Bicycle Vacation in North Rhine-Westphalia
The Erft-Radweg is an easy bicycling route over the foothills of the Eifel Mountains, from the soucre of the Erft river near the atmospheric spa Bad Münstereifel to where it empties in the Rhine at Neuss, one of the oldest cities in Germany. Or in the opposite direction. Downstream are monasteries and waterforts with moats filled with Erft water. On the way, Museum Insel Hombroich offers art indoors and outside.
Travelogue & photos: Kees van Tol
The Erft river flows through the pleasant Eiffel Mountains. Its altitude profile on the map indicates that it's possible to ride there even for inexperienced bicyclists: less than 400 meters incline over a 110 kilometers distance. The increase is gradual and in places where the valley is wide, you don't have to be a mountain goat.
Only the leg from Euskirchen, 85 kilometers from where the Erft empties into the Rhine, to the hill town of Bad Münstereifel, 15 kilometers farther, is a little more challenging. And the last kilometers before arriving at the spring in Holzmülheim are steep here and there. But at that point, the finish line is already near: the Erftquelle.
Biking or hiking along a river has a special charm for me. From spring to mouth (or the other way around, as we are doing this time) the course of the water is the organizing principle. On the way there are no dilemmas about which way to go, which is nice for a change. It's also extremely enjoyabe to watch a stream of living water. And it's fun to follow the development of a body of water from its source to its end in a larger body of water; or the other way around.
One of the oldest towns in Germany
We begin our biking tour in Neuss, where the Erft river empties into the Rhine. Neuss is a nice provincial town with a population of about 150,000 and is located between its big brothers Krefeld, Cologne and Düsseldorf, the latter nearby, on the other bank of the Rhine.
Neuss has a beautiful city hall and a lively square with views of a pretty church, devoted to Quirinis. Other historical buildings are also worthwhile, like the colonnade which houses the tourist office. There is a city canal and another, narrow canal that runs through the town.
All of this screams "city walk", but we have seen enough in just an afternoon. It happens just too often that a pretty street all of a sudden is cut by a ring road or that we see an extraordinary building defaced by a concrete parking garage next to it.
South of the town center, near the Rhine, is an archeological site with remains from the Roman era. The Romans gave Neuss its name: 2,000 years ago, their army base in this spot was called Castra Novaesium.
Neuss is one of the oldest towns in Germany. It acquired city rights in 1190. A century later the construction of the late-Romanesque Quirinus Münster began. It is considered the town's most important landmark.
The Roman martyr Quirinis of Rome is the patron saint of the town, which was an important medieval place of pilgrimage in the Rhineland.
Castles and Monasteries
The moats are filled with Erft water
Away from the hustle and bustle of Neuss' town center, the Erft empties into the Rijn. Here is where the Erft-Radweg (Bicycle Road) begins, a signposted bike route which in most places doesn't really need any signs. The signs have two stylized waves with the word Erft between them and a red biker below an upside- down v that stands for a hill.
Unfortunately, it still isn't clear where to go in some places, especially within city limits. Oh well, this way the predictable route from end to beginning still is a bit adventurous.
In my experience, the local people are very helpful when you ask them for directions. When I hesitate at a juncture on the bike path, a helpful German quickly points out the right direction.
During the first hours of our tour we pass or bike through villages which are beautifully located in a flat landscape. The bike route crosses bridges over the Erft innumerable times. Sometimes the river is calm, then again it makes its way down over rapids.
Even relatively little rivers like this one have had strategic functions since times immemorial. The castles along the river attest to this. They are usually called waterfords, because their moats were filled with water from the Erft.
Monasteries were also built in the fertile Erft valley. Some monasteries and castles can be visited. We limit ourselves to admiring their exteriors and then only if they're not too far from our route. We also skip the Roman lime kilns and the large radio telescope.
Museum Insel Hombroich
Art inside and outdoors
Our first really big surprise on the way is the Museum Insel Hombroich, a few kilometers outside Neuss. You could call it an open-air museum, but that doesn't quite cover it.
Imagine a huge, swampy field, most of it designed by a landscape architect. On it stand rather business-like, rectangular buildings with an enormous diversity of art in them. From medieval ceramics from Cambodia to contemporary paintings, to an etch by Rembrandt.
The exhibition spaces only show the art itself: it stands or hangs there, but you aren't even told who the artist is and when it was created. Because of this, you are not influenced by what you otherwise would have known, which makes for a fresh look at art.
One of the buildings is empty, which makes it possible to focus only on the architecture. In another one are two gigantic paintings by Thadeusz; the work is reminiscent of Rob Scholten's art, but somewhat more mysterious.
At the entrance we get a route map with some information about where you are and what you see. Of course there are numerous catalogues for sale if you want to find out more about the museum and it's rich collection.
The art is not only exhibited inside the buildings, there are also works of art outside: metal shapes against a green background and a stone formation which reminds us of Stonehenge and Avebury.
Here and there artists are at work, not to be confused with the gardeners who maintain the beautiful grounds. There are arbours, where you can sit down and enjoy the fairy-like atmosphere. And there is a restaurant.
