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0,0 07.02.2018 | Stephen M. Rhine + Neckar by Bike + Boat

Surely a Classic Bike and Boat Tour!

Overall
This tour has a lot going for it and I enjoyed it greatly. The small towns we passed through were absolute gems and the large towns are world-famous, and deservedly so, with plenty to occupy the tourist. Along the way, the countryside was beautiful, a smattering of castles on the hillsides hinting at the colourful history of this area.

Highlights:

  • Bad Wimpfen.
  • Eberbach.
  • Heidelberg.
  • Afternoon tea and cakes on board: the tea and cakes are available for an extended period, not just half an hour or so as is the custom on some boats. It’s nice to come back from a day’s ride and still have tea and cake available.
  • Good company from two Australian guests, David and Helen, and two Israeli guests, Hagai and Hana, both at meal times and during the rides.

Niggles:

  • Several “watch-the-clock” days where you’re cycling with a deadline to be at the destination in time to meet the boat so it can sail on further.
  • Wrong route booklets handed out initially (Koblenz to Bad Wimpfen direction, rather than Bad Wimpfen to Koblenz). I had to ask for the correct one. Later in the week, I discovered some of the other people trying to use the wrong booklet, having to read the instructions from back to front, bottom to top and reversing all the directions!
  • The “Covered Wagon wine tasting excursion”: completely unambitious — we were told nothing about wines, grape varieties or cultivation, or the history of wine-producing in the area: the best part of this excursion was the views from high up in the vineyards.
  • Sailing straight past Worms, despite its historical significance; ie Martin Luther (a nagging feeling that, at this point in the tour, the aim is to deliver passengers to Nierstein, where another €25 can be extracted from them for the Covered Wagon excursion).
  • Having only a half-day’s ride through the UNESCO World Heritage area from Rüdesheim to Boppard.
  • Shower control too easy to nudge by accident.
  • Card system used for purchasing refreshments on board.

Regrets:

  • Not exploring the town of Ladenburg during the Heidelberg to Mannheim cycle ride; there would have been plenty of time, as I ended up waiting a long time for the boat to arrive in Mannheim.
  • Booking the “Covered Wagon wine tasting excursion” instead of taking my own walk into the hills of Nierstein or exploring the village independently.

Rad & Reisen’s local agent: SE-Tours.

Date of my Tour: 2016-07-16/23 (7 nights / 8 days)

Direction: Bad Wimpfen to Koblenz

Cabin Chosen: Main Deck, front/back for single use.

Transfers:
I flew to and from Frankfurt (M) Airport (FRA), Terminal 2. From Terminal 2, I took the (free) “Sky Train” to Terminal 1, at which the Deutsche Bahn (DB) railway station (“Frankfurt (M) Flughafen Fernbf”) is located. From here, I took a DB InterCity Express (ICE) train to Mannheim (first stop; destination Basel) and then changed to a DB Regional Express (RE) train stopping at Bad Wimpfen (destination Heilbronn). Bad Wimpfen station is an easy walk (200-300 metres downhill) to the mooring point. After I had explored the town, I discovered there’s an even easier route, although it involves crossing the railway track, then down a footpath, rather than using the main street.

At the end of the week’s tour, I had booked the follow-on tour from Koblenz to Saarburg along the Mosel and Saar rivers, so stayed on the boat (ie went sight-seeing in Koblenz while the crew prepared the boat for the new intake of passengers; I kept the same cabin for both weeks). In Koblenz, the boat had been assigned a mooring spot on the “wrong side” of the river (ie at Ehrenbreitstein, rather than Deutsches Eck), but there’s a railway station right by the mooring spot, so this may have been convenient for those departing.

The Boat:
Photographs in the Reception showed Patria to be an old boat; at least, parts of its hull are old, but it’s been completely rebuilt and extended for its current purpose and is unrecognisable from its earliest incarnation. It has features you wouldn’t be aware of until you see them: for example, jib cranes on either side which retract into the superstructure; the mast on the foredeck which rotates backwards for the evening ceremony of taking down the flags (yes! — I happened to see it one evening). And a couple of propellers on the foredeck as well, for when the boat needs to become a helicopter (although ship’s engineer, Denis, assured me “No, they are only decorative”).

The Reception, located on the Upper Deck, is the passengers’ access area to all parts of the ship: forwards at the same level, to the ship’s lounge; rearwards through a corridor, to the passenger cabins on this deck. A stairwell (equipped with chair lift) leads down from the Reception area to the Restaurant, located on the main deck immediately below the lounge. A second stairwell (no chair lift) adjacent to the first leads down from Reception in the opposite direction to the passenger cabins on the main deck. Although both are on the main deck, there’s no direct route from main deck cabins to Restaurant: you have to come up the stairway (no chair lift) to the reception area and down a different stairway (with chair lift) to the restaurant. Finally, two stairwells, one on each side of the ship, lead up to the sun deck and wheel house.

