Necessity is the mother of invention; the proverb could have been devised specifically for the bicycle. The first was built 201 years ago in Mannheim, in the southwest German state of Baden-Württemberg, in response to a natural disaster halfway around the world.
In 1815, the eruption of Mount Tambora, in the Dutch East Indies, blanketed the skies over Europe with dense volcanic ash clouds, killing crops and causing widespread famine. Families were forced to slaughter their horses for food, so, the story goes, nobleman Karl Freiherr von Drais devised the two-wheeled Laufmaschine (“running machine” in German), as an alternative to horse-powered transport.
Like modern bicycles, the Laufmaschine had aligned front and rear wheels connected by a frame (in this case wooden) with a seat. To ride, von Drais straddled the frame, propelled himself forward with his feet and then lifted them from the ground. Pedals, breaks and gears were added decades later to his design, which was copied and modified in England and France, the country that gave us the term “bicycle”.
In 1817, von Drais blazed the world’s first bike route on his Laufmaschine, riding the 14km from Mannheim to Schwetzingen in under an hour, twice as fast as a horse-drawn carriage. Competent cyclists complete the same journey today – on dedicated bike paths across mostly flat terrain – in half the time, but could and should spend a week exploring the Rhine-Neckar river region’s bike routes, perhaps using a machine belonging to VRNnextbike, Germany’s sharing scheme.
Occupying a wedge of land at the confluence of the Rhine and Neckar rivers, Mannheim has, for centuries, enjoyed a reputation as a city in which creative ideas flow and intersect like the surrounding waterways. Its major historic and cultural sites all lie within about a 3km radius of the easy-to-navigate city centre streets: “The City of Squares” was laid out in a chess board pattern, divided into 144 blocks named using alphabetical and sequential letter-number combinations, such as A1, R7, etc.
Between the Rhine and a series of A and L blocks is the Mannheim Baroque Palace, the second-largest palace in Europe (eclipsed only by Versailles). Restored after the second world war to its 18th-century grandeur, portions of the palace house University of Mannheim facilities but visitors are still able to tour the staterooms of palatinate royalty, dress up in period costume and take instruction in court dances.
Across the ring road, in city block A4, is the 18th-century Jesuitenkirche, an exuberant baroque-style church that regularly hosts organ concerts. Inside, a small photo exhibit documents the Catholic church as it looked pre-war, as bombed ruins, and its period-precise reconstruction.
Many of the Turkish labourers invited to help rebuild the city after the war chose to stay in Mannheim, which explains the numerous Turkish bakeries to be found in the old city. More raditional German fare can be enjoyed in the beer garden of the Eichbaum Brauhaus, on the other side of the Neckar, but perhaps the food Mannheim is best known for is spaghetti ice cream.
Created in 1933 by Mario Fontanella, originally from Venice, Italy, vanilla ice cream noodles covered in strawberry sauce sprinkled with shaved coconut represent just one of the 200 gelato flavours for sale at the family-owned Eis Fontanella.
East of the ice-cream parlour, past blocks 6 and 7, O and P, is the 1889 Wasserturm (water tower), and across from that a modern convention centre, the preserved facade of which belonged to the late 18th century Mannheim National Theatre, a venue frequented by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.
Continue pedalling east, through the leafy Oststadt neighbourhood and past some of the few elegant homes that weren’t levelled during wartime bombing raids, and you’ll reach the engaging Technoseum and its displays of engineering and scientific achievements from the 17th century to the present.
Motorcycles, textile looms and printing presses, plastics, bionics and nuclear technology; Germany has had a hand in perfecting them all. And at the bicycle exhibit, anchored by a replica of the Laufmaschine made of ash wood and iron, we learn how von Drais’ invention inspired Karl Benz to build in Mannheim the world’s first petrol-powered automobile.
Nearby, the botanic Luisenpark is the bucolic setting for Europe’s largest garden teahouse. And then you’re on the Neckar Valley cycle path, part of the two-hour cycling route that leads through countryside to Germany’s asparagus capital.
Schwetzingen is a historic cultural centre famous not just for asparagus but also its orange-sherbet-coloured schloss. Pleasure-seeking ruler, palatine prince-elector Karl Theodor (1724-1799) ensured the baroque palace became a beacon of splendour and cultural expression, a place that, “at every turn, screams ‘It’s show time!’”, says guide Martin Griffiths.
A seven-year-old Mozart performed at the Schloss Schwetzingen with the prestigious Mannheim School of Music. The palace’s ornate rococo theatre was the first in Europe with gallery seating and Mozart returned here years later, as an accomplished composer, to wander the palace gardens for inspiration.
Today’s visitors stroll the flower-flanked, pebbled walkways that lace an exquisite garden complex just as royals once did, passing more than 100 sculptures; mythological figures peek out of verdant nooks and chubby cherubs sit astride whimsical sea creatures in babbling fountains.
In the Turkish Garden is what appears to be (but isn’t) an 18th-century mosque. It was built for the prince elector of the palatinate at a time when the “Turkish” style was fashionable in Germany but was never intended for worship. Nearby is the Temple of Apollo Theatre, one of the few open-air theatres from the period in Europe. Exotic birds from the garden’s aviary delighted court families as the children performed marionette shows on the tuff-stone stage set against a luminous painted backdrop.
The family-owned Schlossrestaurant Schwetzingen is tucked inside the crescent-moon-shaped orangery, floor-to-ceiling Palladian windows framing dramatic garden views. Within, chef Michael Lacher serves seasonal Michelin-star fare, including asparagus dishes accompanied by fine German wines.
Cyclists who ride the 10km east from Schwetzingen join throngs of locals and university students pedalling through Heidelberg’s cobblestone streets. The city’s 120km-long network of cycle paths also incorporates easy riverside routes and expert-level, Odenwald forested mountain trails.
Heidelberg’s storied past is told in the Old Town’s buildings: stone churches span centuries of architectural styles; pastel buildings with tales to tell house toy stores and sweet shops.
Founded in 1386, Heidelberg University welcomes visitors to its history museum, the Great Hall and the unusual Studentenkarzer (“students’ prison”). Down the years, students temporarily incarcerated for rambunctious behaviour documented their experiences in colourful graffiti and silhouettes painted on the cell walls. Doodles date from the late 18th century to 1914.
A favourite student hang-out since 1703, the Zum Roten Ochsen (“red ox inn”) serves up hearty, traditional fare, such as sausages and spaetzle, to patrons who dine on graffiti-carved tables beneath fraternity drinking horns dangling from the beamed ceiling.
Fortunately for cyclists who have had one stein too many, the bike path stretching along the Neckar from here is an easy one; but not as relaxing as a cruise aboard one of the world’s largest solar-powered catamarans, the Neckarsonne, on which 50-minute guided tours are conducted. Hikers along the wooded Philosophers’ Walk zigzag in the footsteps of scholars, artists and writers that include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Mark Twain.
Considered the gateway to the Black Forest, Karlsruhe – von Drais’ birthplace – is called the “Fan City”, for the streetscape that radiates out from Schloss Karlsruhe. In 1715, city planners created 32 wide boulevards fanning out from the baroque, lemon-yellow palace that was the prince-elector of Baden’s residence and government seat. From the domed tower of what is now the Baden State Museum, visitors look out over the city’s expansive, symmetrical road system. And its cyclists.
According to the German Cycle Association, Karlsruhe is the nation’s second most bike friendly city (the first being Münster, to the north). Compared with the unforgiving roads of Hong Kong, however, this whole part of Baden-Württemberg is a pedaller’s paradise.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa fly direct from Hong Kong to Frankfurt, which is an hour’s drive from Mannheim.