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Backdoor Nuremberg and Outdoorsy Altmuehl Valley Adventure

Attention nature lovers! We just had a lovely weekend in an area that isn't even on the radar of Germans I know, let alone foreign travelers, yet quite convenient in most ways (save one. We'll get to that.)

We wanted to take advantage of the nice weather and my husband having a weekend off, but didn't want to spend much money, so we decided to go to the Altmuehl valley, about an hour southwest of Nuremberg by car or train. We also wanted to revisit Nuremberg, which we hadn't been to in many years.

We departed Stuttgart around 10am, taking an InterCity train to Nuremberg in a little over 2 hours, in a fairly old train as is usual on this route. We arrived in Nuremberg, stored our luggage in a locker, and took a U-Bahn and then a tram to an unassuming office park for a special lunch: A US-style BBQ joint! Boogie's BBQ Smokehouse was, without a doubt, the best "American" food I've had in Germany. My husband got the ribs, and I got the "burnt ends" brisket sandwich. Two sides come with each meal - I got colselaw and pit beans, and my husband ordered potato salad and more coleslaw. 4 different BBQ sauces are present, homemade, from a vinegar and mustard Carolina style to a typical Texas style but the best one was the habanero based spicy sauce.

It may not make sense for a tourist to take the detour out there, but this BBQ would have qualified as excellent in the US, let alone Germany. I'm already planning my return.

We took the tram back into town and headed to the Albrecht Duerer house. Duerer is my favorite painter of all time, but I hadn't visited this yet. Even if you're not a fan, this fairly high-tech small museum (with great interactive screens throughout) in a historic 14th century house is worth visiting. We then grabbed a beer at the Kettensteg biergarten with it's lovely riverfront setting, then headed to the Memorium Nuremberger Trials at the Palace of Justice to view courtroom 600 where the trials took place. We got lucky - an American tour group was there with a very good tour guide so for free we sat in for about 30 minutes in-depth explanation of the trials for no additional cost. We then visited the "memorium" museum exhibit above which is very modern. The audioguide provides translation for the German text of the different panels and is EXTREMELY in-depth. If you're super into international criminal courts this is your holy site as the exhibit covers the very concept of International Law but if you're a layperson you can feel free to skip to the sections that interest you - listening to every audio segment would have probably taken at least 90 minutes.

Walking back to the U-Bahn stop we came upon the Lederer Kulturbraueri biergarten, a huge leafy place with good local beer at extremely fair prices (6 euros for a liter of beer). We'd bought a VAG plus day ticket, which allowed for travel for 2 adults all day anyway on the VAG system, so we got to be flexible regarding trains to our final destination, so we had time to relax at the biergarten and enjoy a weckel mit 3 nuerembergers (a roll with 3 nuremberger sausages) for just 2.50 as a light dinner before grabbing a train at 7:00 p.m. to Pappenheim.

We'd chosen Pappenheim to stay 2 nights because of it's convenient location via train and because it's a popular starting point for a full day canoeing trip. The ride from Nuremberg is an hour, but the very modern IRE train had electrical outlets at the seat (yay!) and was comfortable. The outdoor adventure starts with the next post!

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In Pappenheim we had reservations at the Gasthaus Zur Sonne, which I'd picked because it seemed a little modern and hip despite it's fairly remote location and we weren't disappointed.

We first had to deal with getting from the train station to the hotel. Google said it was a 15 minute walk, and we debated calling the local taxi service, Popp, but figured walking was fine. After confusion we found the path through the lovely park but it was more of a 20 minute walk, although we stumbled upon the famous outdoor church (this is apparently a thing in Germany? Weidenkirche which is literally a church created of vine trellises) and made it to our hotel around 9:00 p.m. We couldn't find a reception desk but knew it was also a restaurant and a waitress hooked us up with our key.

The room we booked was designated a single room but boasted a 150 centimeter wide bed, and advertised that it could function as a double if the travelers were a couple. It was about the same size room as typical European rooms, but at 60 a night for a very modern, comfortable room we felt it was a great deal. Sonne has two large suites with different alpine themes, but those go for 100 so we opted to save the money although I was a bit jealous of their mini fridge and terrace - our room had neither.

