Bavaria's Romantic Journey
Mark Miller goes where the road rolls gently through the German countryside, past storybook castles and walled medieval towns.
"Here in Rothenburg we live, as the poet Heinrich Heine wrote, in a fairy tale of olden days.'"
Our guide said this with a sigh, as if musing aloud and not for the enlightenment of us dozen camera-clutchers atop the 700-year-old city wall overlooking Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber in central Bavaria. He gazed off into the distance while shutters clicked. They were clicking everywhere, like cicadas, for Rothenburg on the Tauber River is Germany's best preserved fortified medieval town, with a mile-long wall surrounding half-timbered Hansel and Gretel houses, cobbled streets, and Gothic stone public buildings already old when Columbus set sail.
"Romantisch, ja?" said the guide at last.
"Ja," we all agreed. "Sehr romantisch."
"Romantic" isn't a word that generally springs to mind when you think of Germans, but the fact is a good many of them have a "romantischer" streak wider than the Autobahn. That's difficult to appreciate when they're tailgating you on it at 100 miles an hour with a cell phone pressed to their ear, but I'm speaking of romantic with a capital R, in the sense of the 18th-century movement in art, music, and literature that found inspiration in nature and idyllic rural settings. The Germans embraced Romanticismgave it a rib-cracking bear hugand still exhibit a cultural predilection to wander away from all that orderliness and efficiency to find renewal in rustic landscapes, and ride picnic blankets away like magic carpets, off into what Heine called "the airy realm of dreams."
That's the sentiment of the Romantic Road, Germany's most popular officially designated auto-touring route, a 220-mile-long pastorale of verdant river valleys, forests, and farming plains running through south-central Germany between Würzburg in the Main River basin's hilly vineyard country and Füssen in the Bavarian Alps. I spent five falling-blossom days in May crossing its painterly landscapes, poking around in prim old villages I remember for their gray plaster, brown timbers, red geraniums, and white lace curtains, climbing hills to the ruins of castles where Teutonic knights swore oaths of chivalry, and exploring Bavaria's famously well-preserved medieval towns, whose crooked streets radiate in spiderweb patterns from cobbled marketplaces where Gothic and Romanesque churches rise like triumphal music.
You can drive the Romantic Road just as enjoyably from either end. I set out from Würzburg to save the Bavarian Alps for last and permit a quick return to the Munich airport from Füssen if time ran short. Guided out of town by the first of many distinctive Romantische Strasse road signs marking the route, I skirted hillsides pinstriped by grapevines producing the Franconian region's light white wines and bold reds. The road declined through sun-dappled woods and shaggy meadows into the shallow valley where the Tauber River flows languidly past willow trees looking like heads of long green hair, and the fallen stones of old mills.
A splendid riverside castle enticed me into Weikersheim, whose 18th-century marketplace fronts the citadel, built between 1586 and 1600 by a clan of well-heeled counts who presided over a lot of thigh-slapping gemütlichkeit in their 30-foot-high Knights' Hall, big enough for a couple of hundred of your closest personal mercenaries with room left over for any swordplay that might break out. I crunched along the gravel paths of the castle's formal gardens with a busload of French tourists, past stone statues striking noble poses among crew-cut hedges. Spiderwebs glowed in the dusky afternoon light, bees buzzed, squirrels darted, and a convoy of ducklings paddled quietly on the sun-sparkled Tauber. A string quartet played Mozart under a spreading tree. I took a folding chair beside a sleek middle-aged couple in matching black BMW motorcycle leathers and gold Rolexes.
The man leaned over: "Soon comes the oompah-pah bandto frighten away the French." He flashed his eyes, then let out an artillery burst of laughter. The quintessential humor of the Bavarians, regarded by their countrymen as the most outgoing of Germans. His wife patted his thigh. The quartet played on.
I followed the Tauber across a woodsy landscape of old farms quilted in myriad shades of green, tufted with purple lilac bushes and fringed by old orchards whose gnarled trees marched in arthritic rows down to the river. Toward evening, winding through dark woods and across fields of new wheat, I caught my first glimpse of Rothenburg. Seeing its turrets and bastions rise from the trees like colossal chess pieces seemed as improbable as coming upon Shakespeare's London.
Like Dinkelsbühl, Nördlingen, and Donauwörth, also fortified, Rothenburg owes its preservation to the paralyzing two-century-long depression that followed the Thirty Years' War, a religious conflict that broke out in Czechoslovakia in 1618. It spread across Europe, pitting Catholic forces against Protestant, and left Germany in ruins. Bavaria languished until the late 1800s, when the eerily unchanged appearance of its towns was recognized as an unprecedented historical phenomenon and spurred the passage of strict preservation laws.
