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Werra River Bicycle Tour

This page describes the cycle path along the Werra River in central Germany.

There are few wild rivers left in Germany. Most have been significantly changed to accommodate navigation or agriculture in some fashion. The Werra is one of those "wild rivers." It carves a wide valley from Eisfeld to Hann. Münden where the Werra and the Fulda rivers conflate to form the Weser River. The landscape is beautiful and interesting as it flows through towns, and villages. There are many historical locations along the way as well. It also crosses from the former East German state of Thuringia into the West German state of Lower Saxony.

Map of WerraTour Overview: June 2002. This is a 6-day, 194-mile, (313 km) tour along the Werra. We start in Eisfeld, the last railroad stop along the Werratal. In German, “Werratal” simply means the Werra Valley. This river starts in the state of Thüringen and ends in the state of Niedersachsen after passing through a small part of Hessen. There are a few hills on this ride. But hills are good for you; character builders, my father used to say, but what did he know, he was not a bicycle rider. There is a fair amount of gravel path too, especially at the beginning. Nevertheless, the path is in excellent condition and should be good in any weather condition.

Signage: The signage changes a few times but signage is good most of the way. I don’t remember being lost even once on this trip.

Accommodations: Even though much of the ride was in the former East Germany, we had no trouble finding good accommodations. As a choice, we like Zimmer (rooms for rent in a private home, advertised as Zimmer Frei) but there are also Gasthäuser (Guest Houses), Pensionen (pensions or bed and breakfasts), Jugendherbergen (Youth Hostels), and hotels. For a complete discussion of the different types of accommodations and tips on reservations, see my Overnight Accommodations page.

Stops: One must stop in Eisenach to see the Wartburg castle, famous for hosting Martin Luther as he translated the bible from Latin into German. It is a bit of a side trip but worth it. You can leave your bicycles at the bottom of the hill and take a shuttle bus to the castle. There are also many wonderful half-timbered buildings or “Fachwerkhäuser” in the many villages along the way.bikeline Guidebook

Maps and Guidebooks: On this tour we used bikeline Werratal-Radweg, von den Quellen nach Hann. Münden, 1:50,000.

Day 1: Eisfeld to the springs and back to Eisfeld

Day Overview: I want to start by climbing up to the two springs, the sources of the Werra, that are in the hills north of Eisfeld. The ride up is a gradual climb – just over 1,000 feet (330 meters) of elevation gain and the round trip the distance is about 35 km (22 miles).

Maxa and Guntram (Maxa’s brother) decide that climbing hills is an example of having lost one’s good sense so they stay in Eisfeld while I bike up the mountain. I have an adventure. At the top of the mountain, there are trails going every which way and I end up on the wrong one, not once but several times. Fortunately, all trails lead to one of the little villages so I am reoriented once I find out which village I have stumbled upon. I have to admit that the climb is well worth the effort. It is gorgeous here in the mountains. The trail is interesting, occasionally a little challenging (but if I were on the right trail, it would probably be easier). Riding through little clearings and I see a deer. The birds are vocal and except for the occasional hiker or biker, it is quiet and peaceful here. I just wish I knew exactly where I was.

With all my wanderings and meanderings while I am lost, I burn up time. I had told Maxa and Guntram to expect me back in Eisfeld in three hours. So, when I get to Siegmundsburg, I opt to take the automobile road down the mountain and forgo the gravel bike path for the rest of the way. I am running late and I don’t want my fellow travelers to send out the police to find me.

The road has several switchbacks as it drops into Saargrund. Another biker is ahead of me. I judge him to be a local citizen because he has no panniers. He is riding carefully and slowly down the hill so I pace myself behind him. Good thing too. The switchbacks are 180° turns that one needs to be riding slowly in order to stay on the road. After a couple miles, he takes off and so do I. He is faster and soon disappears but I am hitting speeds around 50 km/h. Tears are streaming from my eyes but I love a good drop. As I blow into Saargrund I notice a 30 km/h speed limit sign. Brakes! I don’t want to get a speeding ticket. They do ticket bicycles just as they do cars. That drop was fun while it lasted.

Mile 0 (0 km): I start the odometer at the Eisfeld Bahnhof.

One of two Werra springs SignsMile 14.6 (23.5 km): After being lost but trying to correct for all the mistaken turns, I reach Friedrichshöhe. From Friedrichshöhe I ride to Siegmundsburg, check out the second spring and hop on the highway for a quick drop back to our hotel.