However we were literally next to the restaurant's terrace so we settled in and had a couple drinks before the restaurant shut down at 10:00. We started to notice that very few people spoke English here, not a huge problem for us as we speak a little German but surprising when even young people can't speak English. This will become a theme!

We're night owls so we went for a walk after the restaurant stopped serving, but aside from one dive bar in town, nothing was open. That's what you get for a small German village in August! The one "respectable" bar was closed because the owners were on holiday. No matter, we wanted to get up early the next day anyway. In our journey we admired the beautiful ancient castle above the town and stopped across the river at the "Knipe" foot-bath. This is a weird concept to explain but due to some monk in the 1800's, many Germans believe in the health benefits of doing various baths and exercises in natural spring water. So this "water-walk" is a shallow man-made pool fed from a chilly spring with a handrail and you're supposed to just...walk around in calf-deep water a few times and it's supposed to be really good for you. I did this several times during my trip because it was warm and because I like doing weird cultural things, but what got me is how often the locals stopped by to do this. On bike, walking their dogs, whatever, even at 11:00 p.m. there were people of all ages stopping by to walk around a few times.

The next day we'd scheduled a canoe rental from the only company we'd been able to secure a reservation from - Frankenboot. Apparently August is high season and several other companies were sold out when I'd tried to reserve a week prior. Frankenboot was not located in Pappenheim, but I knew they did transfers so I didn't worry about it. After eating the decent but not amazing breakfast included in the price of our hotel, I attempted to call Frankenboot to ask about transfer to our reserved canoe (all previous correspondence had taken place via email, in German, with an assist from Google Translate.

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I'd knew we'd need a transfer but for the first time in Germany I was truly at a loss because the woman on the phone could understand me, but I could not understand her to save my life. After a frustrating phone conversation to the front desk of our hotel (which was on the other side of the building and we'd missed the previous night) the receptionist suggested we go to the TI to talk to them. I'd hoped the receptionist could just sort it for us but it was only a 5 minute walk to the TI so we did that. Great TI by the way for such an out of the way town - they clearly want to draw more tourism to this region and even had a couple brochures in English! The lady at the TI didn't have great English but was able to help us and arranged for Frankenboot to pick us up in 20 minutes.

Sure enough a van with our canoe in tow arrived but again, the driver spoke almost no English and didn't explain anything to us. I knew that the end point was their base in Hammermuehl as I'd done extensive research before the trip, but I didn't realize he was driving us directly to our launch site, near the train station in Pappenheim, which was not a normal concrete boat launch but rather a steep "nature launch" where boats were slid in over 4 feet of tree roots in a very awkward way. The young people getting in the canoes ahead of us had crates of beer and water. We had the bottle of water I'd grabbed from a bakery when my husband got a coffee. Whoops. Getting in at this area was terrifying for me as you kind of had to scramble down the steep embankment without good footing or handholds.

(Later we'd find a concrete boat launch much closer to where our driver had picked us up in Pappenheim so I have no idea why we drove us to this site.)

Regardless, we both made it into the canoe, after I nearly had a panic attack. And then we started rowing. It's beautiful on this narrow and slow-moving river. I hoped to have lunch in Zimmern, about a 30 minute paddle from Pappenheim, but once we arrived, everyone was exiting the river on the right side, to carry the canoes about 100 yards past an area that is too shallow/overgrown to traverse via canoe. We saw people getting IN canoes on the left side, where the restaurant/biergarten was, but weren't sure if it was OK for us to exit out that way so we just carried on.

By the way the plastic canoes we rented were heavy and carrying them is no easy feat! We had a much easier time re-entering the river via the concrete slip, though. I also took a quick dip in the cool waters. The Altmuehl is the only river I've ever seen people swimming in significant numbers in Germany - most rivers are considered too polluted/unsafe to swim in.

After about another hour and change we finally came to the village of Solnhofen, which had nice signs on the water advising us canoers about services in the town. We pulled out there, left our canoe behind (husband was worried, I'm like "It's Germany, no one is going to steal shit, and I need a beer!") and found our way past the local fossil museum (the term "Jurassic" comes from this region! Many important fossils were found nearby) to the Gaststaettle Hefele, a VERY local type restaurant with a biergarten in the parking lot of their drink market. The food was fine and cheap (we weren't picky at this point) and the hubs liked liked his grilled Franconian sausages a lot. We supplied ourselves with more water and beer from the drink market and went back to our canoe.