This arrangement puts space at a premium in the Reception area and a single person standing at the Reception desk can effectively block-off the route to or from the stairs down to the main deck cabins. Similarly, it doesn’t take many people to choke the route to the Lounge. All this was very evident when checking in: the crew would clamber along the bannister rail to avoid having to barge past the crowd at the reception desk.

The system for purchasing refreshments on board is unwieldy. From Reception you obtain a card, across which have been printed a series of marks in rows denoting different monetary denominations. If you wish to purchase a drink, you have to produce your card (so you have to remember to have it on your person) and the waiter will then mark off as many positions on the card as are necessary to pay for the drink; so, if it costs, say, EUR 3.75, a EUR 2 mark on the top row, a EUR 1.50 mark on the next row, and a EUR 0.25 mark on the bottom row will all be crossed off. When all marks have been crossed off, you obtain another card from Reception. You may think this is a great scheme, for if you lose the card, there’s no record of how much you owe for your drinks ... except that, Reception has a record that you’ve had a card and need to settle-up and I suspect you would be charged for the full value it’s possible to accrue on the lost card.

Cabin:
Cabins on riverboats are always small by comparison with hotel rooms and Patria’s are a typical size. For single occupancy, plenty of room! There’s no radio or TV (of limited use anyway, though sometimes English-language services can be available) and Wi-Fi, switched on for relatively short periods of time, does not reach cabins (usable in the public areas only). I found my case squeezed in quite nicely under one of the beds. The bed itself I found a little short and I tended to sleep diagonally with my head sticking out just in front of the wardrobe door. The bathroom was OK with a couple of small annoyances: the shelf above the washbasin made it difficult to get my head over the basin and the protruding lever control on the shower would inevitably be nudged at some point, resulting in the settings suddenly changing. I was pleased to see the cabin cleaning staff didn’t bother with that nonsense of folding arrows in the toilet paper (I blame New York hotels for that complete waste of time; the punter then has to un-fold the thing and ends up with a crumpled sheet of paper instead of a pristine one), but they did normally insist in placing a sash diagonally across the duvet every day; it may look nice, but is just more faffing about for the passenger in the evening.

Cabins on the main deck (ie “downstairs” from Reception) are equipped with air-conditioning, but the windows do not open; conversely, those on the upper deck have windows which open but no air-conditioning. In hot July weather, those of us with air-conditioning were the happier guests. People unable to climb stairs would need to book a cabin on the upper deck because there’s a chair lift from this deck down to the restaurant, but no chair lift from the cabins on the main deck to the reception area through which you have to pass to get to practically everywhere else on the boat (and to embark/disembark).

Bike:
My bike had a step-through frame with 7-speed gear hub (Shimano “Nexus”), V-brakes front and back plus a coaster (“back-pedal”) brake, battery-powered lights, mudguards, rear rack and propstand. A Klickfix handlebar bracket is fitted as standard and good quality single rear pannier bag and handlebar bag are supplied for use throughout the tour (mine were both VauDe). I had brought my own handlebar bag, but saw no reason to use it. The Klickfix accessory holder I had brought with me was a tooless fit onto the handlebar bracket on the bike and enabled me to mount my GPS in a convenient position. My only complaint about the bike concerns the coaster brake, which I’m not used to: I found it prevented moving the pedals to a convenient position for starting off and tended to engage when I didn’t mean it to, such as when changing gear (reduction in pressure on the pedals, or slight back-pedal to change gear on hub-geared systems) or when standing on the pedals in preparation for a bump. Unlike on my previous tour (Berlin to Stralsund along the River Oder), when I think I had been given a brand-new bike, the coaster brake on this bike had been bedded-in and was all too effective. I noticed not all bikes had the coaster brake and I would have been happier without.

Day 1 (Saturday): Home to Bad Wimpfen
The tour got off to a good start: the first sighting of the boat nestling in a lush valley gives all the right impressions of what to expect from the tour. I had arrived in Bad Wimpfen some time before the official boarding time, so dropped off my luggage at the boat and went off to explore (there’s a set of steps straight into the town from very close to the mooring place) and was immediately enchanted by what I found.

Day 2 (Sunday): Bad Wimpfen to Eberbach.
After a thorough demonstration of the bikes’ facilities from no less than the captain, and the first route briefing (the German speakers did these in the opposite order), we were off. And we were already in the countryside, so beautiful scenery right from the start. A little detour from the suggested route to take in Castle Guttenberg was worth while (and there’s plenty of time for it). Eberbach seems smaller than Bad Wimpfen, but every bit as eye-catching.

