- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2005

O n my first trip along Germany’s Romantic Road, I didn’t know I was on it. That was in July 1968, and I

was sleeping in a tent outside the old walled town of Dinkelsbuhl 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 celebration dating back to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), when two-thirds of the town’s residents died on a pike or from the plague.

In 1632, Swedish troops under Col. Klaus Dietrich 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 the thousands who would follow to marvel at its steep-roofed, half-timbered houses; cobblestone streets; St. George’s Cathedral; and its 10th-century round towers edged by a moat fed by the Wornitz River. Swans still glide on the moat’s placid waters.

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

I recently revisited this famed route, which has drawn romantics since the 17th century. We flew to Frankfurt, picked up a rental car for eight days and began a 180-mile drive that took us on a leisurely tour through hillside vineyards, fertile farms, meadows, forests, dramatic mountain scenery, wild landscapes, historic villages with half-timbered houses and along a well-marked route with signs in German and, yes, Japanese.

Is it touristy? Yes. Does this spoil the charm? Never.

Use guidebooks or hire guides at local tourist offices and leisurely savor the charm, beauty and romance of Germany’s most famous road.

Our route takes us through Wurzburg, Bad Mergentheim; Rothenburg ob der Tauber; Feuchtwangen; my old favorite, Dinkelsbuhl; Nordlingen; Donauworth; Augsburg; Landsberg am Lech; Schongau; and Fussen in the Bavarian Alps, home of King Ludwig II’s famous castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau. This is but a portion of the 25 stops the German Tourist Office lists along the route.

We drive 74 miles to Wurzburg, an old episcopal see and vivacious modern university town that recently celebrated its 1,300th anniversary. We check into the Mercure am Mainufer hotel and walk across one of Germany’s oldest bridges into the old town as cruise boats pass on the Main River. We pay no bridge tax as earlier travelers did, helping the town grow rich.

We look up at ornate 18th-century statues, including that of an Irish monk, the town’s patron saint. The medieval fortress of Marienberg, set on a ridge above vineyard-covered slopes, rises behind us as the sun beats down. Built in 1201, it housed the ruling prince bishops before the Residence was built.

It’s hard to conceive that 80 percent of Wurzburg was destroyed in World War II. Its art, culture and dry white Franconian wines — three of the four largest winegrowing estates in Germany — make this is a perfect spot to begin our journey.

Church bells greet us, striking a deep chord within me and opening the door to memories. Each town is a time capsule, full of surprises and well- and little-known personages.

Famous names associated with Wurzburg are Johann Balthasar Neumann (1687-1753), an architect who designed the Prince Bishop’s Residence — the Versailles of Franconia; Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531), my favorite Gothic sculptor; and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), who created the wondrous frescoes showing the known world above the Residence’s grand staircase. It’s one of the world’s largest paintings.

Eight-horse carriages once dropped off nobility in front of the staircase, and the prince bishop met them on various steps, depending on their rank. If an earl was arriving, the prince bishop came down 17 steps. The steps were wide and deep so women in the 18th century could glide elegantly upward in their high heels and elaborate skirts.

The wondrous ceiling is painted in perspective; the most uncivilized of the continents, the Americas, is depicted with a bare-breasted woman wearing an Indian headdress and riding an alligator. Each room is breathtaking; some have curtains done in stucco.

Wurzberg is the government center of Franconia and is well-known for its university. The famed sculptor Riemenschneider lived and worked here; later we admire his works in the Mainfrankisches Museum and in Fortress Marienberg.

Today, though, we stroll the historic old town and visit the Flakenhaus, Chapel of St. Mary, City Hall and St. Kilian Cathedral, then enjoy a Riesling and silvaner wine at the town’s oldest wine bar, Hof zum Stachel, with its lovely courtyard dating from 1413. We dine at the historic Ratskeller on fresh white asparagus, pickled cold beef and mashed Camembert cheese with butter, red pepper and onions. As the Germans say, one always discovers a country in one’s stomach.

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

In 1219, three brothers gave their property to the Teutonic Knights. In 1525, the order’s master, Wolfgang “Milk-cap” Schutzbar, chose this, Germany’s third-largest castle and monastery, as the seat of his residence. We enjoy its elaborate baroque church, royal rooms, portraits of its headmasters, weapons and historical dollhouse collections. Off again, we picnic in a valley perfumed by the scent of pines.

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

I have 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 ramparts and look down on slumbering half-timbered dwellings and, yes, fallen under its spell.

This time we stay at the wunderbar Hotel Eisenhut (iron hat), which a Frommer’s guidebook calls “perhaps the finest small hotel in Germany.” If you only splurge once, do it at this antique-filled hotel, which once was four private 16th-century dwellings belonging to wealthy families.

Birds sing, and flowers and trees bloom, flooding our room and the city walls below with their pungent scents. A walking tour includes the town hall, marketplace battlements, towers, art, churches, hospitals, gates, half-timbered houses, the German Christmas Museum and many other attractions.