At this point I should note that we passed a massive old brewery called "Alte Schule" that was open and has very good reviews - but it was enough of a walk from where our boat was that in my hangry state (hey canoeing is hard work!) that we walked in the other direction. We also didn't get a chance to see the Carolingian-era church in Solnhofen, which is a bummer. If I were to return, I'd go to Alte Schule and the church.

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Back in the canoe - we're becoming pros at this! We only paddled a few minutes before we had to pull out and drag the canoe again to avoid a weir, on a small island that's the basis for another canoe company, Yezzt! and their campground. If I were to decide to camp here this would probably be the place. They also had a lovely-looking biergarten. We got caught in a bit of a stau (traffic jam) as a big family group ahead of us took their sweet time getting their canoes in the water. They bedevilied the next part of our trip - it was crowded enough on the river that we found ourselves trying to stay behind and then eventually get ahead the group of 20-somethings in the beginning, and now we were behind 3 dads in 3 different canoes with bunches of kids. When we'd try to get ahead they'd seem to view it as a race, leading to some fairly fast but exhausting paddling (we beat them, of course, and then got to relax). Along the way we saw the highlight of this part of the Altmuhel - the 12 apostles, craggy rock formations that count as impressive scenery in Germany.

We were finally alone on the river in the late afternoon with impressive scenery and ahead of schedule, so we relaxed a bit on this portion and enjoyed some beer, chilling with ducks and some other waterfowl. We'd gotten pretty confident with steering and paddling by this point. But we knew what was in front of us - a weir with a "boat slide" that adventurous paddlers could try to navigate for a watery thrill ride right before our drop-off point.

No, of course we didn't do it! Swimmers based out of the campground yelled encouragement for us to try but we didn't have a good view of what we were supposed to do until we pulled out at the boat slip at Hammermuehle. I kind of regret not doing it but it still looked fairly intense and were were a lot of people walking along it which also would have made the navigation a little problematic.

So we'd arrived at our end point 45 minutes ahead of schedule - 6pm being the cutoff time. Good job, us! We dragged the canoe to the check in area which...had no one around. Great. I tell my husband to go get a beer (it's a campground, of course there's a biergarten) and manage to find the office to get my deposit back but the lady keeps asking me if my boat has been inspected - or at least I think so. I wouldn't know because whatever language people speak around here it has nothing in common with hochdeutsch! And of course not a word of English. I'm concerned about my ride back to Pappenheim because we've already paid for it and there are zero public transit options. I'm able to grasp that she wants me to wait back by the boat. I do, for 10 minutes, with no one in sight. I call the Frankenboot number again because it's 6pm and I don't want to get charged an extra fee for a "late" return because their booth is unstaffed, and again, the lady can understand me but I can't understand her. I'm tired, want a shower, and don't know what to do but I can understand that she wants me to wait so I do. 10 minutes later our driver shows up, inspects our boat, and takes us back to Pappenheim, which is less than a 10 minute drive for our 5 hours of active paddling, lol.

LOOONG story short: Canoeing on the Altmuhel was awesome and if I'm still here next summer I'd do it again in a heartbeat. But I wouldn't rent with Frankenboot, I'd instead rent with a company based in the place where we're staying (another company based in Pappenheim OR Yezzt! based on Solnhofen) so we only pay once for the transfer. We literally paid 40 euros for transfer and the canoe was 30, so we could have saved 20 euros that way. Beggars can't be choosers, and also, never again the nature slip, my god that was horrible to get into.

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So we get back to our hotel around 7:00 p.m., shower, dress, and decide to try dinner at Zur Sonne, as it's seen as a real gorumet destination yet the prices are very reasonable.

Now I have to brag - this is one of the best meals I've had in Germany and the price was ridiculously cheap. The hotel is run by a young couple who bought it a few years ago, the husband is the chef and very focused on "New German" cuisine. He clearly really likes small plates, and what he calls "Franconian tapas". Since it was Saturday night the waitresses were all in trachten, and it all felt very upscale. We got an amuse-bouche that I can't tell you exactly what it was because the explanation was in - you guessed it - Franconian dialect, but it involved a pistaschio flan and was delicious. We ordered the appetizer plate for two based on seeing other people getting theirs and almost everything save the "Franconian sushi" was amazing. A good deal at 14 euros. We also enjoyed a good local Riesling, then switched to red for our mains - a Dornfelder for me and a Grenache for my husband. The Grenache was sublime and a steal at 5.80 for .25 liters. He had the beef cheeks sous vide with fresh pasta and I had the lamb in pastry with an herbed cream sauce. Both were rich and sublime and both entrees with huge portions less than 13 euros. I have never had food of this quality at such reasonable prices.

