Virtually traffic-free roads, never-ending gravel tracks and beer in its purest form – that’s what the Haßberge Nature Park promises. We headed to Germany’s Lower Franconia in search of ancient wisdom and to find the top-performing gravel bike of 2020. Is paradise really within spitting distance?

The Haßberge Nature Park! While it may not be the most renowned of Germany’s landscapes, there’s a reason we want to acquaint you with this inland beauty. Staycations? Local adventures? Clearly we’re all on board, as a quick scroll through our Strava feed is enough to confirm that Covid-19 has convinced us of the merits of not straying far from home. Now that we’re way less likely to hop on a plane for a weekend trip to Tenerife or Mallorca, you’ll find many of us scrambling onto trains or loading bikes into car boots. But are we really willing to compromise on our holiday experience? How local is too local? Our pre-trip research settled our worries: the Nature Park Haßberge promised not to disappoint our palates, with plenty of holiday lets on the cheap. An 80-room castle for € 85,000? Sure. 😉 Cleaning costs not included. We’re starting to get excited now. Packing commences and we head south-eastwards over the River Main.

If you only ever consider, ‘What would happen if…’ you end up never seeing what will actually happen.

The Haßberge, say what?

The Haßberge is in sun-drenched, northern Bavaria. Covering a tranquil 850 square kilometres, you’ll come across gentle, rolling hills, colourful mixed forests and vast meadow valleys. It doesn’t just feature castles behind every corner and ruins of imposing estates, you’ll also find SRAM’s European HQ in nearby Schweinfurt. This area, known as Lower Franconia, stretches right into the Steigerwald Nature Park, linking the two regions and certainly not scrimping on the finer things in life: this is veritable (and well-publicised) wine- beer Franconia territory. While the nature park has a generously mapped-out network of bike paths, we set out to explore its lesser-known gravel. After all, sticking to the predominantly tarmacked routes would be a travesty for our gravel-hungry ambitions. As a way to avoid the crowds, this place is unrivalled. Meet more than five cars in a three-hour ride and it would probably be scandalous front-page news. However, the Haßberge won’t give you the drama of the Dolomites, nor a gentle, salty Mediterranean sea breeze, nor dusty, white Tuscany roads. Don’t expect a quick adrenaline kick either – this isn’t the place to cram a good time into an epic, 60-minute happy hour. That’s not to say that time stands still here, but it passes slowly, flowing in the same way as the mellow contour lines from the wine glass to your beer stein. If you find yourself in this rural retreat only able to think about, “What would happen if..?” then you’ll miss what’s happening right in front of you.

As we enter Brauhaus 3, we’re greeted by its owner Thomas, “Great to have you here. Put your watches to one side, I’ll fetch a keg of beer.”

The doors of our Sprinter van are opened. Bikes and bags are heaved out of the sweltering inside before a half-litre Märzen beer is thrust into our hands. We learn that this measure of beer – a half-litre known as a Seidla – is a genuine artefact of cultural heritage. According to Bavarian tradition, this type of bottom-fermented beer can only be brewed between 29th September and 23rd April, provided the temperature stays below 10 degrees. Brewers used to live in fear of fires – a risk that increased when brewing these types of beers over open fire. The recipe for our specific kind of Märzen, which dates back to the 1920s, is fiercely guarded and only shared amongst family. Even 100 years later, we can vouch for its taste and after-effects. Afternoon soon becomes night-time, our bags stay firmly zipped shut and the bikes loiter in the hallway. That’ll do for tonight.

Riding a gravel bike is like having a second eye – you see more!

Danger of tinnitus for urban dwellers

One of the least densely populated parts of Bavaria can’t be explored from the confines of your bed, so we hauled ourselves to the kitchen of Brauhaus 3 to look out over the view from the window. Brauhaus, or literally, brew house, is true to its name – alongside coffee for breakfast, you can also brew yourself a beer with the so-called Bier-Brau-Eule. Playing it safe with a coffee, we can’t believe our ears – the absence of any traffic noise, despite being on the main thoroughfare between Köslau and Königsberg in Bayern, is almost deafening. What’s happened? What’s amiss? Thomas nods a modest morning greeting, and explains, “Sometimes you don’t hear the quiet because there’s beer running so loudly through your head.” Our headaches confirm this. We nod back, feeling vaguely fresh enough to get out on the gravel.

