Cruises aren’t known for returning you home fit as a fiddle and a few pounds lighter. On a river cruise, where you can stroll from one end of the boat to the other in around a minute, all that sleep, (over)eat, repeat is even more likely to take its toll. I’m no treadmill-pounder but, equally, I get antsy at the thought of lolling about on a lounger all day. The nature of my eight-day Rhine cruise, with a new destination to see each day, meant I’d have plenty to explore, but I fancied something a bit more off the beaten track.
An e-bike ride through the Black Forest sounded just the ticket. Eight hours of cycling through an area of southern Germany known for its beautiful landscapes; where the Brothers Grimm took inspiration for their tales, and deep woodlands and rolling valleys meet medieval villages, Hansel and Gretel-style houses and cuckoo clocks. There was also the promise of its eponymous gateau.
Cardio, cake and photo ops aside, I was apprehensive as the day approached. A 26-mile bike ride, when my most recent consistent stretch of exercise was the daily run for the bus, is a substantial distance. There was a strong possibility I’d be greeted by a sea of padded cycling shorts and sturdy calves. The only solace was that we would be on e-bikes. I’d never ridden one, but they had to be easier than pure pedal-power.
Moments after stepping ashore to meet the group at Breisach, it was panic over. This was no Lycra fest. I clocked the guy with a handlebar moustache in jeans and hiking boots, and then all the others, guides included, in casual attire (and largely inappropriate footwear). We looked like we were off for a picnic, rather than an all-day jaunt on two wheels.
After a wobbly test loop of the car park to check I hadn’t defied the old “you never forget how to ride a bike” adage, I listened in as guides Lydia and Nick talked through the plan for the day, took our lunch orders, and explained the bike settings: “‘Trail’ is nice for the flats. Choose ‘turbo’ for the hills. Use "turbo" the whole way if you like, but you’ll likely run your battery down.” Turns out e-bikes do not charge as you cycle – who knew?
We were off, snaking into a single file; Nick at the front, Lydia at the back. “Trail” required so little effort that it seemed too lazy to start on, so I popped it into the lowest setting (“eco”) and remained there for the first half of the day. It was a wonderful start, following a flat, traffic-free path along the river banks.
Leaving the Rhine behind, we snaked on to a woodland track, keeping eyes peeled for the wild pigs, deer and woodpeckers we were told roamed these parts. Wild garlic scented the air, and the call of wood pigeons, crunch of wheels over twigs and giggle of the mischievous few zooming past in “sport” mode provided the soundtrack.
We emerged at the other end to find a babbling brook, then on to sprawling farmland flats where young strawberry plants grew under the warm comfort of plastic; white asparagus was being plucked from beneath the ground by hand, and green asparagus protruded confidently from earthy mounds.
After an hour we pulled into a farm shop and café, where we chose our elevenses from a glass cabinet of homemade bakes. It had to be a giant slab of Black Forest gateau for me. Creamy, kirsch-soaked layers of light chocolate sponge; it was by far the best I’ve ever had.
By 1pm, we’d zipped through many a charming village, past a community honesty garden bursting with technicolour tulips and a 12th-century castle bordered by Bacchus vines. We stopped for selfies next to an enormous and (as the chuckles confirmed) rather phallic sculpture of an asparagus, before arriving in picturesque Staufen. Lunch was served at a 14th-century tavern famed for being the former laboratory of Doctor Faust. Goat cheese salads for some, hearty turkey and mash for others; tall frothy glasses of Weissbier for all, while Nick regaled us with tales of the local legend.
Sufficiently fuelled, we embarked on the second half of the ride, starting as we were warned it would continue, with a steadily growing ascent until we reached a tiny village marking the start of the Black Forest. We were encouraged to take on some water and put our bikes into “turbo”, and, as we got steeper, to “sport”.
Up and around we went, following our guides like the children of Hamelin, captivated by the Black Forest magic and effortlessly eating through inclines that would usually have had me huffing and puffing. Curvaceous green meadows dipped down to winding streams, hugged by stone bridges that looked as though they sheltered a troll or two. Fairy-tale farmhouses, the ding of goats grazing, and birds twittering melodically in surround sound. I half-expected to pass brightly coloured toadstools and a wolf in red clothing.
The feeling when we pulled up to our final destination, a family-run organic farm and restaurant in Bollschweil, was one of giddy accomplishment: 26 miles, even with e-assistance, is a good distance. After a short tour to meet the Limousin cows and their calves, we settled into a barn for some homemade bread and butter, freshly pressed apple juice and black cherry schnapps. A final “prost!” to the fantastic journey we’d ridden together, before bidding farewell to our e-chariot, and hopping on the coach back to the boat in time for drinks.
How to do it
Gabrielle travelled before the pandemic. An eight-day Rhine Getaway cruise with Viking, Basel to Amsterdam or Amsterdam to Basel from £1,495pp for March 18, 2022 departure. The e-bike excursion costs £168pp (vikingcruises.co.uk; 0800 298 9700)