When Mark Twain explored the Neckar in the summer of 1879, he extolled its soft, peaceful beauty. The Neckar, he wrote, was “gentle, gliding, smooth and noiseless.” One hundred 40 summers later the Neckar remains serene, a refuge from a chaotic world.
We were nine cyclists, all in our 70s, from Germany, France and America. We began in Mannheim close to where the Neckar dissolves into the Rhine. We followed the meandering flow upstream to Heidelberg, Heilbronn, Stuttgart and Tubingen, finally reaching its source at Villingen, 230 miles from Mannheim.
Walter Schwermer was our leader. He grew up near Frankfurt and made his career as an economist with the World Bank. His wife Anne is French but fluent in German as well as English. It was a huge advantage to have two trilingual leaders on the trip. The Schwermers have a home in central France where they spend five months each year.
Walter, of course, is a cycling enthusiast. Since retiring he has led a dozen trips with friends in both Germany and France. These include rides along the Weser, the Elbe, the Rhine and several rivers in France.
Walter arranged everything. In the months before our August/September trip, he organized the itinerary, made hotel bookings and bike rentals. The ten-days of riding were generally easy with only a few arduous climbs. Each rider brought their own panniers, typically weighing 25 pounds mounted on a rear rack . The longest daily ride was a manageable 36 miles. Riders settled their own accounts for the rented bikes, meals and accommodation. Walter accepted no fee, meaning his friends saved several hundred dollars from what a tour company would charge .
All but one of this year’s riders had previously traveled with Walter. With the exception of Michel who lives near Paris, all of us reside in the Washington area.
We had exceptional weather—sunny and not too hot. Only once did we put on rain gear and the drops lasted no more than five minutes. We briefly put on jackets the final two mornings.
Without exception the people we met were friendly and welcoming. The overnight stops were in lovely towns with medieval castles, small hotels that were historic and charming. The breakfast buffets were outstanding. Our rides began after nine and ended in late afternoon. Walter would then lead the group on a walking tour of the town, after which we would choose a restaurant for dinner.
There were several minor falls but only one serious injury as one rider fractured her hand when she fell crossing a railroad track. She bravely rode on and received medical attention in the next town.
The only time riders became separated was near Stuttgart after a couple tricky turns with no markings. The peloton lagged far behind, prompting Walter to ride back to find them. Two of us waited at the front five to ten minutes before there was a phone call saying everybody had been found.
When Mark Twain toured the Neckar he put himself aboard a raft comprised of logs that were being floated downstream from Heilbronn to market. The story goes that it was because of his experience on the Neckar that Twain made a raft on the Mississippi a central feature of Huckleberry Finn, which was published four years after his sojourn in Germany.
For Walter’s merry band the conveyance on the Neckar was not a raft but a bicycle. But like Mark Twain the experience was exhilarating. Baden-Wurtemberg is wonderful, the German people outstanding.