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Altmühl Bicycle Tour

The bicycle path along Altmühl River Valley of south central Germany is family friendly (mostly flat).

Tour Overview:Map of Altmuehl to Passau August 2000: This tour will take you from Gunzenhausen to Passau. This 5-day ride 230-mile (371 km) is mostly flat but there are a few small hills. The tour is suitable for family bicycle holidays. It follows the Altmühl River Valley from Gunzenhausen to Kelheim and then follows the Danube from Kelheim to Passau. We went on from Passau to Vienna but that ride is described in The Austrian Danube from Passau to Vienna.

The Altmühl River Valley of south central Germany is beautiful. The river meanders slowly through farmland with its fields of wheat, corn, barley and oats that ripen in the sunshine. There are many forested hillsides along the wide shallow valley. In the early spring, you will find huge fields of bright yellow flowers of canola plants. In German, this crop is referred to as Raps. You may find yourself trying to describe the beauty of the patchwork of brilliant yellow fields mixed with that of intense green of the new corn and the lighter green of cereal grain crops. Massive willow trees overhang the river dappling the green water with sunlight. In late summer, you’ll see the fog rise off the fields in the morning and settle in the low places just before dark. One of the remarkable features of the Altmühl River Valley are the nearly white sandstone cliffs that frame the river. They are dramatically beautiful set against the perpetual green of the forest and fields. The upper Altmühl is a popular place to rent canoes and begin a several day canoe trip. Canoe travelers can frequently be heard laughing and splashing water on each other on hot days.

We are taking this tour with two friends from the Seattle area. They are Daghild and Erhard, Austrian and German born Americans respectively. Daghild is a retired professional pastry chef, trained in Austria. Her guidance is guaranteed to add inches to our hips. We will just have to peddle harder to make room for everything and not gain too much weight.

Gunzenhausen is easy to get to by train or car. On the Altmühl, they even have a bus that will facilitate bus rides between many of the small towns for €5.00 without a bike and €7.50 with a bike. The slow (or injured?) riders can sag onto the bus and meet the bike riders at the next bus stop. How cool is that?

Now most guidebooks start the Altmühl tour in Rothenburg ab der Tauber. Of course it is a longer ride to start there. The bikeline guidebook from Esterbauer.com says it is 243 km in length.

Canoeing the Altmühl is an alternate activity that one can do as a break from bicycling. http://www.igreens.org.uk/canoeing_the_altmuhl.htm will tell you about that and give you specifics.

In this part of Germany, the exterior of the church steeples frequently have a design created by different colored slate roof tiles. It looks almost like a mosaic. We were impressed by the many different designs of steeple, some gothic, some squat and onion shaped, but others are just tall and have a normal pitch to the roof. Frequently, there will be two towers on the churches; sometimes both towers will have clocks. Redundancy is good when it comes to mechanical clocks, I guess. I know the priest would not want you to miss service just because one of the clocks stopped.

Four Riders in Gunsenhausen

Altmühl River Valley is beautiful. The river meanders slowly through farmland with its fields of wheat, corn, barley and oats that ripen in the sunshine. There are many forested hillsides along the wide shallow valley. In the early spring, you will find huge fields of bright yellow flowers from the canola plants grown for their oil here. Huge willow trees overhang the river dappling the green water with sunlight. In late summer, you’ll see the fog rise off the fields in the morning and settle in the low places just before dark. One of the remarkable features of the Altmühl River Valley are the sandstone cliffs along the river. They are dramatically beautiful set against the perpetual green of the forest and fields. The upper Altmühl is a popular place to rent canoes and begin a several day canoe trip. Canoe travelers can frequently be heard laughing and splashing water on each other on hot days.

Path sign by Tara Alan and Tyler Kellen of GoingSlowly.comSignage: The path signs look like this: Others have a snail symbol on the sign. This photograph is by permission from Tara Alan and Tyler Kellen of GoingSlowly.com

Overnight Accommodations: There is no shortage of overnight accommodations on this tour. Because of the popularity of this bike route, nearly every small village will have at least one “Zimmer Frei” or rooms for rent in private homes. See my Overnight Accommodations page for a full description of different accommodations.