Tour de Haßberge

We’re fortunate to have a glut of bikes in tow. We haven’t just headed out here on a pioneering whim but as part of a plan to test the season’s hottest gravel bikes for our 2020 group test. Knowing the test-lab landscape like the back of our hands is an essential element of our review, so we head out to explore. We head to the centrally located, communal brewhouse-cum-gallery-cum-café Kunsthandwerkerhof, where its owner and trained sculptor Anne Marie Reiser-Meyerweissflog takes a proud Italian approach to her coffee. There’s an array of homemade cakes alongside art on display but don’t expect vegan and gluten-free to appear on the menu at this more traditional establishment. The space used to be rented almost exclusively to artists as workshop space and had a small café on the side. These days it’s the opposite way round – with those 440 ml cappuccino buckets, you’re likely to enjoy our stay for quite a while in the now much bigger café.

With renewed energy, we first head south before turning eastwards along the River Main. Our next stop is the Bauerschmitt vineyard in Zeil am Main, where the finest Franconian wine, local sausages from neighbouring Sand and a beautiful view of the Main await. There’s no way we’d miss out on the Franconian fresh wine or the pronounced aroma of the grape types down here, like Silvaner, Bacchus or Domina. Mid-September is prime time to visit – ask for fresh plum cake with a glass of fresh, partly fermented Federweißer. Enjoy it and then get ready to make tracks.

Premium gravel and empty country lanes whisk us past the castles of Kirchlauter and Weißenbrunn before we pull up at the Jesserndorf winery, exhilarated and caked in dust and sweat. Husband and wife duo Barbara and Günther promise something very special. Opening times? On request. What’s on the menu? Whatever is in the allotment and whatever concoction takes their fancy. We make our first faux pas upon ordering a beer, momentarily letting it escape our memory that this is a winery. We’re served nine-hour-smoked beef ribs, Carré Iberico and salmon fillets prepared over the fire pit in front of us. The salad buffet takes it to the next level. This isn’t a meal that we’ll forget in a hurry. As Barbara and Günther let slip that they plan on taking a step back from this culinary goodness, our first thought is, “Damn, we need to send everyone here for this spectacle of senses before the doors are closed permanently.” Take note. To upload your ride to Strava you’ll need the wifi password: 1 to 9, written out in full. Our first day in the Haßberge Nature Park closes with a promise made solemnly to Thomas. Yes, we’ll dedicate tomorrow to brewing beer.

This promise materialises the very next day. We take our place next to the coffee machine and brewing corner, listening to Thomas relay the basics of brewing. “The world would end before a Franconian dies of thirst.” The brewing begins, after which we cool off our heads in the pool. The all-pervading quietness now feels somehow familiar, like we’ve always been surrounded by it. Our first foray into Germany’s most wooded area has made quite an impression, instilling a desire to return as quickly as possible (as well as contributing to considerably higher blood-alcohol levels than normal). While we don’t advocate reenacting certain fragments of the story, the routes we rode certainly should be: check out this komoot collection with the Haßberge’s top gravel rides.

This trip has provided yet more proof that beauty is within spitting distance. The Haßberge have a very particular charm, pitching the ordinary alongside the exceptional and exulting indulgence as a way of life and not a one-off. No happy hour, no quick kicks, but genuine beauty, right down to the little details. On all the trips we’ve done, it’s a rarity to meet so many people that embody such a glorious attitude. Now it’s your turn to experience it.

For more information on the region Haßberge just click here.

Did you enjoy this article? If so, we would be stoked if you decide to support us with a monthly contribution. By becoming a supporter of GRAN FONDO, you will help secure a sustainable future for high-quality cycling journalism. Click here to learn more.

Words: Benjamin Topf Photos: Robin Schmitt, Benjamin Topf