By Michael J. Lyon
On a sunny late August afternoon we were gliding along the perfect Rhine River cycle trail in Switzerland with the glistening Alps behind us and the majestic Lichtenstein Castle perched on the hills to our right, when we noticed an unusual training center. Adjacent to the pathway was a large paved lot with painted outlines of streets, intersections complete with traffic lights, and several small buildings. About 100 children were riding their bikes through this fabricated city center, with adults scattered about providing tips about appropriate and safe riding. My eight-year-old son Joshua was amazed and begged to join the fun. My 86-year-old uncle Harvey was fascinated and questioned why we didn't have more facilities like this in America — it might make riding a bit safer! But the most wonderful part of the moment was that the three of us, three generations separated by almost 80 years and different riding endurance, were experiencing this together as part of our tour around the region.
A highlight of each of the last 20 summers has been the couple weeks I have enjoyed self-guided cycling trips along Europe's grand rivers — usually with my uncle, and now also with my son. I love these rides, but here's my challenge: not everyone in my family enjoys this passion. As my son has grown, I don't want to spend my vacation without him and so I’ve worked to develop some ideas to extend my “touring family.” The key for me is making a strategic assessment of your group's endurance, patience, and interests, and then structure a trip that fits this reality. One of my core lessons is to avoid pushing my extended group to fit my priorities and distances, but rather I try to build a trip that they will enjoy so we all have a great time!
An important place to start is picking a route that lends itself well to your extended group, including kids and beginning riders. I like riding along rivers because the flat trails makes it easier for less developed riders — and for parents pulling a trailer or the load on a tandem. Rivers also provide a fantastic built in SAG wagon and transportation system through well-developed rail and often tour boat infrastructure. For non-riders, moving from one hotel to another via a short train ride — or, even better, on a river tour boat — becomes a highlight of the trip. Spending part of a day skipping some miles, taking a rest and having a snack, through short tour boat ride also works well with kids. For example, last year my son relished his time drawing local scenery during various boat rides. Another key benefit of this approach is that almost all the riding is on bike trails, creating a cushion between my son and traffic.
I recommend several rides around Central Europe for families and extended groups to consider, especially during their first trips: (1) the Rhine River Gorge and Mosel River, (2) Lake Bodensee Region, (3) the Danube River: Passau to Vienna, and (4) the Weser River “Fairytale” Route.
Over the last couple years I enjoyed the first two of those routes with Joshua. In 2013, we spent two weeks around Lake Bodensee, perhaps the easiest ride I know for families and non-riders to enjoy together. We flew in and out of Munich, with a few-hour train ride between the airport and the launch point on the Lake Lindau. This route features a terrific bike trail that circumnavigates the lake and a comprehensive system of ferries that crisscross the Lake and give riders the flexibility for many different routes and multi-night overnights in the same city — a plus for my extended touring community.
The Bodensee area also offered some notable extended excursions and the types of activities kids and non-riders enjoy. We spent two nights in the interesting city of Konstanz, left our luggage at the hotel, and pedaled down the Rhine following its path as the river continues its journey from the Alps to the North Sea. After about 35 miles we reached the spectacular Rhine Falls at Schaffhausen, where we hiked down a trail for a stunning view of the falls . We took a scenic boat ride most of the way back to Konstanz since a roundtrip cycle would have been too much.
Later in the week we rode from our two night base in Meersburg to the incredible gardens of Mainau Island. We all enjoyed exploring the colorful gardens and exhibits, including the butterfly pavilion. Joshua especially liked the amazing playground — it was difficult to get him back on the bike after that!
The next week we took the train from the Lake to Chur, following the Rhine up into the Alps and its origins in Switzerland. Chur provided another ideal double overnight opportunity. During our day off the bikes we ventured aboard the famous Glacier Express scenic train to St. Moritz. A great kid's day! Besides exploring this Swiss ski Mecca, we stumbled across a high-end sports car rally featuring vintage Ferraris and Lamborghinis driven up the windy roads from Italy. One of Joshua's favorite finds in Switzerland Joshua was Movenpick's delicious mango ice cream, which became a daily target for our rides!
Near the end of the trip we stayed at the beautiful Park Hotel in Vaduz, Lichtenstein, close to the kids bike training facility. We decided to have a splurge meal at the hotel's multiple-star restaurant, sitting outdoors among the owners of cars bearing Monaco license plates and other crests, and had a ball. Joshua was a sport and ate with adventure — a meal and experience unlike most you can find near our U.S. home! We still talk about that meal.
Over the trip we visited Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein -- not bad for an 8-year-old on a bike! And the good news he wanted to go again the next year.
In 2014, we rode the UNESCO Rhine River Gorge route, flying in and out of Frankfurt, and pedaling right out of the airport onto the Main River, then turning north on the Rhine River past numerous castles and historic smaller towns. At Koblenz, we headed out the Mosel River, weaving our way among numerous vineyards, castles, and fortresses. Our final destination was Luxembourg City, having trekked though Germany, France, and Luxembourg on the ride. We were again joined by uncle Harvey who was riding, together with his wife Lynn, a non-rider. Together, we had four members of our group, including three riders of different levels and a non-rider, and it all worked!
