A slow drive down Germany’s Romantic Road

by Harvey Hagman, Fort Myers Beach, FL

On my first trip along Germany’s Romantic Road, I didn’t know I was on it. It was July 1968 and I was sleeping in a tent outside the old walled town of Dinkelsbühl when I awoke to trumpets blaring and horses galloping. Sleepily, I peered out on riders in brilliant medieval costumes.

I had blundered into the Kinderzeche, this thousand-year-old town’s annual celebration that dates back to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). In 1632, Swedish troops under Colonel Sperreuth laid siege to the town. After stiff resistance, it fell. As the colonel led his troops through the gates to plunder the town, he was met by children bearing flowers. Legend has it that one of the children resembled his son, who had just died.

After accepting the flowers, he spared the town — for the children, its residents and, unwittingly, for the thousands who would later come to marvel at Dinkelsbühl’s steep-roofed, half-timbered houses, cobblestone streets, St. George’s Cathedral and the 10th-century round towers edged by a moat fed by the Wörnitz River.

I stayed for a week of history, revelry, parades, music and beer and was captivated by the town. A 2-year stint at Stars and Stripes allowed me to return to many villages along the Romantische Strasse, which roughly follows the course of the Roman Via Claudia Augusta.

In June ’05 we revisited this famed route that has drawn romantics since the 17th century.

The route
We flew to Frankfurt, picked up a rental car for eight days and began a 180-mile drive that took us on a leisurely drive through hillside vineyards, fertile farms, meadows, forests, dramatic mountain scenery, wild landscapes and historic villages with half-timbered houses and along a well-marked route with signs in German and, yes, Japanese.

Was it touristy? Yes. Did that spoil the charm? Never.

Visitors can use guidebooks or hire guides at local tourist offices along the way to leisurely savor the charm, beauty and romance of Germany’s most famous road. Our route took us through Würzburg; Bad Mergentheim; Rothenburg ob der Tauber; Feuchtwangen; my old favorite, Dinkelsbühl; Nördlingen; Donauwörth; Augsburg; Landsberg am Lech; Schongau, and Füssen, in the Bavarian Alps — home to King Ludwig II’s famous castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau. This was but a portion of the 25 stops the German National Tourist Office lists along the route.

From Frankfurt, we drove 74 miles to Würzburg, an old Episcopal See and a vivacious modern university town that recently celebrated its 1,300th anniversary. We checked into Hotel Mercure am Mainufer (Dreikronenstrasse 27) and walked across one of Germany’s oldest bridges into the Old Town as cruise boats passed on the Main River.
The medieval fortress of Marienberg, set on a ridge above vineyard-covered slopes, rose behind us as the sun beat down. Originally built in 1201, it once housed the ruling prince bishops before the Residence was built.

It’s hard to conceive that more than 80% of Würzburg was destroyed in World War II. With its art, culture and dry, white Franconian wines (three of the four largest wine-growing estates in Germany reside here), this was a perfect spot to begin our journey.

Architect Balthasar Neumann designed the Baroque Prince Bishop’s Residence, known as the Versailles of Franconia, and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo created the wondrous fresco above the Residence’s grand staircase. It’s one of the world’s largest paintings, depicting the world as it was believed to be at the time. The most “uncivilized” continent, the Americas, is represented by a bare-breasted woman wearing an Indian headdress and riding an alligator.

Each of the Residence’s rooms was breathtaking.
We strolled the historic Old Town and visited the Falkenhaus, the Chapel of St. Mary, City Hall and St. Killian’s Cathedral, then enjoyed Riesling and Silvaner wine at the town’s oldest wine bar, Zum Stachel (Gressengasse 1), with its lovely courtyard dating to 1413. At the historic Ratskeller Würzburg (Langgasse 1), we dined on fresh Spargel (white asparagus), cold pickled beef and mashed Camembert cheese with butter, red pepper and onions.
As the Germans say, one always discovers a country through one’s stomach.

Bad Mergentheim
The spa resort of Bad Mergentheim stands at the crossroads of the Romantic Road, the Saxon Wine Route and the Swabian Poets’ Route. We strolled through the spa’s parks and gardens, once the property of the Teutonic Knights, before visiting the marketplace, lined by a Renaissance town hall, St. John’s Minster, half-timbered houses and baroque palaces.

Here we also visited Germany’s third-largest castle and monastery and enjoyed its elaborate Baroque church, royal rooms, weapons, portraits of its headmasters and historical dollhouse collections. Then, off again, we picnicked in a valley perfumed by the scent of pines.

Memories flooded back when we approached the walled, turreted fortifications of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, where we were plunged into a medieval dream high above the Tauber River. Germany’s best-preserved medieval town retains all of its 14th-century ramparts, gates and towers. When Frankfurt and Munich were merely dots on a map, Rothenburg was Germany’s second-largest city, with a population of 6,000.

I’ve camped nearby on soft summer nights and walked into town to drink Rhine wine and hear old German sailing songs, wandered its cobblestone streets in winter as light snow dusted its lampposts, climbed wooden stairs to walk its 1½-mile ramparts and look down on slumbering half-timbered dwellings and, yes, fallen under its spell.

This time we stayed at the wunderbar Hotel Eisenhut (Herrn­gasse 3-5/7; www.eisenhut.com), which Frommer calls “perhaps the finest small hotel in Germany.” If you splurge only once, do it at this antique-filled hotel, once four private, rich 16th-century dwellings. (Rates start at 113, or $143, for a single room.)

