Germany’s ‘Die Romantische Strasse’, the Romantic Road, will not only rise up to meet you, it will seduce you, charm you, and make you fall in love – with fairy tale visions, historic architecture and pastoral beauty – not just a physical journey through nearly 400 kilometres of sublime German countryside, but a magical passage through mystic yearnings of the human heart.
And while one almost expects to find Fafner, the dragon from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, coiled around a 12th century battlement, or Rhinemaidens guarding the ineffable beauty of the Romantic Road (Germany’s true Rheingold); the road is a construction – and not just of the Roman architects of the Via Claudia Augusta from Fussen to Augsburg, but of German burghers and officials rebuilding a shattered economy in 1950, not long after the Allied military occupation.
While the Romantic Road may be an invention, the romance is not. Romance, a la great medieval legends with mythic heroes and heroines, transport the soul and so does ‘Die Romantische Strasse’.
“Hoc loco habitat fortuna, hic quiescit cor” (In this place abideth happiness, here the heart findeth peace). Abbot Marianus II Mayer, builder of Wieskirche, the Church of the Meadows, located in the small hamlet of Wies, expressed these sentiments about his church, designed by Dominikus Zimmerman who spent the last 11 years of his life in a house he literally built next door because he could not bear to be parted from his masterpiece. Rococo artistry approached the divine in the airy lightness of this astoundingly beautiful church constructed between 1745 and 1754 and declared a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) world heritage site in 1983. Tears still occasionally flow when believers confront this physical paean to the metaphysical, and not just from the statue of the Scourged Saviour upon whose wooden visage real tears appeared to flow in 1738. This was the phenomenon which demanded construction of the Wieskirche to house the miraculous statue and to handle the massive influx of devout pilgrims who wanted to witness the marvel.
The Romantic Road begins in Wurzburg, home of the Marienburg Fortress – a neo-gothic Taj Mahal (it was a birthday gift of British king George V to Marie, his queen, in 1857) of a castle overlooking the town on the Main river since ancient times. It is a must-see as it holds the crown jewels of Hanover and 160 other rooms, and because of its spectacular views of the burg. However, Wurzburg is also home to the Wurzburg residence, a palace built in the baroque style and home to the Tiepolo fresco, the largest painting in the world – one of the many reasons it is also a UNESCO world heritage site. There is much to experience in Wurzburg, from the Old Main Bridge, a magnificent vaulted-arch construction lined with Baroque statues of saints to the fourth largest baroque chapel in Germany, the Dom (Wurzburg Cathedral) and on to the smaller, but still lavish, Mariankapelle, the Wallfahrtskirche Mariä Heimsuchung (Visitation of Mary) Chapel, a pilgrimage site to this day. Or take a different spiritual journey and visit the Stiftung Juliusspital Würzburg, hospital and second largest winery in Germany, a purveyor of fine Franconian wines in their distinctive Bocksbeutel (goat’s bag) bottles. These are but a smattering of the plethora of world class attractions in Wurzburg.
Tauberbischofsheim, a scenic town in the Tauber valley, is the first stop after Wurzburg and home to Fencing-Club Tauberbischofsheim, the most successful fencing club in the world. Kurmainzisches Schloss (Schloss is German for castle) had its origin in a medieval town castle from the 13th century.
Lauda-Königshofen’s Upper Gate (1496) and Powder Tower are the remains of the medieval town fortifications. Take a walk through the Historic Old Town, with its half-timbered houses.
Bad Mergentheim is the largest spa resort in the state of Baden-Württemberg – ‘bad’ or bath in English translates to ‘spa’. Visit the Castle of the Teutonic Knight, where the Knights once had their home base.
Creglingen’s Herrgottskirche (the “Church of Our Lord”) was supposedly founded when a farmer found an undamaged communion wafer while ploughing his field. The church houses the altar of the Virgin Mary, a masterpiece of Tilman Riemenschneider, the best-known wood sculptor of the late middle ages. Opposite it is the Fingerhutmuseum (the Thimble museum). The remains of a Celtic fortification wall are not only worth viewing but gives some idea of the age and historicity of the towns of the ‘Romantische Strasse’.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s Plönlein, informally the ‘Postcard Square’, is so picturesque it may be one of the most photographed places in Germany. The gate Die Weisser Turm (The White Tower) is all that remains of the castle destroyed by earthquake in the 14th century; and the Klingen gate, constructed in the 13th century. Next to the Klingen gate is the Church of St Wolfgang, a fortress church where shepherds prayed to St Wolfgang for protection against wolves. The Town Hall and Fountain with tower (available for climbing in summer), adjacent to Jagstheim House, is an imposing timbered structure built in the 15th century.
Dinkelsbühl’s Rothenburger Tor, or The Rothenburg Gate, housed prison cells and torture chambers in the Middle Ages. Nördlinger Tor, adjacent to the Nördlinger Gate, is the old mill, fortified because it was outside of the walled town. Segringer Tor was damaged in a siege and rebuilt in the Baroque style.
Harburg’s Castle is one of the best preserved castles in the world. First mentioned in 1150, it provides a glimpse of life in medieval times.
Landsberg’s Baker’s and Dyer’s Gates and town walls and Hexenviertel or Witches’ Quarter are but a few of the attractions.
All three of Schongau’s town gates; in fact, travellers should just make it policy to see each gate in each town of ‘Die Romantische Strasse’.
The Pfaffenwinkel is the gateway to UNESCO world heritage site Wieskirche and numerous other religious sites. Pfaffenwinkel (“Priests Corner” in the local dialect) means that this area of the Romantic Road is particularly rich in religious artifacts.
Schwangau is the entry point to Neuschwanstein castle, constructed by ‘Mad King’ Ludwig II to indulge his obsession with swans, Richard Wagner and Teutonic mythology.
Fussen is a town replete with more storied sites; it is also the end of ‘Die Romantische Strasse’, though not the end of the road for the traveller who has been richly rewarded for taking a journey that soothes a psyche beset by a world of bewildering, blistering change that seems to preclude ever catching up.
Unleash your romantic self on ‘Die Romantische Strasse’. Let it feast upon a sumptuous repast of Baroque and Rococo churches, neo-Gothic cathedrals, medieval and ‘fairy tale’ castles and timbered marketplaces. Turn it loose amongst storied wineries, stately mills and hospitals, idyllic visions and pastoral settings, and those amazing gates that allowed lucky souls to retreat to safety and still allow modern visitors to retreat from the insane pace of frenetic lives. The Romantic Road is a 400-kilometre prescription to treat stress and anxiety – so let the Romantic Road rise up to meet you, and like a Tolkien walking song, ‘let the road go ever on’…
Dana Wilson is an Edmonton-based freelance writer and poet.