Rothenburg’s Medieval Crime Museum offers a diabolical look at instruments of torture.

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. Get the thick guidebook and enjoy the town’s magic.

In the evening, we share a glass of Rotling Halbtrocken with the Eisenhut’s general manager, Jochem Eylardi, who spins tales of Rothenburg. A Czech pianist plays amid tapestried splendor as the sun slides below the town’s walls. Unforgettable. A superb dinner follows on the terrace under star-spangled skies.

The historic Der Meistertrunk, the Master Draught festival and play based on the downing of a 3-liter tankard of wine in one draught, takes place in late May. Once, a mayor accepted the challenge, won the bet, and the invading imperial army showed the town mercy. Rothenburg overflows on all holidays. Don’t miss it.

Feuchtwangen is next, but I cannot tear myself away from Rothenburg. (Feuchtwangen is a fine old town with an impressive Romanesque church, Franconian and bicycle museum, folk festivals and fairs.) Sleepy, well-preserved Dinkelsbuhl, full of fond memories, follows.

The former imperial town of Dinkelsbuhl is a medieval enclave with moats, bastions, gates and 16 towers in the idyllic Wornitz 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 Church, one of southern Germany’s finest edifices.

We check into the Hotel Weisses Ross, thinking of poet Friedrich Schnack’s description of Dinkelsbuhl: “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 the Museum of the Third Dimension, which shows techniques for reconstructing the third dimension, or depth. We view stereo cameras, optical illusions, holography and other eye- and mind-bending 3-D exhibits. Outside, people watch a televised stork’s nest high above.

Here, medieval houses were spaced, with toilets in between, and goods were stored on upper floors, which jutted forward because taxes were based on ground-floor measurements.

Bavaria’s King Ludwig I saved the town in 1826 when he prohibited the destruction of its medieval walls and monuments. Today the town is decorated with flowers and flags, making it the perfect stage for the Kinderzeche festival, with 1,200 costumed participants.

Featured are parades, historical performances, the boys’ band, the children’s round dances and sword dances performed in the wine market. Outside the walls, those portraying the attacking Swedes drink, sing and cavort.

Nordlingen is a surprise. A detour provides a sunny, pastoral tour of meadows, farmlands, flower boxes filled with red geraniums, roadside red poppies and wildflowers. Even the Germans I am following become lost.

When we finally arrive, we are in the middle of the Nordlingen Ries Crater, created by a meteorite 50 million years ago. Here, America’s astronauts from Apollo 14 and 17 trained for their moon walk. We enjoy two hours in the Rieskrater Museum, with its moon rocks and exhibits, and wish we had more time.

Medieval Nordlingen, a former free imperial city that coined its own money and had its own judicial system, is nearly fully preserved. We walk its defensive walls with 11 towers, battlements and bastions and stroll along its fine marketplace. Religious wars; the black plague, which killed half of its population; and Napoleon failed to break its spirit.

Once a rich cloth-making town with 90 tanneries, Nordlingen has 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, often red-haired, were tortured and later burned at the stake.

We stop at a rocky face called “Fool in Stone.” The translated inscription reads, “If I look the fool, the fool looks back at me. We are two fools.”

The former free imperial town of Donauworth, at the confluence of the Danube and the Wornitz rivers, treats us to a leisurely stroll down its Reichsstrasse, lined by a town hall, patrician homes, bell towers, churches and hospitals and surrounded by fortifications. Unfortunately, we have no time for its art gallery, history, archaeology and other museums.

Our guide in Augsburg, Regina Thieme, sums up its 2,000-year history like this: “Founded by the Romans, early connections to Christianity, close ties to kings and emperors during the first millennium, threats from the Hungarians, important trade and financial city, leading role in the Reformation, Leopold Mozart’s birthplace, city of arts and crafts, leader in industrialization. Questions?”

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 Fugger the Rich, was a financial genius of the Renaissance and created a worldwide mercantile, banking and industrial empire. The Fuggers financed the Habsburgs, minted the pope’s coins, paid the Swiss Guards of the Vatican and entertained Martin Luther, Albrecht Durer, Titian and others.

Augsburg is chock-full of palaces, patrician houses, monasteries, churches, art and museums and has a fine city hall and armory, but of special interest is the Fuggerei (1516-19), one of the world’s oldest examples of social housing, started by the bankers Fugger.

To apply for housing, one had to be an Augsburger, poor, Catholic and honorable. Medieval honorability was important. One lost it if one begged, was a criminal or had a dishonorable profession, as did tanners, executioners or anyone who dealt with death or illness. (In the 17th century, executioners grew rich on executions and fees charged for torture.) Once a family member lost honorability, all of its members were barred from joining a guild or learning an honorable profession.

If a resident was outside the Fuggerei after 10 p.m., when the doors were locked, he was fined a year’s rent: one florin (about 88 cents). This kept residents outside of pubs, the Fuggers thought. Today, the 150 elderly residents in 145 flats must also pay for electricity.

