From Frankfurt to Füssen – Lazy Days On Germany’s Romantic Road

Spell-binding scenery, 18th century decadence and UNESCO heritage sites are just some of the treats to be found in the magical stretch of earth between Frankfurt and Munich.

Once upon a time in Bavaria…
Photo by O Palsson via Flickr

Fairy-tale Beginnings

Daisy Buchanan

Author of The Wickedly Unofficial Guide to Made In Chelsea, contributor to The Guardian, Grazia, MSN and ghost-writer to Dappy from N-Dubz

@NotRollergirl

Published

November 6, 2013

It began with Disneyworld. As a child, I fell in love with Epcot, the world-within-a-world in the monster Florida theme park, and I was especially fond of the Disney version of Germany. It didn’t sit with anything I’d learned before about German history. It was a land of Prussian princes, dark forests, myths, songs and Lebkuchen. I had a feeling that Disney Germany was no more real than Tinkerbell, but I wanted to believe in an old fashioned, magical side to the country. When I had the opportunity to learn more about old European myths and folklore at university, I also had the opportunity to indulge my curiosity about the Prussian landscape.

A college friend shared the same guilty fondness for Epcot, and recommended a destination a bit closer to home – the Romantic Road. His family had spent their summers driving around the picturesque bit of countryside between Frankfurt and Munich, and he thought it had everything I could possibly want from a journey – looming mountains, bright flowers, violent sunsets, plenty of cake stops and even more tiny towns with rude-sounding names. We could set off in Frankfurt and, if we took our time, reach Munich about four days later. I was sold.

I’d been to Frankfurt before on a school exchange, and remembered it as a typical modern European city – a blend of grey offices and glittering shop fronts. I expected the drive to be unprepossesing, and for a fairly long stretch of Autobahn, I was making as many Kraftwerk jokes as one person on a two-person trip is allowed to do before the other person turns around and hits them. Just as it started to get dark, the magic happened. We pulled off the Autobahn and drove towards Miltenberg, which shut me right up. We suddenly had a ringside river view, and all I could do was drink it in and try not to blink as I waited for the night stars to emerge.

The Main River, a tributary of the Rhine, runs directly through Würzburg and Italian artist Tiepollo’s Imperial Hall decorations.

Photo top left by Carston Frenzl via Flickr 

Photo right: Wikipedia

Before long we were in Würzburg. Located right on the river, it’s a city of spires and steeples, and has a real collegiate feel. It will either remind you of Sebastian Flyte’s Oxford in Brideshead Revisited, or Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

Würzburg seems cosy, but it doesn’t take long to stumble upon the city’s scarily impressive secrets. The Würzburg Residenz is an orgy of eighteenth century decadence in fresco form. Italian artist Tiepollo (commissioned by the fabulously titled Prince Bishop Karl Philipp von Greiffenclau) decorated the Imperial Hall with a series of Royal images. If you’re seriously into art appreciation, you’ll be in heaven, and if not, you can still have a brilliant time strutting up and down the Hall while you pretend to be the Prince Regent from Blackadder.

The drive from Würzburg to Rothenburg isn’t just picture postcard pretty. It’s so dazzlingly fresh and floral that it could be used as a living blueprint for postcard creators.

When you’re ready for lunch, check out Auflauf in Peterplatz. There’s usually a queue coming out of the door, but it’s worth persevering because it’s possibly one of the only restaurants in the world where you can invent your own casserole. (The chicken, leek and pineapple combination might sound weird, but it works.)

If you spend a full day in Würzburg there are plenty of great places to turn in for the night, but a short drive out of the city and along the river will take you to the beautiful Lauda-Königshofen. It’s a little way away from the tourist trail, but the Benz Hotel is definitely worth driving to. Set within a series of vineyards, it’s so tranquil that you’ll feel instantly soothed after the buzz of the city. If you do decide to stay in Lauda-Königshofen, you mustn’t miss out on the local wine. I usually avoid sweet white wine like I avoid Toys R Us on Christmas Eve, but the Riesling I tried tasted like iced, musky honey.

The drive from Würzburg to Rothenburg isn’t just picture postcard pretty. It’s so dazzlingly fresh and floral that it could be used as a living blueprint for postcard creators. We lucked out with the weather, as it was a toothpaste bright early Autumn morning with enough summer in the air to make everything bloom. We were aware that we were climbing higher and higher, as mountains rose and jumped at us along the way.

The town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. 

Photo via Wikimedia

Although the road seems old fashioned, with endless flowers and fields to gaze at but nowhere to stop for a burger, many of the attractions don’t date back much further than the post war period of the 20th century. So it’s a joy when you finally stumble upon Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Rothenburg dates back to the Middle Ages, and there’s something fresh and unspoiled about it – on a clear Autumn day, the air is so crisp that you could eat it with a knife and fork. Many of the hotels are newly converted barnyards, and no matter how long you spend in the town, it’s hard not to stop expecting some cute talking animals to emerge on the cobbles in front of you.

For the culturally and gruesomely minded, a trip to the Medieval Crime and Punishment museum comes highly recommended. It’s a showcase for instruments of torture, some ultraviolent and some that are just plain baffling. It’s not unusual to spot other visitors screwing their faces up and trying to work out what goes where, before recoiling with visible horror when they finally figure it out. The people watching opportunities are almost as exciting as the exhibits themselves.

Buried deep in Middle Franconia,  not only does Feuchtwangen have a ridiculously rude sounding name, it’s a fascinating place to explore if you’re into recent German history.