I notice signs along the top of the hill marking the Rennsteig. This is another famous biking and hiking path. The Rennsteig is perhaps the longest and perhaps the oldest mountain bike trail in Germany. It is almost 200 km long and it is well maintained. One end is at Hörschel (near Eisenach) on the Werra then it traverses through the Thüringer Wald to Blankenstein on the Saale River. Elevation gain is from 200 meters in Hörschel to 911 meters near Eisfeld, then back to about 350 meters at the end in Blankenstein on the Saale. It is useable all year but in the winter, it is frequently snowy. You can compare the Rennsteig to a chunk of America’s Appalachian Trail.

From Friedrichshöhe I ride to Siegmundsburg, check out the second spring and hop on the highway for a quick drop back to our hotel.

Mile 22.0 (35.4 km): Great drop! I am back in Eisfeld. I find Maxa and Guntram drinking beer. But who, I ask you, is the most righteous and pious of the three of us? Beer drinkers or hill climbers?

Back to the top

Day 2: Eisfeld to Walldorf

Day Overview: Lots of gravel path today and a few hills too. The hills are not so bad, actually, most of them are downhill (as opposed to uphill). The gravel isn’t bad either; because it is well-packed and I think it would be OK even in the rain. I have sore knees today so we make it a short day, stopping in Walldorf after only 37.3 miles. I do not think my sore knees have anything to do with all the hill climbing yesterday but they might. The countryside is gorgeous and we learn some history along the way.

Mile 0 (0 km): Again, I start the mileage at the Eisfeld Bahnhof.

Mile 3.2 (5. 2 km): Somewhere on the Werra with GuntramOn the left after Harras, we notice an old fence that once marked the beginning of the “no-mans-land” on the East side of the border between East and West Germany. It looks much older than 40 years. In the few years since the Germany unification in 1989, the old social institutions, physical markers, and politics have evaporated. In one home, they have a map of the local area on the map. It shows the border but the map is blank on the west side of the border – as if the world ends at the fence. This family keeps it as a reminder of how things were.

Birkenfeld/Hildburghausen coffee breakMile 8.3 (13.3 km): Birkenfeld/Hildburghausen. Here lived the daughter of the French Queen Marie Antoinette, wife of infamous Louie XVI (you know, the Marie Antoinette who lost her head after saying the peasants should eat cake if they don’t have bread). The daughter was a Gräfin (a kind of a countess – the wife of the Graf). That she was the daughter of Marie Antoinette was kept a secret until after her death. I guess her parents would not have been too popular here either.

Also in Hildburghausen we stop for our morning break and learn that one of the leading citizens was Charlotte, born in Mecklenburg but lived here in the castle. One of her daughters, Therese, sang in the church choir here. Therese went on to become the queen of Bavaria (her husband was Ludwig I). It is for this Therese that the King held a birthday celebration on the Theresienwiese (a field named after her) in Munich. Today we call that celebration Oktoberfest and it is world famous. Perhaps, if it were not for that Oktoberfest, Munich would be just another big city, not an attraction for thirsty tourist looking to make fools of themselves.

Mile 12.4 (19.9 km): Ebenhards. We are on a gravel path and the drop coming into this small village is steep. It would be more fun if I didn’t have to pay so much attention to staying upright.

Mile 16.8 (27.0 km): We stop for lunch in Grimmelshausen, which according to the sign was founded in 1177. By comparison, Eisfeld was founded in the Ninth Century.

Red-tiled roofed GrimmelshausenTypical Low Traffic RoadMile 17.8 (28.7 km): Just before Kloster Bessra we opt to take the alternate route shown on the map that avoids the hills and the village of Lenffeld. The only downside is we are riding on a busy roadway. Maxa got to cast the deciding vote, “No more hills,” she said. She hates traffic more than gravel but hills more than traffic.

Mile 26.3 (42.3 km): Enter Belrieth; first mentioned in history in 840 CE and the bridge here is from 1578. Just east of Belrieth we passed some burial mounds from Celtic times (300 CE and before).