Our walking tour of the town included the town hall, the marketplace battlements, the towers, churches, half-timbered houses, the German Christmas Museum and many other attractions.

Rothenburg’s Medieval Crime Museum (Burggasse 3-5) offers a diabolical look at instruments of torture. Nagged husbands might like examining the iron cage with metal nag gag.

St. Jacob’s Church contains the town’s must-see masterpiece, the glorious 500-year-old Holy Blood Altar by Riemenschneider, the Michelangelo of German woodcarvers.

In the evening we shared a glass of Rotling Halb­trocken with the Eisen­hut’s general manager, Jochem Eylardi, who spun tales of Rothenburg. The talented Czech pianist played amid tapestried splendor as the sun slid below the town’s walls. A superb dinner followed on the terrace under star-spangled skies. Unforgettable!

After a visit to Feuchtwangen, a fine old town with an impressive Romanesque church, sleepy, well-preserved Dinkelsbühl, full of fond memories, followed.

The former “imperial town” of Dinkelsbühl, a medieval town with moats, bastions, gates and 16 towers, lies in the idyllic Wörnitz Valley. Its Old Town, with pastel-painted patrician houses, bears witness to its 15th- and 16th-century heyday when its craftsmen and flourishing trade built St. George’s Cathedral, one of southern Germany’s finest edifices.

We checked into Hotel Weisses Ross thinking of poet Friedrich Schnack’s description of Dinkelsbühl: “An old German ballad in stone, timber and masonry — turreted, gabled, soothing the spirit, giving comfort to body and soul.”

Appearances can be deceiving at Dinkelsbühl’s Museum 3. Dimension (Nördlinger Tor), the only museum in the world that shows techniques to reconstruct the third dimension, depth. We viewed stereo cameras, optical illusions, holograms and other eye- and mind-bending 3-D happenings.

St. George’s, the town’s Catholic parish, is a wealth of art. For centuries, cloth weaving enriched the town; today, tourism and art do. Dinkelsbühl draws artists from all over Europe, long after painter Carl Spitzweg captured its charms in 1855.

Our next village, Nördlingen, was a surprise. An Umleitung, or detour, provided a sunny, pastoral tour of meadows, farmlands, flower boxes filled with red geraniums, roadside red poppies and wildflowers. Even the Germans I followed became lost.

When we finally arrived, we found we were in the middle of the Nördlingen Ries crater, created by a meteorite 15 million years ago. It was here that America’s astronauts from Apollo 14 and 17 trained for their moon walks. We enjoyed two hours in the Rieskrater Museum (Eu­gene-Shoemaker-Platz 1), with its moon rocks and exhibits, and wished we had more time.

Medieval Nörd­lingen, a former free imperial city that once coined its own money and had its own judicial system, is nearly fully preserved. Once a rich cloth-making town with 90 tanneries, it boasts stately half-timbered and stone houses, impressive commercial buildings, hospitals, churches and a 13th-century city hall. Behind a black door is the medieval jail where “witches” were tortured and later burned at the stake.

We walked Nördlingen’s 1½-mile defensive walls, with 11 towers, battlements and bastions, and strolled its fine marketplace. Over the years, religious wars, the black plague that halved its population and Napoleon all have failed to break its spirit.

To medieval Augsburgers, the town seemed like the world’s center because of its wealthy merchants and two rich banking families, the Fuggers and the Welsers. Anton Fugger was the world’s richest man in his day. His predecessor, Jakob the Rich, was the financial genius of the Renaissance and created a worldwide mercantile, banking and industrial empire. The Fuggers financed the Hapsburgs, minted the Pope’s coins, paid the Swiss Guards of the Vatican and entertained Martin Luther, Al­brecht Dürer, Titian and others.

Augsburg is chock-full of palaces, patrician houses, monasteries, churches, art and museums, but of special interest is the Fuggerei (1516-1519), the world’s oldest social housing, started by the famous bankers. The Fuggerei flats have spy windows and other paraphernalia, which offer a look into life 500 years ago.

Winding up
Next, it was on to 700-year-old Landsberg am Lech, on the banks of the River Lech, with its wide marketplace and imposing tower, stately houses and rich, stuccoed town hall.

In the 15th century, the town’s duke married the Duchess Visconti of Milan, who wished for a beautiful German town as a wedding present. She got Landsberg. Later, Hitler was imprisoned there and wrote “Mein Kampf,” turning the town into a Nazi pilgrimage site.

Füssen, our next stop, was not far from where the extravagant “Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria spent his childhood in Hohenschwangau Castle, which receives 800,000 visitors annually. Years later he built his own castle on a hilltop across the valley at Neuschwanstein (which today draws 1.3 million visitors a year).

The original plans for what has become one of the world’s most beloved attractions were drawn up by a theatrical director. Its lavish interior features damsels in distress, fiery dragons and knights in gleaming armor. A knowledge of Wagner’s operas brings these chivalric tales to life.

Years ago, I climbed the precarious hill beyond Mary’s Bridge for a perfect view of this elegant castle. Tours of both castles are offered in English.

The political misfit, poet and hippie king once said, “I want to remain a mystery to myself and others.”
Ludwig succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.