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Cycle Through History

Perhaps better known for its high-speed autobahn than its meandering roadways, Germany is the ideal landscape to enjoy one of its sons’ inventions — the bicycle.

A bit more than 200 years ago, inventor and aristocrat Karl von Drais mounted the two-wheeled, self-propelled vehicle he had invented and rode it from Mannheim, Germany toward the town of Schwetzingen. He only made it five miles, about halfway, but his laufmaschine, which lacked pedals and a drive train, was clearly a first step toward what would come to be known as the bicycle.

There are lots of reasons to consider this part of southwestern Germany for a cycle trip. For one, the region is filled with neat villages, historic churches, tidy markets and castles. Three atmospheric towns, Mannheim, Schwetzingen and Heidelberg, lie within easy striking distance of each other — you can cycle from one to the other in about an hour — opening up a cool journey that’s accessible for even casual cyclists. Even better, local trains welcome cyclists so you can base yourself in one city and return via rail instead of trail.  Here’s what you’ll see along the way.

Mannheim

Already a cultural center, Mannheim added to its offerings in June with a brand-new building for its museum of contemporary art, which holds a permanent collection of more than 2,000 works by Rodin, Manet, Cezanne and other masters. Mannheim is also home to a Baroque palace whose construction began in 1720. It’s second only to Versailles in size but contains one more window than King Louis XIV’s gilded castle. Nearby, a large pedestrian shopping zone (Planken) is filled with boutiques, outdoor restaurants and lively bars. Like the rest of the city, it’s bike-friendly.

The city’s most iconic landmark, though, is its Art Nouveau water tower, which stands just under 200 feet tall and is surrounded by a park set with statues, fountains and blooming gardens. Just across the street, the semi-circular Friedrichsplatz is lined with cafes and wine bars offering outdoor seating overlooking the pretty scene.

Schwetzingen

It took two generations of German rulers to transform a 17th-century hunting lodge into this 178-acre wonderland that includes a massive Baroque-style palace, formal French garden (think boxwood hedges trimmed into complex swirls, shaded allées and burbling fountains) and a more relaxed English garden-style park. You’ll need to dismount to explore the garden, but it’s worth it. Clever paths lead to secret gardens tucked behind lush walls, lilac-scented groves and an array of structures that include a deep grotto topped by a temple of Apollo; an aviary; a frescoed, marble-clad bathhouse and a decorative mosque. During the 18th century, the castle and garden drew artists, musicians and authors to the region, including Mozart, William Turner, Casanova and Voltaire, who wrote part of Candide while in residence.  

Heidelberg

Set along the banks of the Neckar River and hemmed by tall green mountains, Heidelberg offers a something-for-everyone mix. Boutiques, bars and cafes are intermingled with churches dating back to the 12th century, medieval towers, traditional half-timbered houses and a 230-year-old bridge topped by a pair of picturesque towers and a gate that have guarded the city since the middle ages. Towering above it all is Heidelberg Castle, a vast residential complex constructed and expanded between the 13th and 17th centuries, only to be destroyed by the French in 1689 and 1693. Despite its scars, though, the castle’s grandeur remains. During the summer, its artfully crumbling facades and towers and grassy closes are used as stages and backdrops during the city’s annual theater festival. It’s open to visitors all year long. 

But while Heidelberg is old, it isn’t old fashioned — thanks, perhaps, to the more than 30,000 students who attend Heidelberg University, which was founded in 1386 and infuses the city with a youthful vibrancy. Don’t miss a visit to the karzer, which from 1778 until 1914 served as a short-term jail for unruly students who had committed offenses such as public drunkenness and livestock theft. The walls and ceilings of each cell are decorated with poems, silhouettes and other graffiti created by the incarcerated students. Cycle paths wind through the city, along the river and into the mountains, where you can ride to a number of high-altitude lookouts.  

Your cycling adventure through Germany is just a phone call away. Contact your local AAA Travel Agent at 800-398-0379. AAA Travel Partner VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations offers six cycling tours through Germany. Explore the Black Forest, Prague, Vienna, Munich and other incredible destinations. Also, AAA Members can purchase a Fuji, Kestrel or Breezer bicycle at 30% off MSRP at Performance Bicycle. 

(Photos: TourismusMarketingGmbH Baden-Württemberg)

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