By GLENN GARNETT
One of the great things about a vacation in Europe is its ready ability to transport you back to an amazing variety of eras, splendidly preserved with modern amenities and services close at hand. Last spring we wanted a taste of medieval times - castles, walled towns with moats and gingerbread houses and cobblestone streets - finding them in abundance on Germany’s famed Romantische Strasse, the Romantic Road.
Conceived 50 years ago by the reconstructed German government to boost tourism, the 220-mile route runs from Wurzburg in south-central Germany to Fussen at the foot of the Alps and takes you through some of the state of Bavaria's most well-known sights. In addition to castle keeps and cathedrals, some a thousand years old, you’ll enjoy some of the country’s most beautiful rural terrain, far from the congestion of the north.
Last spring we started our tour of the Romantic Road from the south, entering Bavaria from Austria at the village of Fussen. From there we located Schwangau, home to two storybook castles within yodelling distance of each other: Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau. The former is arguably the most photographed object in Germany next to Claudia Schiffer and is rumoured to be the inspiration for Walt Disney’s fantasy castle.
We checked into the Hotel Lisl at the foot of the mountain which cost us about C$152 per night - not too shabby for a view of a castle out the window. Although it was late April, it was a wintry scene we found with a heavy dusting of snow.
There are two separate tours of the castles, and we started with King Ludwig’s original royal homestead, Schloss Hohenschwangau, which isn’t as grand as its storybook cousin, but just as interesting. We got a tour from a pretty knowledgeable local guide, who took us through the queen’s and king’s floors, pointed out the secret “hanky-panky” doors where paramours were allegedly spirited in and out of royal boudoirs, and showed us the amazing collection of medals, silver and wall paintings. He noted wryly that without exception the huge battle scenes depicted there betray not a single drop of blood.
He also gave some insight into the life of mad Ludwig II, the 19th century Bavarian royal who wasn’t mad at all, our guide asserts - just a dreamer who wanted to be left alone. He just spent like mad on Neuschwanstein, his mountaintop folly, and was deposed by the Bavarian government for his profligacy. As for his mysterious death by drowning soon after, our guide figures it wasn’t murder as legend suggests. After all, he’d been replaced by his brother (who really was mad) and wasn’t a threat to anyone. But he did suffer from toothaches and was treated with large amounts of opium and morphine and could have done himself in. “He wanted to be a mystery to himself and he certainly succeeded,” the guide concluded.
After that, we could hardly wait to make our way up the steep hill to Neuschwanstein, foregoing a horsedrawn carriage ride in favour of a 20-minute walk to warm ourselves up. Once there, we were shown the 12 completed rooms of the ill-fated castle from which Ludwig was exiled in 1886. Like other great palaces of Europe, Neuschwanstein is a tribute to excess as well as excellence, breathlessly gaudy and otherworldly.
Ludwig was mad, too, for Richard Wagner and commissioned scenes from Wagnerian operas on almost every surface, save for the breathtaking throne room which paid tribute to saints and superbeings and features a floor of over two million mosaic squares and lapislazulli columns.
We then began our journey north on the Romantic Road through a series of quaint villages and towns. We passed through the 2,000-year-old city of Augsburg which feature Roman ruins and the famed Christmas Market where you can find a wide variety of handmade gifts and crafts.
Further north we toured the walled town of Nordlingen which is situated in the middle of a meteor crater measuring 30 miles across and dating back more than a million years. The 14-15th century era walled town is surrounded by a covered parapet which we climbed and toured for an interesting view of the quiet village. There’s a majestic Gothic church in the middle of the village, purported to be dead centre of the crater, which you can climb for a spectacular vista of the surrounding countryside.
Our next stop was Dinkelsbuhl, to us the crown jewel of the Romantic Road. Though smaller and lesser known than Rothenburg and Wurzburg further north, this village oozes charm and history and is a photographer’s dream. Perfectly preserved walls and towers surround the village, with a moat and duck pond on the outside. Brightly coloured homes and commercial buildings dating back centuries line brick and stone thoroughfares.
We booked a room at Hotel Deutches Haus, a 560-year-old building rich in painted scenes of medieval life and wood carvings, with a 17th-century Madonna overlooking the entrance. The hotel is also home to the Altdeutches Restaurant, one of the finest eateries in the area. Word of warning here, and for travelling in rural Germany in general - bring a German-English dictionary and a good sense of humour. Some of the waiters and shopkeepers you meet will have just a passing knowledge of English. And just because you’ve seen every episode of Hogan’s Heroes doesn’t mean you can make yourself easily understood.
The final day of our three-day medieval adventure was spent in Rothenburg-od-der-tauber, which is world renowned for its authenticity. For the first time we found ourselves in crowds as tourbuses from the north bring in hundreds of tourists daily from Frankfurt and Munich. For souvenir hunters, it’s all here: there are dozens of quaint little shops offering beer steins, wine glasses, prints, carvings, and Christmas ornaments.
There’s a number of walking tours you can take, walls to scale and a Town Hall tower to climb for a panoramic view. It was in Rothenburg where we broke down and finally gave into the temptation to check out a pastry we’d seen in the windows of sweet shops all along the Romantic Road. The schneeballen (snowball) we bought was, as expected, teeth-rottingly sweet and messy to eat. You can get ‘em dusted with powdered sugar, cinnamon or chocolate. Fortunately, the town also boasts a wide variety of restaurants where you can sample more healthy, traditional fare.
No tour of Rothenburg is complete without taking in the glockenspiel show (called Mesitertrunk) at the city hall at nine and ten in the evening. After that you can also enjoy the sights and sounds of the city after dark on the Night Watchman Tour, walking the city walls by lantern light.
On our way out of town, we stopped into the Kriminal Museum to see a complete display of devices used in medieval times to extract confessions, punish thieves, shame miscreants and execute witches. We saw signed confessions, goalie-like “shame masks” and torture devices like the “shrew’s harness” in which bickering women were locked in, forcing them to face one another without actually being able to take a swipe at their enemy. There’s also a 20-lb. stone rosary they hung around the neck of anyone who had the nerve to nod off in church.
Our journey along the Romantic Road complete, we turned south to Switzerland, giving me a long-awaited opportunity to try out the world-famous no-speed-limit Autobahn. Folks, don’t try this unless you’re driving something a little sportier than the four-cylinder compact car we’d rented. Sure, I was able to get the sucker up to 175 kph a couple of times with a good tailwind, but I spent most of my afternoon getting the heck out of the way of wannabe fighter pilots in their silver and black Beemers and Mercedes-Benzes coming out of nowhere, flashing their lights and blowing by at 200kph+. It was fun for awhile, and we covered a lot of territory in a real hurry, but it was more work than I like behind the wheel.
It kind of made me nostalgic for the Romantic Road.