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July 2002

Top of the Street

The glorious northern half of the Romantic Road

Sleepy, medieval walled towns, enchanting fairy-tale castles, flamboyant Baroque palaces and rivers meandering through wild, romantic valleys. For many visitors, such images epitomize the heartland of Germany. Implementing a lucrative marketing strategy in the 1950s, the country’s tourist authorities “packaged” all these highlights along a former Roman trade route by referring to them collectively as the “Romantische Strasse.” Spanning the length of Bavaria, it links the snow-capped Alps of Upper Bavaria with the vineyards of Franconia. Fifty years on, the Romantic Road has become a byword for some of the country’s best scenery, ambience, culture and cuisine. And with no one has it proved so popular than the Japanese—as testified by Asian subtitles on the road signs. To travel down the 370-km route nonstop would probably take five to six hours; to cover it more leisurely requires at least as many days. Most of the some two million annual visitors choose to tour either the south stretch (Füssen to Augsburg) or the north stretch (Augsburg to Würzburg). Those who are lured by the prospect of sampling Franconian wines at source should opt for the northern Romantic Road, which feaures numerous highlights between Donauwörth and the Tauber Valley. Harburg is the site of one of the best-preserved castles in Germany. Home of the Counts of Oettingen-Wallerstein, the 12th-century castle commands a spectacular view of the Wörnitz Valley, embedded between the regions of Swabia and the Franconian Jura. The complex includes walls with embattlements, six towers, a courtyard and a keep—the perfect picnic place. A 15-minute walk up from the village, Harburg castle offers a great introduction to the sights of the northern Romantic Road, evoking the feel of medieval Germany without the crowds, kitsch and commerce of some of the better-known stops en route. For an insight into medieval life in the castle, visit the Harburger Burgfest, held this year from July 19 to 21. The first sight of the former Free Imperial City of Nördlingen is “Daniel” —the 90-m high bell tower of St. George’s church. The only way to see Nördlingen properly is to scale the 365 steps (open 365 days a year!) of the 15th-century church. On a clear day you can count 99 villages from the top and get a feel for the town’s unique location. Nördlingen is set in a 24-km wide, 4-km deep crater—the largest of its kind in the world. The basin-like dip was created when a meteorite struck around 15 million years ago. Many of the buildings in Nördlingen are built from suevit—a crater stone found no where else but on the moon. This made it an ideal place for NASA astronauts to simulate moon walking back in 1970. Returning to earth, the Apollo 14 team donated a piece of moon rock to the town. Discover the major sights of Nördlingen on the one-hour guided tour (in English by arrangement—€ 40 per group) starting in front of the Rathaus. Down in the townhall vaults, as late as 1598 witches were tortured until they finally confessed, whereupon they were taken outside and burned. For lesser crimes, wrongdoers were put in the town’s stocks and pelted with rotten eggs. The tour follows part of the walls with their 15 towers and five gates. Look out for the Berger Tor under, which Napoleon passed on his way to Austerlitz, before paying a blitz-stop visit to the Rieskrater Museum, home of the famous moon rock. If you have time afterwards, it’s fun to walk the entire 2.7 km of the town walls encircling a sea of lopsided, timber-framed houses. These beautifully preserved buildings—each a different shape and size—are particularly attractive in the “Gerber” district. Spot the sea-blue Bürgerhaus in the Gerbergasse, which in fine weather blends beautifully with the sky. You may also notice that the streets leading from each of the city gates all converge at the Daniel tower, giving the feel of a giant spider’s web. “So G’sell so!”—“so you rascal, now I’ve caught you!”—was uttered when a burgher discovered one of the town gates deliberately left open at nightfall. Apparently the night watchman had been bribed by the Count of Oettingen , who was conspiring to storm the town. Thankfully the gate was promptly closed and the pending invasion averted. Ever since, the town’s watchmen have called “So G’sell so!” which has come to mean “All’s well!” Hear it bellowed from the top of “Daniel” every night (from 10 pm to midnight) by the tower watchman, who is said to be the last full-time incumbent of such a post in Germany. Visit Nördlingen between July 18 and 21 to experience the fun and frenzy of the “Scharlachrennen,” a historical horse race with show jumping tournaments. First staged in 1438, the race is famed for awarding the best prize—a pig—to the loser, whilst the winner is