Stops: The most interesting stops we made along the trip was the Roman ruins at Pfünz, the Willibald Cathedral in Eichstätt, the massive Regensburg
Cathedral, the city of Straubing, and of course Passau.Bikeline Guidebook

Maps and Guidebooks: BVA GuidebookFor the Altmühl we used Map 22, Fränkische Alb / Altmühl, a Bielefelder Rad Karten, scale 1:150,000, published by Bielefelder Verlagsanstalt. We prefer a smaller scale map but this is all we could find in Gunzenhausen on a Sunday. It worked well enough. If the stores would have been open, we could have also purchased bikeline's Altmühl-Radweg, Von Rothenburg o.d. Tauber nach Kelheim a.d. Donau, 1:50,000, from Verlag Esterbauer GmbH (http://esterbauer.com).

Once we got to the Danube, we used the bikeline Donau-Radweg, Tile 1, Radtourenbuch und Kartespan>, 1:50,000, published by Verlag Esterbauer, GmbH. The first guidebook/map took us as far as Passau at the Austrian/German border, the second all the way to Vienna.on the bike path

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Day 1: Gunzenhausen to Pfünz

Day Overview: This day’s ride is 50 miles (80 km). The ride is mostly flat but there is one 60-foot hill at mile 3. The path is mostly paved but there are short sections of gravel that add up to almost 15 miles. Of interest today, besides the great scenery along the Altmühl River Valley, is the Cathedral at Eichstätt and the Roman Kastill (castle) above Pfünz. We start the day in a small village just two miles west of Gunzenhausen. Today they have some sort of convention in Gunzenhausen. We found accommodations in a Zimmer Frei or a private home with rooms to rent. It is raining hard when we awake. The forecast is not good. This summer has been the wettest on record in Germany for the last 100 years. We decide that we will just go out and endure, but by the time we finish breakfast, the rain has stopped and the sun is trying to break through the overcast sky.Photo by Daghild Rick

Mile 0 (0 km): From the Gunzenhausen Bahnhof. Ride south into town and then toward the village of Unterrourmbach. You will see the first snail symbol sign for the Altmühl bike path just after you cross the river. The signs have a snail graphic (actually the symbol is for the fossilized snails that are found along the river in various places) and the name of a town down stream. You want to go toward Treuchtlingen.

Mile 16.5 (26.6 km): Enter Treuchtlingen. We ride a little side tour here to get the feel of the town. It’s quaint. As we leave, we follow signs toward Pappenheim.

Mile 21.6 (34.6 km): Enter Pappenheim and notice the castle, Burg Pappenheim, on the hill to the right. Swan family on the bike path

Mile 34.1 (54.9 km): Here is the cute community of Dollnstein. It is a walled city and we break here for Kaffee and Kuchen. The picture shows a family of swans crossing the bike path in front of Dollnstein.

Mile 42.5 (68.4 km): Enter Rebdorf, and in a short distance, you will pass Kloster Rebdorf, an Augustinian monastery first established in 1156 by Bishop Konrad von Moorsbach. Kaiser Fredrick Barbarossa (one of the Holy Roman Emperors) gave the land around the monastery to this bishop as a gift. Today, the former monastery is a Real Schule or a technical high school.

Mile 44.7 (71.9 km): Leave the trail to explore the Altstadt of Eichstätt, a Baroque city. The market square is picturesque and Willibald’s Cathedral is just off the town square. This Cathedral is a “must see,” it’s beautiful. There are several altars and triptychs. Some are extremely ornate. The stained glass windows are beautiful and artistic. The gold leaf statutes of the saints overlooking the sanctuary are also remarkable.Castle of Marienstein

Mile 50.2 (80.8 km): At Pfünz we get off the trail to look for a Zimmer for the night. Gasthof Schert is right on the trail and looks good but is full for the evening. We find another Zimmer Frei in town but cannot recommend it to others. Although, after we are already situated, we walk up the street and find a nice looking building with a Ferienwohnung sign that we will list in the Hotel Page for this trip. The photograph is of Schloss Marienstein near Eichstatt.