Our total bill included a large bottle of water, 1 beer and 3 wines, an appetizer for two and two entrees for less than 65 euros and everything was astoundingly delicious. Beat that. I dare you. No, you can't. Because you're not in the middle-of-nowhere Franconia. A similar meal in Stuttgart would have cost at least double.

After dinner we took a walk, went to the footbath again, checked out a supposed biergarten at the restaurant Gruenen Baum, left because it wasn't pleasant, ended up on a nice patio at the local Italian restaurant with great hospitality under the shadow of a 1200-year old church for a nightcap. Oh yeah, Pappenheim is OLD! The city seems tiny today but it was once the seat of powerful counts of the Holy Roman Empire, hence the mighty castle above the city. We visited it the next day and I have to say it's one of the more remarkable castles I've been to. It's over 1,000 years old and is largely a romantic ruin that hasn't been too much restored, so you both get a sense of what it would have been like as a castle (handy english-language printout at the ticket office where we witnessed the ticket lady trying slowly to explain the castle features to a German couple who couldn't understand her Franconian dialect!) and get to enjoy the overgrown ruins. We didn't even realize the city still had an intact wall until we saw it from the main tower keep.

After that we checked out the ancient church and attempted to call and schedule a taxi back to the station - again, I was understood but I could not understand the damned dialect. Went back to our hotel and had to somewhat demand they call for me (they tried to give me the number - lol, no, you are calling!) I loved the food and room at Sonne but the service could be a lot better. Our taxi arrived on time and we were back in Nuremberg before we knew it. We had around 4 hours to kill before our train to Stuttgart so we went to 3 different biergartens - the Wiesn biergarten (don't bother, although the park is lovely), Kopernikus right ON the city walls and amazing fried perogi (a MUST in Nuremberg), and the Kulturbiergarten which is a 5 minute walk from the train station also in a hof in the city walls and a very cool spot. I wish I'd known about it earlier.

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Sorry to be so wordy, but the details are important if you ever want to try to do something in this region yourself! Plus I'm just a blabber.

Takeaways: If you're looking for unspoilt Germany untouched by (foreign) tourist hordes, the Altmuehl valley is a great place for cycling, hiking, and canoeing with very good value and great food. Despite a few traffic jams on the river, the villages seemed near deserted, even on a Saturday in August. If you hate crowds, this is the place to go.

That said, the language barrier is significant. I've never been anywhere in Germany where so few people spoke English, and even if you know German the dialect will confound you. (I've traveled extensively in small-town Bavaria, Swabia, and Baden and never had this problem.) Obviously it's doable (I did it!) but you will probably need help.

Canoeing is rad.

History is rad (didn't even get into the famous Pappenheim who fought with the Catholics in the 30 years war, or the ancient Jewish history of the town).

Sometimes it pays to just find a spot on the map, do some research, and go. I went because I wanted to find a river to swim in and this is what I came up with. Similarly, I ended up a tiny quiet Greek village because I'd seen a scene in "Mamma Mia!" and was like, "I want to go there!" Some of our best adventures have been through random searches, not based on what a guidebook recommends. I haven't found any mention of the Altmuhel valley in any guidebook.

Nuremberg is underrated in my book. What a beautiful city with great food, friendly people, and just lovely in the summertime. The excellent museums make it worthwhile year-round.

If anyone actually read all this, well, I'm impressed.

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I read your entire narrative carefully, interesting, informative and revealing. Obviously, I have not visited Franken at all, not Hof, Bamberg, Coburg, etc only Nürnberg, the first time in July 1973, and don't know any of the smaller places. Deutsche Bahn one time listed dialects spoken in Germany regarding a survey, there were ten, but Franken dialect was not one of them. True, you won't understand anything at all, I've heard it from a very vocal and lively women's group sitting near where I was on the ICE on last year's trip. Still, no problem. Speak good Hochdeutsch to them, they reply to you in Hochdeutsch, or at least they will try. That has normally been my experience among those talking dialect with each other.