The stretch from Weisbadan to Koblenz is one of my favorites. Great train and boat infrastructure, and so much to see. In Oberwesel Joshua and I made the strenuous climb up to the Auf Schonburg, a medieval castle-turned-hotel perched on the hills with spectacular vistas of the Rhine. John Durcan, owner of the Ohm Patt hotel in Boppard, our previous overnight, volunteered to drive Harvey and Lynn up to the castle. Staying in a real castle with suits of armor, tapestries on the walls, and massive fireplaces was a trip highlight for all.
We also stopped in Rudesheim, with its medieval streets, and especially enjoyed the automated music machine museum. We spent 90 minutes touring the museum's unique player pianos, orchestras in a box, and collection of self-playing strings, such as the Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina with six strings. Lynn and Joshua loved the sounds and ingenious machines, and the small hand cranked music box we collected is still one of Joshua's favorites.
Koblenz was our fourth night of the trip, and time for a day off the bike and exploring. We used the opportunity for a breathtaking ride high across the Rhine on the cable car to the early 19th century Ehrenbreitstein Fortress. We spent an hour exploring the fortifications and exhibits, but certainly the highlight was a live exhibit with a dozen birds of prey. Hawks, falcons, and huge owls zooming past on dive bomber runs, and up close and personal moments that included the opportunity to pet a giant owl.
A couple days later we stayed near the famous Eltz Castle situated on the hills above the Mosel. Rather than the tough ride uphill to this castle dating back to the 12th century — as I may have done on an all-adult riding trip — we all four of us took a cab up and spent several hours together on a joint activity. The display of medieval weapons and armament actually used at this castle fascinated all the kids.
The ride along the Mosel takes you through some of the most attractive and delicious vineyards on the planet. Many times the bike trail literally traverses lush rows of grapes. One of our family friendly adventures was to stop from time to time to pick a grape or two for a taste. By the end of the week on the Mosel Joshua had a grape tasting experience that would be difficult to rival, and a new perspective on all things grape!
Lynn spent much of her travel time on the Mosel aboard tour boats. She especially enjoyed using her watercolors and drawing tools to capture the beautiful scenery as her boat moved upstream.
Trier, the oldest city in Germany and the historic Roman center of western Europe (and birthplace of Karl Marx), was another great city for a day off the bike and one of my favorite stops along Europe's rivers. Over the course of the day we went back in time by descending to the Roman Baths, climbing around the coliseum, ascending the many floors of the incredible Porta Nigra, and visiting several fabulous churches that served as hub for the powerful Archbishop of Trier.
Next we rode through parts of Luxembourg and into France, in the area of the Mosel where Patton's Third Army crossed and fought many of its toughest battles. This provided the perfect opportunity to discuss WWII during our hours of pedaling together, just as we had talked about Roman and Medieval history earlier in the trip. Bringing history to life with your family is one of my favorite parts of taking Joshua on these trips. The best part came when Joshua and I jointly decided to conquer a relatively tough ride up the hills to one of the largest remaining portions of the famed French Maginot Line at the Ouvrage Hackenberg. We spent nearly three chilly hours underground in the actual tunnels with the afternoon English tour, taking electric trains along kilometers of tracks, watching the turrets in motion 80 years after construction, and viewing everything from living quarters to underground power stations. Joshua and I have collected stickers for our bike depicting our favorite stops and the Hackenberg sticker has a prime location on our tandem! Meanwhile, Harvey and Lynn decided to spend the afternoon strolling through the street market and shops of the French town of Thionville, our overnight stop.
Our final stop was Luxembourg City, another chance to be off the bike and explore. We spent a day on the hop-on hop-off bus visiting the historic sites as well as modern banking and EU administrative sections of the city. The historic Bock Fortifications, once known as the “Gibraltar of the North” given its strong defensive position, provided a great venue for exploring the City's Medieval history. But for Joshua, it was all about the Chocolate House near the Palace. The shop offers an unparalleled selection of different chocolates and concoctions on a stick that customers purchase and soak in a glass of hot milk that comes with your order.
Logistics and attractions worked very well on this route, with both Joshua and Lynn finding plenty to keep them happy. For Lynn, the short train rides and slower boat rides proved easy to manage on her own with one small rolling bag, and she only had to take one bus and one 20-mile cab ride to keep up with our expedition!
Riding with children and non-riders can be a very rewarding way to share your passion and hobby with the entire family in a way that also makes them willing, and indeed excited, participants. The best news was Joshua asked if we could go for three weeks next year — not bad!
There is nothing more enjoyable than sharing your love of cycle touring with children, as well as friends and family that are not riders and cannot do your miles. The trick is for them to be having as much fun as you, which means making some adjustments. Here are a few ideas I use:
Michael Lyon is based in Falls Church, Virginia, and is the author of "Cycling Along Europe's Rivers: Bicycle Touring Made Easy and Affordable" www.cycletouringbooks.com. Michael and his 10-year-old son Joshua will be riding from Innsbruck to Vienna, Austria, this summer.