“1500 meters altitude.” The two sun-tanned boys with stubbly faces and sinewy cyclists’ calves in the seats opposite are bent over their route map. “Next to nothing,” the other one adds showily. At Mittenwald they get off the train, energetically heading for the mountains on their posh bicycles.
We stay on the train for another 10 minutes and get off at Scharnitz, on the Austrian side of the border. For the next 4 days we will cycle along the Isar, a Bavarian river originating near Scharnitz and eventually flowing into the Danube near Deggendorf in Lower Bavaria. Here in Scharnitz, the Isar is still a small stream, turquoise water bubbling over blinking white stones. Cows graze on the path along the embankment, and white clouds dot the light blue sky above – the colours of the Bavarian flag.
A few kilometres downstream, we pass the small town of Mittenwald again. Mittenwald is famous for the fresco paintings on many house fronts and for its violins. In the 17th century, a local boy was sent to Italy to learn the luthier craft. On his return he set up a workshop and established a tradition of violin making in the village. The local timber turned out to be a good material for violins, and today there are still a number of violin workshops in Mittenwald. We stroll through the small streets gazing onto the colourfully painted saints and noblemen high up on the walls. After visiting the Rococo church of St Peter and Paul, we set out again.
Now the valley becomes narrow, and we follow a small road along the stream, the mountains of the Lower Alps towering above us. Only beyond the spa town of Bad Tölz, the mountains recede, and the stream broadens. At one point, where the river makes a sharp turn, we see several groups of white-water rafters screaming as they pass over some rapids. To our surprise they pull their rubber rafts out of the water after 50 metres and carry them upstream again. Then we realize that the Isar is calm like a pond on both sides of this spot. Soon we also see traditional wooden rafts travelling downstream. They are popular with groups who want to spend the day on the river with lots of beer and loud Bavarian brass music. Day-trippers flock to the numerous beer gardens along the Isar banks. In one of them, at the monastery of Schäftlarn, we too stop for Apfelschorle and Auszogne, a round fried pastry with a soft edge and a thin crispy middle that is eaten warm with sugar and jam. In the monastery’s church we come upon an electronic offertory: Donators can transfer money directly from their bank account to the church restoration fund and get a printed donation receipt.
On the second day, we reach Munich. Although the river is broader now, the banks are still lined with smooth white stones. As it is Sunday, thousands of sun-worshippers relax in the green belt along the Isar, having barbecues and taking a quick dip in the cold stream. Riding through the centre of Munich, we never have to leave this huge recreational area, nor do we have to cross a street. Beyond Munich, however, the Isar starts to look like a canal. Every couple of kilometres there is a dam, each feeding a power plant. Built in the 1920s, this is one of the oldest barrage systems in Germany.
We can see the Church of St Mary and St Korbinian at Freising on its mountain top from far away. The city has been a seat of bishops since 739, and today it is still the religious-administrative centre for most parts of Upper and Lower Bavaria – and one of the former workplaces of Pope Benedict. For the renovation of the church during the 18th century Bavaria’s foremost Baroque masters were employed. Experts such as the brothers Cosmas Damian and Egid Quirin Asam, Francois de Cuvillies and Johann Baptist Zimmermann gave the interior of the cathedral its present face. White putti sit on the ledges or bounce playfully around golden saints. The ceiling above the light pink walls is covered with paintings that merge into the plastic stucco work and fake windows. Colourful garments seem to hang out of the frame, and cherubs fly into the painted pictures, thus blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.
After never-ending green meadows, we reach the campground at the outskirts of Landshut, another sleepy town with an old castle and a famous church tower. Like many German campgrounds, it is occupied mostly by permanent campers. They rent a space for their camper van year-round and use it as a holiday home, complete with parasols and garden gnomes. “Permission by the landlord is required for pavements, fences, and flower beds,” a sign announces. Just when we have pitched our tent the looming thunderstorm arrives.
We spend the last day of our bicycle tour changing in and out of our rain wear, labouring through mud and gravel from one barrage to the next. Between showers, we meet a local couple on a shorter bicycle tour, still dry and clean. “Oh, did it rain on you?,” they ask in the peculiar lower Bavarian dialect that even Natascha takes a moment to understand. “Have you seen the Growing Rock? There have been several newspaper articles about it and it has been shown on TV!” “But well, if you haven’t seen it, you did not really miss anything” the wife thoughtfully remarks. We make the detour to have a look at the strange rock formation: Like a wall covered with algae, it has been formed by limescale accumulating just along the course of a spring.
Again heavy showers and thunderstorms set in, and exhausted we decide to skip the last 10 km to the estuary of the Isar. From Plattling, we board the train back to Munich.