For dinner, we walked back to Gasthof Schert. Afterwards, we explore the Roman Kastell (castle like fortification) built about 300 AD. It is in the process of being restored and is just a short walk up to the top of the hill above Pfünz. You can see wonderful sunsets from the Kastell.Wonderful sunset from the Kastell

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Day 2: Pfünz to Essing

Day Overview: This day’s 48 miles (77.2 km) is a little longer than normal but the terrain is mostly flat. There are only a few hills; the largest of which is only 90 feet into the town of Muhlbach at mile 31 (50 km). That hill can be avoided if you wish. Most of the day will be on gravel path with short sections of pavement. We’ll be following a couple different signs, one a 6 inch square yellow, square signs with an “A” and the other a brown sign with a symbol of a walker and the words, "Nationalpark Altmühltal." Mostly we follow the brown signs that will have the name of the next large town.

Mile 10.9 (17.5 km): After climbing over a 50-foot hill, enter Böhming where across the river another old Roman Kastell has been converted into a Gasthaus.

Mile 12.0 (19.3 km): Enter Kipfenberg. As you enter the town, you will find an information sign telling of the many overnight accommodations available here. There is a Wanderweg, or hiking trail, leads to a Roman defensive facility called a Schanzen. It is a sort of a small castle used for defense. There is another Roman ruin in Denkendorf also.

Mile 18.0 (29.0 km): Here you will find two divergent bike paths one paved and the other gravel. The paved one climbs a gradual 50-foot hill while the gravel one follows the road. But both paths come together again in about a mile. I bet that the signs will be changed soon to favor the gravel bike path.

Mile 22.6 (36.4 km): Beilngries. Here the Altmühl joins the canal system called Main-Donau Kanal. Also two different long-distance bicycle routes converge in Beilngries. For the next several days, you will also be able to follow signs for the “Tour de Baroque” or bike tour of Baroque cities and villages. This route goes almost all the way to Vienna.

Mile 28.3 (45.5 km): Töging. We stop at the Hausgebackene Kuchen (Homemade cakes) sign for lunch . We note that there is a castle above us, we think it is Schloss Prunn, but we don’t investigate.Schloss Prunn

Mile 29.7 (47.8 km): Dietfurt. The signage is not good through Dietfurt. There is a sign at mile 30.3 showing some of the many overnight accommodations available in Dietfurt. Follow the path signs towards Kelheim and Riedenburg. If you stay on the marked trail, you will climb a 90-foot hill just before you enter the next small town of Mühlbach. To skirt the hill, follow the Weisse Laaber River south from Dietfurt and turn left where it meets the Altmühl. The picture is of Schloss Prunn, a famous sight along the Altmühl.

Mile 31.6 (km): Enter Mühlbach. I am convinced that the route we take from Dietfurt to here is bought and paid for by the Muhlbach Chamber of Commerce. Given that there is a much easier (but unsigned) bike path along the river valley, the only reason to make us poor dumb sign followers climb the last 90-foot hill is to make us ride past their pastry shops and restaurants in hopes we’ll stop and buy something. It works.Beautiful Essing Foot Bridge

Mile 47.0 (75.6 km): We enter Essing, a town famous for its modern wooden suspension bridge that seems to bend with age but is actually a new bridge designed to look that way. We cross that bridge to the west side and stay at the first house you come to on the right almost underneath the auto bridge or about 6/10th of a mile past the wooden suspension bridge. Look for the small “Zimmer Frei” sign on the front fence. Family Engelbrecht owns the home they charge €30 for double room with shower. Frau Engelbrecht is exceedingly pleasant. After changing clothes, we walk into town to sample the local food and ambiance. The pictures are of Essing, the world longest wooden suspension bridge and the Altmühl with a castle (Burg Randeck) on the hill in the background. For those interested in bridges and bridge construction, click a website devoted to bridges around the world here.Beautiful Essing Foot Bridge

Day 3: Essing to Frengkofen

Day Overview: We reach Kelheim, the end of the Altmühl River, this morning after only 3.5 miles. Then we will ride east along the Danube. Today we ride 42 miles (67.6 km); the path is flat and paved. We follow signs that say “Tour de Baroque” for most of the rest of the trip to Passau.
In Kelheim, we start using a different more detailed, map book, i.e., bikeline’s Donau-Radweg, Teil 1, published by Verlag Esterbauer GmbH.Weltenburg Monestary

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Mile 0 (0 km): We leave the Zimmer and climb up to the auto bridge to cross the river and connect with the trail on the east side of the river. From there, we continue south toward Kelheim. We are advised by a local to cross the small wooden bridge over the irrigation canal and take the gravel path as it is better than the marked bike path, I think he is right.

