When you hear “German romanticism”, many think it is something akin to German humor. But living there showed me that both don’t just exist – they flourish. Just not in the open. So when you hear about Germany’s Romantic Road, don’t roll your eyes in disbelief. Just accept that is it complex, and worth discovering why. It’s a different romantic. One that highlights the individual, and elevates intense emotion to a central position. One that emphasizes eternal customs, even Medievalism. Hard to think of all of those things being on a road. Let’s go see why they are here, in spades.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
The road, which is more of a marketing construct than a historic path, starts in Wurzburg. Wurzburg is packed with attractions, which we will miss due to scheduling. Our trip begins in one of the best preserved medieval walled towns, Rothenburg ob der Tauber. It began with the construction in the 10th century of a castle on the high ground overlooking a bend in the Tauber River. It is this “red castle” that gives the town its name today. In 1274, during the Holy Roman empire, Rothenburg was given the status of a Free Imperial City, which afforded approximately fifty Empire cities a certain autonomy. The town used this to establish fairs, which enabled it to grow to become one of the twenty largest in the entire Empire.
In 1631, during the Thirty Years War, the Protestant town was captured and nearly emptied. The Black Death, in 1634 killed most of the remaining residents. The town was too poor to continue construction, and fell asleep for 250 years. In the late 1800’s, Bavarian painters discovered the town that had slept while the rest of Europe modernized. Today, visitors usually start their exploration at the Rathaus (Town Hall) Square. A quick stop at the Tourist Information Office can supply maps and a daily 2:00 PM guided tour of the town. The Rathaus and its historical vaults below are worth a visit, as is a climb to the top of the building’s 200’ tower for a view over the walled city. Other important sights are nearby, including the German Christmas Museum (next to the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas decorations headquarters store) and also St. James Church. This Gothic church, constructed in 1485, houses one of the best examples of the work of master woodcarver Tilman Riemenschneider.
A night inside the city’s walls reveals a different side to the town. Once the day trip crowds thin out, it’s easier to see how this town lived during its glory years. Several good options for a schnitzel and a beer can be found in the restaurants lining the square. A not to be missed highlight is the nightly Night Watchman’s Tour. It is offered in two versions – English at 8:00 and German at 9:30 PM. Told from the perspective of one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder, it is a compelling insight into how the town’s residents lived during its heyday. The next morning, an early walk among the cobblestones is worth waking up for, before the daily crowds begin their assault.
Awakened, fed, and even with time for a little shopping, we head off to the next stop on B25, the official designation for the Romantic Road. After winding though the small towns that dot the grassy hills of Franconia, in about an hour we arrive in our next stop, Dinkelsbühl. It too was a Free Imperial City, with substantial income from trade and woolen weaving. It was this income that funded the construction of St George’s Church in the 15th century. This impressive building is the largest hall churches (built without aisles) in Germany. Rather nondescript outside, its impressive fan vaulting and superb altars make it one of the most significant Gothic churches in Southern Germany. The Altar of St. Sebastian, dating from church’s completion in 1520, sits beneath an exquisitely painted triptych. Underneath is the grisly display of the remains of the martyr St. Aurelius. In summer months, the tower can be climbed in the afternoon for a stunning view of the city walls and the four preserved gated entry towers. Wine Market street runs in front of the church, with five outstanding gabled houses in a rainbow-colored row. One of these is the Hotel Deutsches Haus, whose restaurant is generally regarded as the best in the town.
Post lunch is an excellent time for a walk around the city’s walls. There are twice daily guided tours of the town at 11:30 and 2:00. Unfortunately, they are only offered in German. After lunch, and our brief recreation, it’s back in the car, back to B25 headed south. In about an hour, we reach Donauworth, crossing the romantic Danube on our way to Augsburg. It is a big city, with multiple lodging choices, but not much in the way of attractions. A nice dinner, and early to bed, for tomorrow we head to the crown jewel of the Romantic Road, Ludwig’s storybook castle, Neuschwanstein.
The terrain changes as we head south on our hour and a half drive towards the Alps, from rolling hills to evergreen covered foothills. We have a ticket reservation for 1:30 PM, so we are planning on arriving around 11:00 AM. Since it is a beautiful, cloudless day, lunch awaits on the umbrellaed biergarten of the Hotel Müller Hohenschwangau. Well before our arrival, the fairy tale castle is easily in view. Sitting like a Christmas ornament in a sea of dark green trees, it shines like a beacon drawing us in. As we get closer, power kites carve lazy arcs in the bright sunshine. We arrive at Hohenschwangau and find a parking place in one of the four lots (6€). Before arriving at the hotel, we stop at the ticket center to pick up our reservations. Good thing we made reservations – earliest time available now was 2:30 PM! Off to the hotel for a leisurely lunch, then a short walk to where we board the horse drawn carriages to ride up the hill.
After arriving at the castle, we have a short wait, then off on the tour. In 1868, King Ludwig II of Bavaria appointed a stage designer, Christian Jank, to draft this extravaganza as an homage to his favorite composer, Richard Wagner. The interior is filled with murals inspired by the musical mythology in Wagner’s operas, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin in particular. The exterior is is an embodiment of the architectural fashion of the day – castle romanticism or in German “burgen romantik”. This was a very popular style in the second half of the 19th century. Examples are found across Germany such as Stolzenfels near Koblenz, and Hohenzollern south of Stuttgart. Advancements made it possible for all these to mingle many architectural elements into eclectic designs. These designs incorporated elements of Gothic architecture (upward lines, slim, narrow towers), of Romanesques styles (cuboids and arches), with Byzantine art influences on the interior decor of the building.
Even though King Ludwig only spent eleven nights in the castle before his untimely death at the age of 40 under suspicious circumstances, his legacy still lives on. Despite being incomplete—the extravagant Throne Room, for example, contains no throne—the castle became—and remains one of the most recognizable castles in the world. It has served as inspiration for numerous movie castles, most famously as Walt Disney’s for the movie Sleeping Beauty, and later for the Disneyland castle itself. Today, it is one of Germany’s top tourist destinations with more than 1.3 million visitors annually. Many times in the summer, over 6,000 visit daily.
On our departure, we walked down. This allowed us to view the panorama of the castle from the Marienbrücke, the bridge over the Pollät stream gorge behind the castle. Highly recommended.
With this crowning achievement of German romanticism, we close our trip, leaving plenty for a return. Würzburg alone is worth an overnight to see it all. Nördlingen and attractions in Augsburg also remain to be discovered. What a good problem to have.