consoled with a red cloth called a Scharlach. If you like Nördlingen, you’ll love Dinkelsbühl, 35 km further north. Another walled town of towers and timber-frames, this one feels just like an open-air museum. The facades of the medieval buildings with their gables and flowerboxes are a photographer’s dream. The Deutsches Haus (Am Weinmarkt) is amongst the most picturesque in southern Germany. Other marvels include St. George’s church, one of Germany’s most beautiful late Gothic houses of worship, the historic marketplace and the town mill at Nördlinger Tor with the unique Museum of the Third Dimension. The former Free Imperial City comes into its own in summer as host of the multicolored, ten-day Kinderzeche festival, which commemorates the town’s rescue during the Thirty Years’ War by children said to have pleaded with the Swedish king to spare the town. The celebrations, replete with parade in historical costumes, run from July 12 to 21. Another crowd pleaser is the Night Watchman’s Walk. Escorting visitors from inn to inn, the warden stops outside each hostelry chanting verses originating from the Thirty Years’ War. Catch this touristy yet entertaining (and free!) walkabout between 9 pm and 10 pm. Standard walking tours are offered at 2.30 pm and 8.30 pm. Of all the towns on the Romantic Road, none holds a candle to Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Crammed with towers, turrets, winding alleys and storybook houses, Germany hardly comes quainter than this medieval gem. It is difficult to imagine that 45 percent of the town was destroyed in World War II. Lovingly restored, Rothenburg is to Germany what Stratford-upon-Avon is to England or Bruges is to Belgium. Consequently, the only way to enjoy Rothenburg without getting caught up in the crowds is to visit early morning or in the evening after the coach parks have emptied. The town walls are best walked either early or late in the day, too. The loveliest town views are from the eastern edge, whereas the walls on the western side offer a sweeping view of the Tauber Valley. Panoramic views galore wait at the top of the 214-step Renaissance and Gothic town hall. The tour guide adopts a slightly tongue-in-cheek tone as he recounts for the umpteenth time the story of the “Meistertrunk,” which took place in the town hall back in 1631. Threatened by the marauding forces of the Imperial Army during the Thirty Years’ War, a former burgomaster of Protestant Rothenburg took up the challenge of downing a six-pint mug of wine in one gulp in order to spare the town. Down went the wine, the mayor slept for three days and the rest is history. While it was not uncommon to consume that much alcohol in those days, whether the burgomaster’s supposedly selfless binge actually saved the town remains a moot point. Mechanical figures in the clock tower act out the epic tale eight times daily and on the first weekend of every September the whole legend is brought back to life at the Imperial City Festival (September 6 to 8). This is a hands-on opportunity to learn Renaissance dance steps, sit at the potter’s wheel, watch a medieval trial or simply step back and enjoy the firework finale as darkness falls over the historic city. Three museums in Rothenburg deserve a mention: The Museum of Medieval Justice—unique in Europe—in which gruesome instruments of punishment and torture testify more to a medieval delight in Schadenfreude than justice; the Doll and Toy Museum with its doll houses and teddy bears (kitschy but cute); and the Weihnachtsmuseum, devoted to Christmas through the ages. There is also Käthe Wohlfahrts Weihnachtsdorf, a Christmas village (open from May!) billed as “a truly magical experience,” but somewhat bereft of atmosphere on a hot summer’s day. Rothenburg is most romantic when daylight fades and the yellow lamps cast their spell over the cobbled lanes. Catch the Night Watchman’s Tour for a truly atmospheric evening walk. Just outside the town lies the unpretentious village of Detwang. The second oldest village in Franconia (dating back to AD 960), Detwang is also famous for the Tilman Riemenschneider altarpiece in its church. A master of late-Gothic sculpture, Riemenschneider is a name that keeps cropping up along the Romantic Road. More of the artist’s life-size carvings can be admired at St. James’ church in Rothenburg and at the Chapel of Our Lord (Herrgottskirche) at Creglingen, 20 km further north. The intricate detail of Riemenschneider’s work is indeed fascinating, but the crowds are pushy and the € 2 admission fee simply to file past an altarpiece smacks of opportunism. Across the road stands the equally popular Fingerhutmuseum with thousands of thimbles dating from antiquity to present day. The town of Creglingen lies at the heart of some of the most beautiful countryside along the Romantic Road. Deserted lanes crisscross an idyllic landscape as if straight