Having lived in Heidelberg for 16 years through the 1980s and 90s, I am often asked which regions to travel to in order to find authentic German culture. While there are many to choose from, the Romantic Road is most certainly one which I will recommend. Running from the Alps and fairytale castle at Neuschwanstein to the River Main in central Germany, the Romantic Road is Germany’s best known and most popular tourist route. The name expresses what you’ll feel on seeing the medieval towns and castles as you’re being transported back in time. While the southern part of the route is dominated by dramatic mountain scenery, it is especially the northern stretch which opens up a wealth of history, art and culture. Bustling medieval towns line the route like a string of rare gems. Nördlingen, Dinkelsbühl and Rothenburg with their impressive buildings have preserved their original appearance over the centuries and constitute some of my favorite places in Germany.
Nördlingen lies in the middle of the Ries crater, the best-researched meteorite crater in the world. Traders and craftsmen settled here, and a trade fair for goods from distant lands was established in 1219, which put the town in second place only to Frankfurt. The town built its encircling wall in the 14th century, and its towers and gateways are still preserved today. This golden age in the town’s history also saw the construction of its major buildings, most of them designed as trading halls and warehouses, but also included magnificent patrician houses and the Late Gothic parish church of St. George. Every night, even now, the call of the watchmen can be heard from the tower, who are the last members of their profession anywhere in Germany: “So, G’sell, so!” which means as much as “All’s well, fellows, all’s well”.
Nördlingen rapidly lost its importance in the Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, and by the time the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 it was not only reduced to poverty but had also lost more than half of its population through death or emigration. Thus there was no need to erect any new buildings for several centuries after that. This also explains why the town has retained much of its medieval architecture. In fact, the same explanation is true for most of the towns in this part of Germany.
Take for instance Dinkelsbühl. It is a town where the past is at one with the present. As you walk through the green belt surrounding the old town, the centuries begin to merge. The best view of Dinkelsbühl is from above. After climbing to the top, the tower of St. George’s Minster offers a panoramic view over the roofs of the old town and the idyllic river valley. The Minster is around 500 years old while the town fortifications are even older. Indeed, many of the houses have survived numerous generations. Even more important, however, is the fact that these buildings are still alive today. In them are families, shops, workshops, cafes and restaurants: sometimes closely packed together in a small lane, sometimes around a square. Up until 1806 this was a Free Imperial Town (practically an independent state with its own rules and laws).
And then there is Rothenburg, one of the oldest towns on the Romantic Road. It overlooks from its rocky crag four bends in the Tauber river. The town is both picturesque and unspoiled. Once behind the ramparts in the car-less central enclave, you are faced with the ancient houses, wrought-iron street signs, fountains and narrow, cobbled lanes, as if a time-warp plunged you back into the middle of the 16th century.
During the Thirty Year War (between the Protestants and the Catholics), the Protestant town of Rothenburg was about to be raised to the ground by the Imperial army commanded by General Tilly. All pleas for mercy had been rejected, when the mayor as a last resort offered the general a goblet of the very best local wine – and a miracle occurred. Tilly’s heart warmed up and he offered a way out. He would spare the town if a local could empty in a single draft a 6-pint mug of the same wine, equaling four bottles of wine. A former mayor named Nusch, who obviously had a great stomach, succeeded and Rothenburg was saved. This is reenacted every year during a big festival, but I don’t think anyone has been able to follow Nusch in his footsteps (although it is somewhat doubtful he walked after his feat).
North of Rothenburg, the idyllic Tauber Valley opens up a whole other world, which can best be explored on bicycle. The “Klassiker” (Classic) bike trail is a two-day outing along the river, covering 60 miles/100 km from Rothenburg ob der Tauber to Wertheim and the Main River. Known as the “Liebliches Taubertal”, the Lovely Tauber Valley region is absolutely delightful, offering scenic, cultural as well as culinary highlights. The clean, bright streams in the Tauber Valley are famous for their trout, served at inns all along the valley. The Tauber Valley lamb is also top-notch. And, of course, the local wines are the perfect accompaniment: Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner and Schwarzriesling, as well as local favorites such as Dornfelder. Among the four well-known breweries in the region are the Distelhäuser and Spessart, with special country brews.
So what are you waiting for? Los geht’s! (Off you go!)