim's route to Rome: see our reports for further stages towards Rome: From Basel to Lake Como (Splügen Pass) or From Basel to Chiasso (Gotthard Pass) and From Lake Como to Rome.