Mile 3.4 (5.5 km): The Kelheim Lock, probably the first lock on the Main-Donau-Altmühl Kanal. Above the lock to the right is the Befreiungshalle or “Liberation Hall.” Built by King Ludwig I of Bavaria in 1863, it commemorates the “Great Battle of Nations” near Leipzig when the 34 German states defeated Emperor Napoleon. The round building is divided into 18 sections, each with a statue of a feminine member of one of the 18 (or so) Germanic tribes.

Mile 4.5 (7.2 km): we cross an interesting counterbalanced footbridge over the Altmühl and follow the signs into the Altstadt (Old Town). Here we break from bicycling for an hour-long boat trip up the Danube. We consider taking our bikes aboard. There is a small fee for this if you opt to do so. There are two reasons doing so, security (the bike bags have all our belongings and bikes are stolen sometimes) and/or because we want to ride them back from the Benedictine Monastery (about 4 miles with two hills and traffic). In the end, we chose to lock our bikes to bike stands and just carry our bags aboard with us. If we were not confirmed members of the Over-Fifty-with-Bad-Knees Club, we might have tried it.

About mile 7.5 (12.1 km): As we leave Kelheim, we cross to the south bank of the Danube on a large automobile bridge. We avoid several miles of automobile traffic by taking the bridge but we stray from the Tour de Baroque route for a short distance. We follow signs toward Saal and Bad Abbach but we stay on the bike path (which skirts Saal) and avoid much of the traffic. Regansburg Dom

Mile 22.7 (36.5 km): We cross under an Autobahn bridge on the outskirts of Regensburg. We are following signs that say “Donau Radweg nach Passau.” It will take a couple days to get to Passau, the border between Germany and Austria.

Mile 27.3 (43.9 km): After noting that the Naab River conflates with the Danube just prior to Regensburg we continue toward the old center of the city. We leave the path briefly to ride though the Altstadt of Regensburg. The people of Regensburg are church builders. The first cathedral was started in the 8th Century but in 1255, they stopped work on that and began building the current gothic cathedral. It was finally finished in the 19th Century. It is currently being restored. From the inside, the structure and the stained glass windows are truly amazing.

Mile 29.5 (47.5 km): The bike path crosses the river on the Nibelungenbrücke, the bridge just east of the Steinernebrücke (Stone Bridge). The Steinernebrücke is the oldest bridge in all of Europe. There is a directional sign for a Jugendherberge (Youth Hostel) here. It is on the island between the river channels. By the way, in Bavaria, you must be under 27 years of age to stay in a Jugendherberge. That is not the case other German states.
If you need the train station, the Hauptbahnhof is at the intersection of Maximillian Strasse and (what else) Bahnhof Strasse, just south of the Altstadt. The Bahnhof is always a good place to find out about overnight accommodations and other tourist information. You can catch a train there too. And usually someone is available to pick your pocket, if your pocket needs picking.

Walhalla from Bike PathMile 37.2 (59.9 km): The photograph is of the Walhalla that we ride past. Finally completed in 1842 by Bavarian King Ludwig I (grandfather of Mad King Ludwig famous for building five castles in Bavaria) after decades of planning and construction, Walhalla was to honor exemplary German personages like Friedrich the Great, Queen Maria Theresa, the poets Goethe and Schiller, etc. It is built of marble in Doric style with 52 columns and 358 steps after the Acropolis in Athens. When Ludwig originally conceived of the temple, it was to be a remembrance of the country’s tie to German people and things in part to offset the influences of Napoleonic rule before 1813 (Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig). Ludwig had first planned to show of busts of 60 famous people but by the time it opened, the number had grown to 162 busts. There must have been a sudden proliferation of famous people, I guess. (Unabated over-appreciation of cultural edifices is not one of my weaknesses.)