The best thing about Rothenburg is that is has a local donut, called a Schneeball. The Friedel bakery on Markt 8 is the best place to go for quality and quantity. The donuts are pretty much head sized. Try not to get too full, and save some space for dinner at the Hotel Geberhaus on Spitalgasse, which has not only the best beer garden in town, but the best sausages. Book a room before you sit down, so that when you’ve worked your way through all the sausages and most of the beer on the menu, you can just crawl up the stairs and sleep. It’s easier.

Leaving Rothenburg, the kitschy countryside was starting to make us hysterical. We were inventing pretend patron saints for every new church we passed, and it felt like there were more churches than road signs. We were too full of sugar (the once pristine car was strewn with empty, chocolate smeared packets of Ritter Sport) and the roads were too full of tourists, so we decided that as we were in no fit state to appreciate anything with picturesque, olde worlde pretentions, we’d swerve back to the Autobahn for a bit and hit Feuchtwangen, a town my companion described as “gratifyingly weird”.

When you get back on the road, it’s easy to become distracted as every town you drive through looks a little bit more enchanting than the last. It’s worth staying focused and just taking in the scenery until you get to Feuchtwangen, buried deep in Middle Franconia. Not only does it have a ridiculously rude sounding name, it’s a fascinating place to explore if you’re into recent German history. There are plenty of coffee shops, bars and beer halls with the olde worlde aesthetic that you’ll see elsewhere along the route, but there are some strangely futuristic looking municipal buildings. They date back to the thirties, but next to all the wooden buildings, they look like heavy cement space ships. After travelling through a tunnel of bright green overhanging leaves just before we entered the city, the bustle of Feucthwangen was a bit of a shock.

Feuchtwangen’s Stiftskirche is worth visiting, as it has one of the city’s only remaining towers. Many of the city’s defences were demolished in the 19th century. However, if you want to skip the history lesson and do something a bit more glamorous, head straight for the Spielbank Feuchtwangen, the city’s ultramodern casino. The building looks more like an LA celebrity hideout than a gambling den, composed of stacked glass boxes that give you a great view of the city skyline. It’s worth going just for dinner. The food is modern European with a German accent, and although there aren’t any surprises on the menu, everything is cooked beautifully.

The magical hues of the Bavarian countryside. 

Photo by James Cridland via Flickr.

Feuchtwangen had quelled all our urban urges, so after another Autobahn fix we were back to our old pattern, surrounded by nothing but the darkest, greenest hills, and a wide, empty sky, which was slowly turning a translucent pearl colour. In places, the road climbed so steeply that it felt as though we were driving towards the clouds.

The drive out of Feuchtwangen is gorgeous, and if you get really lucky you might spot some exciting animals. Local rumour has it that this part of the countryside is a prime spot for wild boars, although there aren’t many definite reports of sightings. Still, approach with caution! The next big stop is Augsburg, where culture and history clash gloriously with modernity.

Augsburg seems severe and serious at first. It’s a town founded by two extremely wealthy banking families, and even has some of its own laws. The Renaissance architecture is as imposing as it is beautiful, as are the Alpine views. However, if you want to find the town’s subversive streak, check out the home of playwright Bertolt Brecht – it’s a pleasant dash of socialism in a place of ostentatious wealth.

Augsburg is full of traditional style beerhalles, but if you want to go where the locals go, have dumplings at Ratskeller and then on to Elements for vodka cocktails and dancing. The Hotel Am Rathaus is around the corner – it’s luxurious but not flashy, and in-room extras like cookies and scented moisturiser make everything feel super cosy.

Up, up and into the clouds…

King Ludwig built the castle to be a romantic escape from the harsh surroundings of the 19th century. Photo via Wikimedia.

It’s only when we left Augsburg that I realised quite how high up we were. Driving out of the city at sunset is a bone-achingly melancholic experience. The city looks like the closing scene from a Wes Anderson movie if you watch it retreating over your shoulders, orange-gold sun bouncing off buildings and trees turning from neon to copper.

On our slow descent down the Alpine foothills we drove down through the towns of Schongau, Pfaffenwinkel and Schwangen (if you can make it through the entire route without giggling, you deserve some kind of official Certificate of Maturity). If you feel like slowing down to explore the Pfaffenwinkel area, you can take a detour via the hamlet of Wies to look at the Wieskirche, a UNESCO heritage site which rose to prominence in the eighteenth century, after one of the statues in the monastery was thought to be crying. People are still making religious pilgrimages to the Wieskirche, hundreds of years later.

The most magical stop of all comes right at the end of the route, which is the town of Füssen – a place so pretty that you expect the houses to be made from gingerbread and sugar icing. The cherry on the cake of this mythical landscape is the breath-taking Neuschwanstein Castle, perched high on the horizon. As I fixed my gaze upon it I was instantly transported back to my childhood. An inspiration for Sleeping Beauty Castle in Florida’s Disneyland Park, finally I had found the fairtytale Germany that was painted in my imagination all those years ago.

Leaving Füssen was a little like reentering the 21st century. Hills and sky were replaced with tarmac and traffic. As I fiddled with the radio and tried to find out about flight times, the trip started to take on a distant, dreamlike quality. I thought about romance. It isn’t necessarily love-themed, but it always starts with a story. And for the past few days, I’d been feeling like a girl in a book. But now I had the pictures to prove the Prussian wonderland I’d seen in Disney theme parks and dreamed about as a child really did exist.