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You had to go and ruin it by telling everybody about it! It'll be in guide books before long and that will be the end. They'll cut down all the trees and stick 'em in a tree museum, then pave paradise and put up a parking lot. :-)

Now nitpicking, I think it is the VGN (Verkehrsverbund Grossraum Nuernberg) where you got the Tagesticket +. Best regional transit deal in Germany IMO.

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Fab trip report! I like long trip reports.
Too funny about the dialects, they can be a bugger to understand sometimes. I struggle with Schwäbisch, Bayrisch, and Kölsch, but Frankonian sounds like it might be tougher?

Canoeing sounds like a wonderful thing to do in the summer, added in with the nice stops for lunch and drinks.
They have canoeing on the Lahn up near Limburg, but that is too far away from you. Have you tried white water rafting yet?

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well I read the whole thing, and i loved it. My Frankisch isn't too terribly hot but I survive happily in the area in my broken Hoch so I'll have to try further in the sticks.

Loved the report. Don't think I'll canoe at all but if I do it won't be down the tree roots!!!!

My next trip those biergartens and especially the BBQ joint are def on the list....


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Ha, I can't believe so many people read that many words. Thanks!

So far Frankish is the worst that I've experienced. I've been to Amber and Nuremberg both a few times, plus Wuerzberg and Noerdlingen and while I could recognize that things sounded a bit different from my "local" Swabish it wasn't a problem. But it was SOOOO pronounced here. In some places with thick dialects (like Bavaria) a lot of people still speak English so it's fine, but here it was no hochdeutsch PLUS no English!

On the plus side I am at least proud I was understood. In usual everyday life I understand more than I can speak, so it was quite the reversal!

I don't think one blog post will inform the masses about these hidden gems - there's so many all over Germany! That's why I sigh and shake my head whenever I see people with itineraries taking them 3 hours one way to go to RodT...but that's the way it goes!

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Great trip report! Thanks for going into so much detail - it was an enjoyable read! I'm always on the lookout for hidden gems that aren't in the mainstream guidebooks. We also really enjoyed the Albrecht Duerer house last time we were in Nuremberg. We've also run into small towns where nobody seems to speak english. Luckily my husband has studied german enough to barely get us by:) I didn't know there were so many different dialects! We've done one bike tour in Germany and will do another in 2018, but have yet to try canoeing! I'll have to look into it:)

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Loved the report, all of it!

And that explains why I could not understand anything in Franconia, unless it was said in Hochdeutsche!

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Jill, this area is a very popular bike route as well, the only international tourists we saw was a group of American cyclists as they rode through town while we were waiting for our canoe. We must've seen several dozen cyclists over the course of the weekend in the Altmuhel valley, and it's very flat along the river, apparently, with very little car traffic.

It's also close to the Franconian Lake District which I understand to be popular with cyclists, too. Here's some information in case you consider going that way!

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Interesting Sarah. We have a close friend whose family is from Hof in the northern Franken area. I don't know if his village accent would be more Bavarian or Franken. He has lived in the US for 30 years now but he goes back every year to visit family. He and his wife are avid cyclists and he has mentioned rides through the Frankenwald. This summer they rode from Germany to Verona Italy and back!

BTW, my husband's favorite artist is Duerer too and we've made the pilgrimage, a highlight for him.

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Sarah, I have done quite a bit of research on cycle tours in Germany and knew that area is popular - it's on my list:) Thanks for the link! Our first cycle trip was around lake Constance which I highly recommend! It is still one of our best travel memories. We are cycling the Mosel from Metz France to Koblenz in 2018. It's a method of travel that really forces you to interact with locals and makes you feel a little more like a local. We found that most people bicycling were german. Thanks again for the Trip report and info:)

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Thanks for your entertaining report! Nice to read that the Sonne is well and alive again after it was closed for so long. I had to smile when you mentioned the language barrier. I lived for over 20 years in nearby Eichstätt and even at the end of these years I (being myself of Franconian origin) had to »translate« sometimes for my wife what our neighbours wanted to say to her. ;)