Southbound again the next morning, I rose and fell on the Swabian plain's hills and hollows, which roll away to the horizon like great ocean swells. I stopped to tour Schloss Harburg, a castle crowning the hill above its namesake village. Still owned by the family that acquired it in 1295, the castle, with its high, massively thick walls, watchtowers, sniper's windows, dungeon, keep, and toothy drop-gate, attests to the bloody contests for land and position symbolized by all those noble coats of armsthe reason they're filled with swords, crossbows, daggers, and armored fists instead of posies and bluebirds.
I lingered for a while in the sunny courtyard, sitting on a bench atop cobbles worn smooth by who knows how many lifetimes of horses' hooves and wagon wheels, listening to the listless wind rattle a window somewhere. An unlatched shutter on the manor house swung in the breeze, creaking on rusty hinges as it probably has since the manse went up in the 1700s. It was a moment transcending time, a glimpse into Herr Heine's fairy tale where history and fantasy blend. This would have been a sublime destination for the Romantics, who loved to build castle "ruins" and then brood over their decay.
Near Donauwörth I stopped for lunch alongside the Donau River, whose narrow channel and sluggish green flow give no hint that Donau is the German name for the Danube, here still a baby stream only a short way into its 1,776-mile odyssey east to the Black Sea.
As I rolled south, the terrain deflated into a horizontal plain striped by yellow mustard flowers and low green crops running all the way to Augsburg, where I spent a leisurely Sunday following the city's historical walking tours. The daylong stroll spanned 20 centuries, from Roman ruins to Bertolt Brecht's birthplace in a narrow lane of craftsmen's houses, ending at a café on Maximilianstrasse, one of Germany's oldest and handsomest boulevards, a broad street that flows with a ponderous grace past Renaissance buildings and heroic bronze fountains like a river of cobbles.
It wasn't until I was south of Landsberg the next day, a rainy one, that the landscapes once again conjured up the route's historical Romanticism. The road commenced a gentle back-and-forth ascent into the emerald foothills of the Bavarian Alps, great pyramids materializing out of the clouds. I drove past steep pastures terraced by the hooves of cattle grazing to the dull clanking of the brass bells hung around their necks, and climbed through fingers of spruce forest reaching down into fields green as billiard tables. The air cooled and took on the scent of wet stone, sawdust, cut grass, and woodsmoke from the low-roofed farmhouses notched into the slopes, their balconies and window boxes spilling flowers.
Near Steingaden the sun came out, so I ordered Kaffee and a smoked ham sandwich on the terrace of a roadside Gasthaus. Other tables were crowded with young German hikers headed for the high country. Two dozen pack frames leaned in neat columns at the foot of the steps. Shoulder to shoulder, here and there an arm draped around a companion, the kids talked politics and art with the eternal earnestness of university students. Others were lost in paperbacks. At another table, three girls admired a boy trying to master a Mississippi blues riff on his harmonica. The proprietress, in her seventies, brought my order and studied the group. Bronzed and flaxen-haired, they looked like posters for the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
"This generation is finding the old-time sentiment," she said.
"Romantisch?" I ventured.
"Jaromantisch," she said, smiling. "Gott sei dankThank God."
Approaching Füssen, I skirted the whitecapped Bannwaldsee, where a lone windsurfer in a wet suit splashed across the choppy lake, defying the gods of lightning grumbling in the surrounding peaks. I looked left and there was Neuschwanstein, the fantasy castle conceived in the 1860s by the world-weary Bavarian King Ludwig II as a refuge from the political intrigues that repelled and, ultimately, destroyed him. It was too late in the day to tour the castle, but even at a mile's distance it was astonishing to behold. Fog filled the valley below its hilltop perch, so it appeared to hover hundreds of feet in the air, windows twinkling like navigation lights, ready to sail away into the wet purple sky and the airy realm, where Ludwig found brief happiness in operatic make-believe.
Minutes later I was stuck in evening traffic in Füssen, where the Lech River cascades from the Austrian Alps and thunders through town in a deep gorge. I sat in the rain, windshield wipers beating, staring at neon signs glowing smokily through the mist. Country-western music pounded in a fearsome-looking Porsche idling alongside. I was at the end of the Romantic Road. I looked back up the highway into the blackness of The Alps, where Ludwig's dreamworks floated above the clouds, waiting.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.