The fascinating Fuggers and the Fuggerei have lasted 500 years. The Fuggerei flats have spy windows and other paraphernalia that offer a look into life 500 years ago.

We tour 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 a Visconti duchess of Milan, who wished for a beautiful German town for a wedding present. She got Landsberg.

Hitler was imprisoned here and wrote “Mein Kampf,” which later led to the town’s becoming a Nazi pilgrimage site.

Ah, Bavaria — beer, bratwurst and BMWs. There’s more. The flamboyant Wieskirche, or Church in the Meadow, near Oberammergau, was built by the brothers Dominikus and Johann Baptist Zimmerman between 1751 and 1753. Its rococo art is spellbinding; the church is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Fussen, our next stop, is not far from where the extravagant, romantic Ludwig II spent his childhood in Hohenschwangau Castle (800,000 visitors annually).

Years later, he built his own castle on a hilltop across the valley at Neuschwanstein (1.3 million visitors annually). The original plans of what has become one of the world’s most beloved attractions were drawn up by a theatrical director.

Neuschwanstein’s interiors feature damsels in distress, fiery dragons and knights in gleaming armor. A knowledge of Wagner’s operas brings these chivalric tales to life.

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

Ludwig, the political misfit, poet and hippie king, once said, “I want to remain a mystery to myself and others.” He succeeded, creating one of the most romantic sights on the Romantic Road.

Watchmen of the night


Many German towns have night watchmen, so we join a group in Dinkelsbuhl, following the costumed Jakob Hamerslag as he makes his evening rounds from one restaurant to the next.

At each stop, he toots his horn, sings his song and is offered a glass of white or red Franconian wine by a smiling waitress.

This nightly medieval ritual has a bonus: At later stops, the large wineglass is drained as it is passed among the watchman’s followers. One toot on the horn means wine, two toots signifies apple juice.

A convivial, though quiet, atmosphere develops as Mr. Hamerslag tells us in German of the medieval night watchmen’s lives and duties. Fortunately, he is on a one-toot patrol.

The night watchman formerly acted as the town’s policeman, was armed and lit the town’s lamps on his rounds. He gave the alarm if he spotted fires — a big problem in medieval times — and he took town drunks home and ensured that soldiers were manning the city wall’s towers and, more important, were awake.

Today the role is a sought-after position. Dinkelsbuhl has five watchmen who alternate duties and are members of the International Night Watchmen Association.

The group has annual conferences at which ideas are swapped on armor, capes, costumes and history.

Rounds begin at 9 and wind up 1½ hours later. Sometimes a choir accompanies Dinkelsbuhl’s night watchman.

One night, Mr. Hamerslag was running late and skipped the town’s hospital.

The next day, city officials reprimanded him because the hospital’s patients would not go to sleep without his nightly call.

We do not skip the hospital.

Mapping way for Romantic Road trip

We picked up our reserved rental car at the Frankfurt, Germany, airport and dropped it off at the Munich airport. Bring your driver’s license and credit card to complete the transaction.

We enjoyed our stays at the following hotels:

Wurzburg — Mercure am Mainifer; www.mercure.com

Rothenburg ob der Tauber — Hotel Eisenhut; www.eisenhut.com

Dinkelsbuhl — Hotel Weisses Ross; www.flairhotel.com/weisses-ross.de

Augsburg — Dom Hotel; www.domhotel-augsburg.de

Landsberg am Lech — Hotel Goggl; www.hotelgoggl.de

Schongau — Landhotel Guglhupf; www.landhotelGuglhupf.de

Fussen — Hotel Kurcafe with restaurant and konditorei (confectionery) ; www.kurcafe.com

For information on Wurzburg: www.wuerzburg.de

Dinkelsbuhl: www.dinkelsbuehl.de

Dinkelsbuhl’s Kinderzeche festival takes place the last three weekends in July.

For information on the Franconian wine country, visit www.fraenkisches-weinland.de

Rothenburg: www.rothenburg.de or [email protected]

Augsburg: www.regio-augsburg.de

Do your Christmas shopping in Rothenburg at friendly Anneliese Friese’s shop near the tourist office or shop online at www.wohlfahrt.com. Don’t forget to enjoy its wonderful German Christmas Museum.

There’s a King Ludwig musical at the Neuschwanstein Musical Theater near Fussen. At Ludwig’s castles, get your tickets ahead of time and be prompt — or you won’t get in. For those interested in hiking the King Ludwig Way, contact [email protected]

Check each town for the dates of its festivals.

The German National Tourist Office provides an excellent map for the Romantic Road, detailing roads and highlighting 25 stops — also, visit www.romanticroad.de. This is an excellent way to plan your trip. German National Tourist Office, 122 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10168; phone 212/661-7200 or 800/651-7010; fax, 212/661-7174; e-mail, [email protected]

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