out of a watercolor painting by Albrecht Dürer. Head for the Heuhotel, a bed and breakfast farm 9 km off the Romantic Road. Set in the tranquil hamlet of Weidenhof, the 200-year-old farmhouse is surrounded by fields as far as the eye can see. “First come the animals then the guests!” jokes farmer Stahl senior, climbing aboard his tractor. Pioneering the “Holiday on the Farm” concept back in 1940, the Heuhotel was one of the first of its kind in Germany. What makes this accommodation really special is the “back-to-nature” feel about it. The granary, for instance, doubles as a dormitory in summer. Visitors who snuggle up in freshly turned hay for the night are treated to “Vesper” out on the patio. The rustic supper includes cold meats and egg salad made with ingredients fresh from the farm. Several double rooms and a holiday apartment are also available for those who prefer a more conventional night’s sleep. As well as appealing to children (there’s always something going on in the yard), the farm makes an excellent base for cycling round the region. Choose between four different day tours through one of the most sparsely populated areas in southern Germany. Ask for the “Radeln and Wandern” pamphlet with its selection of theme routes. If you have a full day to explore the environs, take the Wine Route. This 12-km hike wends its way first through woods, fields and meadows before reaching the “Hasennestle Weinberge.” Most of the route runs through flat open countryside and these vineyards somehow seem out of place. Turn a corner and there they suddenly appear, hugging the steep slopes of the Tauber Valley. Take a break at the fairy-tale village of Tauberzell and sip the local wines. Favorites include the Blauer Spätburgunder, noted for its velvety yet fiery flavor, the Dornfelder, an up-and-coming wine a mostly male following, and the increasingly popular Schwarzriesling. To experience some of the most picturesque parts of the Franconian countryside from the comfort of a car, it really pays to leave the well-beaten Romantic Road and take to the side roads. One option, if you’re traveling to Weikersheim, for instance, is to turn off at Creglingen and journey cross-country via villages such as Niederrimbach and Neubronn. This is a short-cut alternative to the Romantic Road, which winds its way to Weikersheim via the wine-center town of Röttingen. Weikersheim is the family seat of the Counts of Hohnelohe and home of one of the loveliest Renaissance palaces in Germany. Take a one-hour guided tour and visit the princely living quarters, with their rich stuccowork, tapestries, paintings and mirrors. In the days when wealth meant power and China was “in,” anyone who possessed expensive artifacts such as porcelain and mirrors from Asia was held in highest esteem. This mattered so much to the Hohnelohe family that they had the mirrors in the staterooms transported over the Alps from Venice. Can you imagine an elephant sculpted by an artist who knew of such animals only from hearsay? The life-like models of exotic fruit and wildlife in the Rittersaal (Knights’ Hall) offer a fascinating insight into how these foreign images were envisaged in an age when overseas travel was virtually unheard of. Outside, savor the numerous Baroque statues and fountains in the Versailles-style gardens set against a backdrop of hillsides and vineyards. The palace courtyard provides the setting for the annual “Musikfest” (July 6), during which works of Händel are performed and a spectacular fireworks display is put on. Strictly speaking, you need a car to make the most of the Romantic Road, although a special bus service plying the route daily is becoming increasingly popular among backpackers. A coach leaves Munich at 9 am, connecting with buses in such towns as Nördlingen (about 3 hours) and Dinkelsbühl (nearly 4 hours). The most direct form of public transport to Rothenburg is the train, changing onto a cul-de-sac line at Steinach. One of the most popular holiday routes in Germany, the Romantic Road is more than just the sum of the 27 recommended stops along the route. The highlight of the northern stretch is the Tauber Valley. The constantly changing scenery in this idyllic corner of Franconia is geographically part of Bavaria yet all your senses tell you differently. Alas, three days barely suffice to take in all the highlights of less than half the Romantic Road. If the idea of being sent to bed by a night watchman’s bell peals, then make sure you stay a night in Rothenburg, the undisputed jewel in the Romantic Road crown. And for cyclists, a ride up the “Liebliches Taubertal,” undeniably the most picturesque section of the parallel cycle network, is not to be missed. But, if you do, with the approaching wine festival season will give you many excuses to return to this lovely part of the country.

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