I enjoyed the optional “Nightwatchman excursion”, though I think some of the party disliked standing around while German was being spoken, which seemed to take a lot longer than the English. I was quite taken, on hearing the melody of the nightwatchman’s hourly utterances, to realise it was the very same as that which Wagner had given to his nightwatchman at the end of Act 2 of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg &mdash is this a traditional tune, passed on to this day, and which Wagner used, or was our guide copying Wagner?

Day 3 (Monday): Eberbach to Heidelberg.
There were several points for stopping-off today. Firstly in Ersheim, on the inside of a big loop in the river; then across the other side in its companion village, Hirschhorn (where I stopped for tea as well as exploring). Then, some distance on in Neckarsteinach, it’s possible to climb up to the castles and take the view over another bend in the river.

The last few kilometres of this route were alongside the main road on a two-way cycle path, so not the most relaxing cycling. The English language walking tour of Heidelberg was cancelled because there had been insufficient bookings, so the few hours before dinner were occupied by self-guided sight-seeing, along with Hagai and Hana, using the map handed-out on the boat, a visit to the castle being de rigueur.

Day 4 (Tuesday): Heidelberg to Nierstein, via Mannheim.
Not much cycling on this day and a lot of waiting-around for the boat to arrive at Mannheim to take us off to Nierstein — I regret not avoiding this by spending time exploring Ladenburg, a picturesque village between Heidelberg and Mannheim, but it was a “watch-the-clock” day in order to be on board for sailing to Nierstein. I noticed an additional captain, registered for Rhine sailing, came aboard at Mannheim. In the afternoon, there was the “special” excursion, the Covered Wagon wine-tasting tour; it was a big disappointment, the party of twenty-or-so Americans being particularly caustic in their comments. This is the day on which I took fewest photographs (by a big margin).

Day 5 (Wednesday): Nierstein to Mainz.
Another short cycling day. For some reason I can’t remember, our tour guide excused himself from cycling this day, which did not enhance his already low standing amongst the English-speaking guests. Anyway, the suggested route was to take a ferry across the river about a kilometre upstream (the ferry fares we were told never turned out to be accurate) and then cycle on the right bank through open countryside to Ginsheim and Gustavsburg, cross the River Main, pick up the cycle path R3 there and cross the Theodor-Heuss Bridge to Mainz.

Ginsheim proved to be a natural point to stop-off for refreshments, being the first built-up area we encountered and with a suitable hotel/restaurant right beside the route. At the Main, the route book instructed to take the second exit from a roundabout; this became a dead-end — the instruction should have been to take the third exit, leading immediately to the bridge over the river.

Day 6 (Thursday): Mainz to Rüdesheim.
Our wettest day (some decided to stay on the boat), affecting about half the morning. The Electoral Castle in Eltville (“Kurfürstliche Burg Eltville”) should definitely be visited and this is most easily done by sticking to the riverside cycle path (as I was to discover cycling this same stretch the following year), but the group I was with somehow contrived to enter Eltville along Rheingauer Strasse (the wrong way along a one-way street...) and turned-off (whether by design or fluke I don’t know) to reach it.

Rüdesheim bristles with tour boats (and, consequently, tourists). There are several options for things to do in the afternoon, and choices have to be made, because there’s not enough time for them all. I chose a walk up into the hills with David and Helen, to visit the (modern day) Abbey founded by Hildegaard of Bingen (of choral chant fame, amongst other things; Bingen being the village on the other side of the Rhine from Rüdesheim). In the evening, I had a little walk round the village with David, taking in the all-important tourist streets, the narrow Drosselgasse and much larger Oberstrasse, which were certainly lively.

Day 7 (Friday): Rüdesheim to Koblenz, via Boppard.
Another “watch-the-clock” day, cycling to Boppard in the morning, followed by sailing from Boppard to Koblenz. This does not give a great deal of time for cycling through what is a UNESCO World Heritage site, especially if, like mine, your style is a repetition of: cycle — stop — photograph; although, perhaps surprisingly, it also has to be admitted it’s not the most photogenic because, in a narrow valley, an awful lot of infrastructure has to be crammed into a narrow space, the railway being the most obvious feature, often unavoidable in photographs. [I revised this opinion in 2017, on the Köln to Mainz bike-boat tour, which provides two days for cycling through this area, giving more time to actually visit places.] You will see plenty of castles on this day.

Photographs
As ever, it’s difficult to choose just two photographs to illustrate this tour.

For my first, I’ve chosen a photograph from very near the beginning of the tour (Day 2), the fields approaching Burg Guttenberg, which can be seen in the background.

My second photograph comes from the very next day (Day 3), taken while crossing the Neckar to enter Neckarsteinach, the town of 4 castles (if I remember correctly!). Patria can be seen taking a bend in the river with two of the castles on the hillside behind.

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