Castle Ruin on Hill North of Meiningen Wehrkirche in EinhausenMile 28.1 (45.3 km): We are in the middle of Einhausen and stop to check out the Wehrkirche. Churches of this type were built during the Middle Ages as a place of refuge for the townsfolk. The wall around this church was built in 1583 but the church itself was built upon the foundation of a smaller building about 1786. Actually, the oldest church of this type in Thüringen is in Leutersdorf about 10 km back.

WasungenWasungenMile 32.4 (52.2 km): Meiningen.

Mile 37.3 (60.0 km): We stop for the evening just outside of Walldorf at the Sandsteinhöhle, Marienstr. 8, Telehone 03693-89910. The cost is €48 for two people for one night and €26 for a single person. There is another Wehrkirche here.

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Day 3: Walldorf to Vacha

Day Overview: Good quality trail but it starts out gravelly and hilly with a steep pitch at mile 8.3 (13.3 km) and again just inside Wernshausen. The steepest hill is just past Tiefenort but below, I suggest a couple ways around that hill if you want to wimp out.

Mile 0 (0 km): Breitungen Church and CyclistsStarting from Walldorf after a nice evening in the Hotel Sandsteinhöhle, we rejoin the path.

Mile 3.9 (6.2 km): Wasungen. This is a beautiful village and one of the oldest settlements on the Werra. We check out an archeological dig right in the center of the city.Breitungen Church and Cyclists

Mile 11.9 (19.2 km): Breitungen. We look for a place to stop for coffee here. Riding along the path, we ask a local if he knows of a café or a Konditorei nearby. He said the house right next door serves coffee and cake so he walks next door and asks if they are open. Well, no. But, give the lady of the house a minute and she will open for us. She serves us coffee and cookies (homemade of course) and we enjoy sitting in her gazebo and staring at the church shown here. What a nice experience.

Mile 21.1 (33.9 km): Historic Gradierwerk at Bad SalzungenCan not remember where on WerraBad Salzungen is built around a small lake that is supposed to be salty. It didn’t taste salty – perhaps it is just a touristy thing to put in the brochures.

Mile 24.2 (39.0 km): In Tiefenort, I’ll give you a couple options to climbing the steep hill into Kieselbach. If the weather is rainy or the conditions are soggy, consider an alternate by riding up a gradual hill northwest along the road from the center of town out to the main road north of Kieselbach. If, however, the path is dry, you can take a signed alternate route southwest along the river to Merkers-Kieselbach bridge. You avoid all the hills but in wet weather, this way through the fields can get muddy and sloppy.

Mile 34.6 (55.6 km): Crossing into Vacha on the “Brücke der Einheit” (Bridge of Unification), which was built in 1990 a year after the German reunification of the country. We also cross from Thüringen into Hesse over this bridge. This, of course, is also the former East/West German border and there is still a portion of the former Wall evident. Also, a little local story about a house which sat directly on the border; half in Hessen, half in Thüringen. The story has it that the owners ran a printing business during the war. As the two states started to drift apart politically, the owners moved the press from the Thüringen side of the house to Hessen side because they did not want the East German government to seize the press.

We stop here at Gäststette Oechsetal operated by the Jager Family. 036962-24421.

Day 4: Vacha to Falken

Day Overview: You are in luck for the next couple days. The bike path follows the German Half-Timbered Street or better known in the German language as the Deutsche Fachwerkstrasse. Here is a link: www.deutsche-fachwerkstrasse.de. You can read it in English. This Fachwerkstrasse is a 2,000 km long assembly of short segments throughout Germany highlighting towns that display the best of its half-timbered buildings.Monte Kali or Mount KalkMonte Kali or Mount KalkSwans on Werra with Dankmarshausen in Background

There are a few hills today but none of them are as steep as yesterday’s hills. The gravel path is in good shape and should not be a problem even in wet weather.

Mile 0 (0 km): The trail at Vacha. One of the huge hills of salt mine tailings is visible in the distance.

Mile 27.7 (44.5 km): Hörschel. If you turn east here and ride 9 km into Eisenach you can visit the Wartburg Castle. OK, it is on a hill but you can leave your bike in town and take public transportation to the castle. This side trip is really worthwhile. The Wartburg is a classic, walled, hilltop castle. We visited it in 1989 the year the wall came down. Did I mention that when in Germany, we live in Kassel, just a few miles west of here? The East Germans kept it nicely even though they had little funds to do so. It was their labor of love. The museum there really gives one a good feel of life during the Middle Ages.