Mile 42.0 (67.6 km): We end the day at the Gasthaus in Frengkofen. Not a place I would recommend, but a welcome bed and dinner on this day. We have been looking for overnight accommodations in every village since leaving Regensburg. Due to a medical convention in a nearby community, all of the usually available accommodations were completely booked. Oh well, what difference do a few more miles on a nice sunny day make anyway? Normally, there are many Zimmer and Gasthäuser in the area so our experience is an unusual one.

We liberally imbibe of the local brew and hammer down too many homemade bratwursts that are served on a bed of sauerkraut. They are fixed in the Bavarian style with caraway seeds (Kummel). The bread is flavored with caraway too. Our two traveling companions, Americans by nationality but German and Austrian by birth both abhor the caraway taste. They choose Leberkäse the traditional Bavarian meatloaf of finely ground veal instead.

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Day 4: Frengkofen to Metten

Day Overview: It is 45.3 miles (73 km) to Metten. Most of the path is paved except for several short stretches of gravel in the morning. There will not be much elevation change again today – typical of the Danube bike path. We ride on the path depicted in the map book (bikeline, Donau-Radweg, Teil 1, Esterbauer). However, both sides of the river frequently have bike paths or acceptable bike routes. Of interest today will be the city of Straubing, a Baroque city with many buildings using the stufengiebel (step gabled) style of architecture typical of Baroque architecture.

Mile 0 (0 km): We choose to eat our bountiful and tasty breakfast outside in the cool morning sunshine rather than inside where stale cigarette smoke permeates everything (typical of European restaurants until about 2009 when smoking in public places started to be frowned upon). Then we leave Frengkofen and ride east toward Passau. The water of the blue Danube sparkles like diamonds in the morning sun; I hum the famous waltz (Johan Strauss, Blue Danube) as we ride.

Mile 7.2 (11.6 km): On the hillside to the left is the Baroque castle, Schloss Wörth. You can take a 1.5 km detour and check it out but we ride past it.

Mile 13.0 (20.9 km): We stop at Pondorf for a coffee break at a cute outdoor place called Fahrradwandereroase or “bicycle rider oasis.” We figure with a name like that, they must be friendly to bikers like ourselves – and they are.

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Straubing, Germany

Mile 21.9 (28.8 km): This is the center of Straubing, a classical Baroque city. As a settlement, Straubing has been around since the time of Christ. Actually there have been people living in this area for the last 52,000 years. (Now that goes back a bit for soup, don’t you think?) There were several Roman forts or “Kastelle” built in this area. This city is currently the site of the second largest Oktoberfest-type festival (the local people call it a “Gäubodenvolksfest”) in Germany and it is held in mid-August. We are too early to celebrate, darn it!

To get here we turned right in Sassau and crossed the bridge. The path here shows as an alternate or variant of the main bike path but it is well marked and quite safe. We climbed a 50-foot hill to get into the city but it is well worth the effort. Straubing is definitely one of the cities that are “a must see” on the Danube. After we lunch and walk the town a little, we depart from the northeast corner of the main town square and cross over the small island in the Danube on the Schloßbrücke. We turn hard right just over the bridge onto the main path.

Mile 27.0 (43.5 km): After riding around looking for the right bridge out of Straubing (and throwing a monkey wrench into otherwise accurate mileage record) we enter Reibersdorf. The map says it is only 6 kilometers from Straubing but we rode over 10 kilometers to get here – we must have been really lost. But we did find the fairgrounds, where they hold the large Gäubodenvolksfest in mid-August.

Mile 30.4 (48.9 km): Bogan is the destination of many faithful pilgrims, some of whom are probably experiencing problem pregnancies. The story goes that after a shipwreck in 1104 a statue of the Madonna washed up to the base of the Boganberg. The Count (Graf) salvaged it and placed it in a niche of the castle’s chapel. Years later, when the castle had become a Benedictine Monastery, the Pater allegedly “scientifically undressed” the statue and found that the Madonna appeared to be pregnant. The guidebook suggests that the statue was thrown over the cliff and into the Danube by the Swedes during the 30-years war (17th Century) but was in fact recovered from the brambles of the cliff and restored to its current place of honor just left of the choir loft in the Marienkirche.