Near the museum the Langen Foundation and a former missile base also exhibit art and architecture.
After leaving the museum you become aware, little by little, that you are riding in a river valley. No hills of any consequence, but there are slopes. But because the route follows the course of the Erft, the incline is gradually.
Smoking chimneys and cooling towers
One of the towns along the Erft is Grevenbroich, about 20 kilometers from Neuss. We have to ride around or a while to find the right direction, but the search is also a tour of this nice town which has a waterfort just outside the town center.
A friendly woman who can't help us, even enters a bakery to ask for directions.
Just outside Grevenbroich are some Kraftwerke, power plants with smoking chimneys and cooling towers. Impressive, surprising and maybe even beautiful in the rolling landscape. But of course it's not the same as natural beauty.
The river, which increasingly looks more like a brook, crosses the settlement of Bedburg a little bit farther, which makes for idyllic pictures. The village with its s-shaped main street is also blessed with an impressive waterfort and a nice public castle park around Erft tributaries.
A central square with outdoor cafés makes the village look somewhat more worldly. The former village mill has been transformed into a hotel, where the murmuring Erft is audible.
A spa with old city gates and walls
The Erft valley has more water than just it's namesake. There are brooks which are tributaries to the Erft; part of the Erft is canalized and there are also bypasses. The bikepath runs along those canalized parts; both water and bike path are dead straight here.
Like everywhere else along the route there are sufficient benches to sit down on and rest for a while. It is June when we ride this route and there aren't many others here. Near towns and villages we often encounter pedestrians: mothers with strollers, joggers and and people who are walking their dogs. Everyone steps aside politely when you ring your bell.
Bad Münstereifel is one of the most beautiful towns I have ever seen. It takes its name from a monastery of which nothing remains but some street names. The town is almost completely walled in and you can take a walk on a section of this protective ring.
Bad Münstereifel has pretty city gates, of which the Werther Tor is the most beautiful. It has a castle and a little farther, in one of the many woods that surround the town, is an even older castle. There is a Kurweg (Spa Road) and beside other accomodation, there is a Kneipp Hotel: Münstereifel doesn't carry the honorary prefix "Bad" (pronounced as "Bahd") for nothing.
Bad Münstereifel is a wonderful example of an unspoilt medieval town with some pleasant squares, a gigantic gymnasium (type of high school in which Greek and Latin are taught) and stunning timber-frame houses. The main street runs parallel to the Erft river, which at this point is only a few meters wide. There are many shops, bars and restaurants in the street, but fortunately without loud billboards, even though I'd prefer a situation in which only pre-1900 sign boards were allowed.
Buildings in the town center which were built after the Middle Ages were apparently also vetted by a landmark committee with an eye for beauty. Medieval buildings are recognizable by their protruding upper floors.
The town is popular with tourists. The largest mobs arrive after 11 AM and begin to leave after 4 PM. In the evening the outdoor bars and restaurants are still full of people, but it's as if the visitors are quiet out of respect for the beauty of this town. If you're lucky, you'll find a singer/guitar player who performs romantic German songs.
Fans of the blond German singer Heino, with his perpetual sunglasses, will have their hearts' delight: the man owns a café here, where he likes to play the host. If you don't succeed in glimpsing the singer in the flesh in his Heino Rathaus Café on Marktstrasse, you will see man-sized cardboard copies.
Bad Münstereifel also has a Heimatmuseum which makes a more or less successful attempt at being more than an exhibition of trinkets from grandmother's time.
The basilica is worth a visit; it's open all day. The prayerhouse dates from the 12th and 13th centuries and was built in a spot where a small convent church had been since 830.
A heated pool with sauna, restaurant and meadow with a view of the green hills should be mentioned as well.
The Erftquelle has its own saint
The last and most difficult leg of the route from the mouth to the source of the Erft goes from Bad Münstereifel to Holzmülheim. It is a distance of only ten kilometers. There are a few steep hills, but the distances are short and if you can't pedal uphill, you can walk. Taking a break on the way to have a drink is also an option. And, of course, the periods of rest during descents make the ride very doable.
The source of the Erft river is called Erftquelle. The water wells up from a hill and is the beginning of a brook on which the wood mill stood that gave the village of Holzmülheim its name.
At the source, which lies on the edge of a meadow with playground and benches, are information panels.
At the spot where the source wells up from the rocks is a gutter in which you can stand in bare feet to experience the benevolent effect of the ice-cold Erft water. The saint of the source seems to be looking approvingly from below the roof of foliage where he stands.
If you feel like it, you can ride to higher parts of the Eifel mountains from here. Another option is to ride back to Bad Münstereifel, which has a train station, the terminal of a branch of the Cologne-Trier railway. The train station in Euskirchen has trains to other destinations. If you decide to take the train during your ride on the Erfttal Route, you can choose from seventeen train stations.
Nearby biking routes are, among others: Neffelbach-Radweg, RurUferRadweg (from the highest point in Belgium (696 m) via the German Aachen region to Roermond in The Netherlands), Ahr-Radweg, Wasserburgen-Route, Täler Route and the Eifel- Höhen-Route. These routes connect more or less to the Erf-Radweg.