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Cycling Bavaria's wine route

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Photography by Louise Christie

Neustadt am der Aisch, Germany:

Gross Gott! Moin Moin! Whether on foot or bike, manners matter when crossing paths in Bavaria. A friendly exchange of salutations is a must. Even small children greet outsiders they pass on the street with an abbreviated "Grossi!" So much for never speaking to strangers.

Such is the welcoming nature of rural life in the Steigerwald Nature Park, a vast 1,280-square-kilometer expanse of mixed forest and farmland that stretches between Bamberg, renown for its dark beers, and the ancient Franconian walled city of Rothenburg. A gently-rolling greenway threads itself through the park, past corn fields and fish ponds as vineyards carpet the rolling hillsides, principally around the crossroads hamlet of Ipshiem. Stop there to pick up local wine bottled in a distinctively-shaped, rounded-and-flattened Bocksbeutel flask. Better yet, come October, try a jug of federweiser, freshly-crushed red wine whose cloudy contents and yeasty nose belie a clear, crisp flavor-the bottled essence of the autumnal mood cloaking the countryside as noticeable for displays of fall colour as eastern North America's woodlands. Just be sure to leave the cap slightly loosened to insure that carbon dioxide given off as part of the on-going fermentation process can escape rather than trigger an unfortunate explosion of frothy contents.

Federweiser, fried carp, roast corn, wild mushrooms, roe buck, fallow deer: how is anyone suppose to complete a cycle tour-let alone a portion-of the Steigerwald's 137-kilometre Aischtalradweg wine route when there are so many reasons to stop at every turn? Better to attempt a select portion rather than bite off more than you can chew-let alone sip-over the course of a ride. For Pique's purposes, the well-marked 60-kilometre stretch between the cities of Neustadt am der Aisch and Rothenburg suited a short hinterland stint wedged between explorations elsewhere in the German countryside.

Care to do a little line dancing to work off the calories? Neustadt am der Aisch may be a long way from Nashville but the locals, steeped in a long tradition of instrument making and dancing, execute a mean shuffle step, as much to keep trim as to socialize. These days, their exercise habit is kept alive with twice-weekly hoedowns at Landgasthof zur Stockacher Muhle owners Thomas and Nadine Kresser's Longhorn Saloon. Talk about a slice of incongruity. For North Americans taking the pulse of 21st-century Europe's engine room, culture shock doesn't register much higher on the surprise meter than this. Not a lederhosen or dirndl in sight, just figure-hugging Levis, pointy-toed Tony Lamas, and pearl-button shirts.  "We started our gasthof in 2005 when we found this property with an old mill and began restorations," the Kressers explained to Pique. "We added rooms for 50 persons. It's become very popular for corporate retreats and with families wanting to get out of the city in summer." Success funds the Kresser's annual visits to the U.S. to catch performances by country stars such as Brad Paisley and learn the latest dance steps at western dude ranches.

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