Mile 45.3 (72.9 km): We end the day here in Metten and enjoy a gemütlich (comfortable) evening at Haus Christa (in the center of town). We had a tasty evening meal; the owner also runs a family style restaurant for her guests as well as the locals. The conversation can be lively and interesting. We spoke of the statue of the pregnant Madonna at Bogen and the owner told us that a group of people from Metten makes an annual walking pilgrimage carrying a 15-meter tall candle. Once they reach the base of the hill at Bogen, they hold the candle upright and walk up the hill.

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Day 5: Metten to Passau

Day Overview: The path is flat all the way to Passau. There is not much gravel or traffic today. Of interest today is a tiny Rococo style church in the small village of Thundorf.

Mile 0 (0 km): After saying our goodbyes, we leave Haus Christa and ride back to the Danube bike path. I ride down a steep path and catch my front tire in a rut. I fly over the handlebars and come to rest on my stomach just ahead of the bike. The injury looks minor and we cover it with one large Band-Aid. I don’t realize it now but my rotator cuff is damaged and I will remember this experience not for months but for years. Oh well, I can still ride so we press on. I am reminded of the downside to taking unnecessary risks; next time I’ll get off and walk down these steep pitches – if there is a next time. At least I am wearing my helmet and gloves so the “road rash” damage was minimized.

Mile 8.5 (13.7 km): We take the ferry across the Danube at Niederalteich. It costs €1.30 per person. I enjoy these small ferries. There are paths on both sides of the river here but the one on the right bank has less traffic and less gravel. Besides, we want to cross the river to stay on the main bike path and to check out the Rococo church we have read about in the guidebook.

Thundorf Church

Mile 8.9 (14.3 km): We stop in Thundorf and check out the tiny Rococo church. It is small but amazingly beautiful. We had to admire it through the security gate but we are still glad for the opportunity. We envy the local congregation that they have such an ornate church.

Mile 18.9 (30.4 km): There is a ruin of an old Roman Castle and bath here in Lanakünzing but we chose not to visit it. Instead, my riding companion, Erhard, and I take a nap on the grass after our lunch. He needs the nap because he has a touch of the flu; I need it because I had two beers with lunch. Both beer and the flu will slow down your bike, I have just discovered.

Mile 23.0 (37.0 km): Loop over the railroad, despite what the map shows, and ride through Pleinting with the railroad to your right. Whenever you are unsure where the bike path directional signs are pointing, look at the signs as if coming from the other direction. Hopefully your confusion will be reduced.

Mile 27.0 (43.5 km): We discover that the town of Vilshofen is cute and interesting. We cross the Danube here to the left bank. The guidebook tells us that the view on the left bank is better than that on the other side.

Mile 29.3 (47.2 km): From Windorf, we ride down the shoulder of a major road for about 4.5 miles (7 km). I hate shoulder riding, even if it is demarked by paint or a concrete barrier. I love bicycle only bike paths though.

Mile 42.0 (67.6 km): Here is the Passau Bahnhof. From the list of accommodations here, we choose one that is a mile away and near the top of a steep hill – if I had it to do over again, I would have stayed in one of the hotels next to the Bahnhof. Passau is at the confluence of three rivers, the Danube, the Inn, and the Ilz. From the Veste Oberhaus, which is open to tours and sightseeing, one can look down upon the Danube at the point where both the Ilz River and the Inn River conflate with the Danube. The three distinct colors of the river water do not immediately blend with each other. The photo below shows the view. Photograph by Daghild Rick.

Veste Oberhaus in Passau

Passau is historic. People have lived in these river valleys since the Stone Age about 120,000 years ago. In the beginning they were hunters and gatherers but due to the fertile river valleys, they began to till the soil and raise cattle as early as 5,000 year BCE. The Celtic tribes settled in this area at one time. In 15 BCE, Roman troops established military strongholds in the area, where they remained for over 300 years, fostering growth of civilization and protecting the local agrarian settlers from the wandering tribes. In the 3rd Century, Germanic tribes defeated the Romans and they fell back into present day Italy.

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