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Gary Whitney
On a bike path outside of Munich, riders hear the cascading waters of the Isar River.

GERMANY — In October, the time of harvest, my husband and I pedaled along a wide, smooth bike trail next to the Tauber River. The air smelled of grapes and pears and wet earth.

We rode through several small villages, one of which was founded in 960 A.D., all of which were picturesque. The streets were cobbled. Each pointy-roofed home was shingled in slate. We stopped to read the headstones in a chuchyard and were greeted by a cat who flopped against our ankles.

We rode through miles of rolling fields and pastures. This was farming on a small scale, one plot following another along the meandering river. We waved to a farmer who was riding a tiny old tractor. It made a sound we hadn't heard since we were kids, the pop-pop popping of a two-piston diesel.

Occasionally, as we rode, an apple would thunk to the ground next to the trail.

It rained a bit. Then the sun came out.

We passed three men who were harvesting a 10-tree apple orchard by hand. In one pasture we saw sheep and goats lounging together. When we came upon cows grazing in purple clover, we stopped to listen to their bells.

We stopped again to eat the lunch we'd brought: fresh bread, cheese and salami. Apples had fallen on our picnic table, so we ate one of those, too. In midafternoon, we turned around, having no idea how many miles we had ridden, knowing only that no matter what else we did or saw on our vacation, this would be our favorite day.

That night, we caught a bit of CNN's European news and learned that the U.S. dollar was at an all-time low against the euro. We shrugged. The bike rentals in various German towns had been averaging a bit less than 1 euro per hour. We were paying about $1.30 per hour per bike. We figured we had just discovered the last great bargain in Germany.

Later we discovered other bargains: We found out the museums of Berlin are free on Thursday evenings and some are open as late as 10 p.m. And that many of the museums in Munich are free on Sundays. Also, there are street entertainers everywhere — jugglers and musicians. (The opera singers stand under archways so that their voices are enhanced by the stones.) We also found inexpensive and delicious soups and pastries and sauerkraut and sausage.

But still, the bikes were the best — in part because the bike paths are so lovely in so many parts of Germany.

When we got to Bacharach we could have ridden on a nice path along the Rhine but chose instead to spend our biking day on a tributary of the Rhine, the Mosel River. As we rode, we had our choice of gazing up at castles or looking out across the river at the boats. The Mosel's shoreline is replete with villages, and we stopped for ice cream on the way upstream and strudel on the ride back.

The best part of our day along the Mosel was when the asphalt path turned to dirt and cut through some vineyards. We also enjoyed observing what was going on in the campgrounds as we passed.

In Germany, you can camp for an entire summer in a public campground, and many people do. They set up a large tent or a tiny camper with an auxiliary tent. On that weekday in fall we saw campers who were fishing, sitting in lawn chairs with a book, or collecting nuts that had fallen along the bike path.

When we got to Munich, we were amazed at how many miles of empty fields had been preserved along the Isar River. The fields — with the river in the center and a bike path on the edge — seemed as wide as two Salt Lake City blocks.

We figured the empty fields must have been created by the bombs of World War II. So when we returned the bikes, we asked the friendly bike mechanic who said, no, there had never been any buildings. That nature preserve was set aside before World War I, he explained.

In Munich, we began our ride in the English Gardens and stopped for a picnic a dozen miles later, on a sunny bank along the Isar. Then the swans began to gather. Luckily we were able to appreciate their beauty without having to share any of our fresh-baked bread with them, as a group of parents and toddlers soon came along to feed them. (Not to be stingy, but we were in possession of some pretty excellent bread.)

Everywhere we went in Germany we saw lots of people riding their bikes to work. But Munich was the most bike-friendly city of all, with racks on every corner and strips of bright red asphalt on the downtown streets to help define the bike lanes.

In Munich we paid the most we paid anywhere to rent a bike, 14 euros per day. We still counted it as a bargain.

E-mail: susan@desnews.com