A road trip through Germany, and other ways to pass the time (Part 4): The ‘romantic road’

In September 2015, my mom, my wife and I embarked on a month-long trip through Germany, with a few days in Belgium and the UK thrown in for good measure. On the itinerary: Wuppertal, Brussels, the Rhine, Germany’s ‘romantic road’, Munich and the Oktoberfest, Berlin, London and Cambridge. All in a month’s time.

This is part four of the story, and is about our experiences on the ‘romantic road’.

Also read: Part 1 (Wuppertal and Cologne); Part 2 (Brussels and Nieuwpoort); and Part 3 (the Rhein)

Mainz and Wuerzburg—living remnants of an ancient world

After our few days of doing nothing much in Gau-Allgesheim, it was time to hit the road again. This time, there wasn’t anyone to say ‘hi’ to, and it was about soaking in the past along the ‘romantic road’: a series of towns and villages that still retain their medieval charm from hundreds of years ago. Before getting started, though, we were given a taste of things to come with a quick tour of Mainz, courtesy my mom’s friend’s daughter. The city of Mainz is itself over two millennia old, and has lots to see. During our whistle-stop tour, we got to see how the past and the present rub shoulders here, with quaint old taverns and the thousand-year-old cathedral of St. Martin existing side-by-side with public works of art and modern architecture.

Mainz - Street
A rain-washed street in the old town
Mainz - Street 2
Old architecture: A wooden framework filled in with mortar
Mainz - Old tavern
An old inn
Mainz - Tiny house
A tiny inn sandwiched between larger houses
Mainz - Window flowers
Typical hanging flowerbeds in the windows
Mainz - Cathedral
The ancient cathedral
Mainz - Cathedral garden
The cathedral’s cloister gardens
Mainz - Cathedral and flowers
The cathedral seen from afar

After seeing a bit of Mainz, it was time for us to get on the romantic road. Because we didn’t have the time—or the inclination—to see all 28 towns and villages along this route, we decided we would limit ourselves to Wuerzburg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Dinkelsbuehl and Augsburg. After a couple of hours of driving, and a lunch stop with yet another friend of my mom’s, we got to Wuerzburg, and spent some time trying to make our way through the slightly confusing roads to our hotel. The rain didn’t help either. We finally found the Hotel Residence, a cozy place in a little alley just off a bewildering crossroad on the riverside, and ideally located in the old town. To our relief, we also found a place to park in front of the hotel, and didn’t need to park in the public ‘parkhaus’ back up the road.

That evening, we wandered up and down the riverside promenade, taking in the views of the Marienberg fortress sitting on its hill, envying the locals drinking wine along the Old Bridge, and admiring the old mills and loading cranes along the river. We also strolled through the quarters near our hotel, looking at the illuminated cathedral next to the old marketplace, and generally soaking in the atmosphere. For dinner, we ate at the riverside restaurant Alter Kranen, set in a repurposed loading dock with ancient cranes outside and huge old storage silos underneath. The restaurant had great views of the river, however was predictably expensive, and the meal wasn’t altogether special. Early the next morning, we took in the imposing Residence—the palace of the prince-bishops that ruled the city until the early 1800s—with its huge entrance hall designed to fit horse-drawn carriages, and its incredible frescoes and baroque stucco work. Next on the list was the hilltop Marienberg fortress, said to have been built over the remains of a 3,000-year old Celtic castle. We spent a pleasant hour or two wandering the impressive ramparts, admiring the views of the city and the surrounding hills, and taking in the pretty little palace garden, before leaving for Rothenburg.

Wuerzburg - Hotel
Wayfinding signage in our hotel
Wuerzburg - River from bridge
The river from the bridge
Wuerzburg - Bridge 1
Locals drink wine on the bridge in the evening
Wuerzburg - Bridge 2
The old bridge with one of its statues
Wuerzburg - Swan
A swan on the river
Wuerzburg - Riverbank
A bronze lion stands guard along the river
Wuerzburg - Palace 2
The Residence
Wuerzburg - Cathedral
The illuminated cathedral in the evening
Wuerzburg - Castle gate 1
The gate through the first fortification of the Marienberg fortress
Wuerzburg - Moat garden
The garden in the old moat
Wuerzburg - Castle ramparts
The ramparts
Wuerzburg - Castle tower
The guard tower in the fortress’s quadrangle
Wuerzburg - Castle garden 1
The palace garden
Wuerzburg - Castle garden 4
Statues in the palace garden look at each other
Wuerzburg - View from castle - town 1
A view down the hillside to the town, with vineyards in the foreground
Wuerzburg - View from castle - town 7
Count the churches (hint: there are at least five)
Wuerzburg - View from castle - town 6
A view upriver
Wuerzburg - Castle cottage
A disused old cottage
Wuerzburg - View from castle - Hill 2
The next hill from the fortress
Wuerzburg - Street cafe
A street cafe with a view of the cathedral
Wuerzburg - Street
Morning street

Rothenburg and Dinkelsbuehl—a movie set, and a glimpse into the past

Our next stop on the romantic road was Rothenburg ob der Tauber (Rothenburg, for short). We had heard that this was one of the most popular stops along the romantic road because of its fairytale atmosphere, but we didn’t realize just how popular it was! Though we got there at lunchtime, there were still plenty of tourists to be seen—though luckily we had missed the hordes of Japanese tourists that tend to visit earlier in the day. We were a little disappointed, because the town, while pretty enough, came across as a tad artificial. This was further reinforced by the hundreds of souvenir stores, one of which was event staffed by a Japanese shopkeeper who didn’t event speak German! The high point of our visit was a hugely satisfying bowl of pumpkin soup at Café Einzigartig, a cozy little art café filled with tastefully mismatched furniture and sundry bric-a-brac, all of which was for sale.

Rothenburg - Road
The road to Rothenburg
Rothenburg - First view
The first glimpse
Rothenburg - Gate
The gate to Rothenburg
Rothenburg - Street
Main street
Rothenburg - Window flowers
An inn with flowers in the windows
Rothenburg - Cafe 3
Cafe Einzigartig – Glorious chaos!
Rothenburg - Cafe 2
Everything for sale
Rothenburg - Cafe 1
Our table
Rothenburg - Square
The square with the town hall to the right
Rothenburg - Marien apotheke
The ancient chemists in Rothenburg

After lunch, we headed to Dinkelsbuehl, our next stop on the romantic road. We got there in the afternoon, and were pleasantly surprised by how authentic and ‘alive’ the walled old town still felt. The moat around the fortified walls, the old defensive towers, and the narrow streets and alleys seemed straight out of a history book, albeit filled with an obviously modern population. We wandered the streets a little, and then settled down for a quintessentially German afternoon coffee-and-cake at the cozy Café Haagen, tucking into a typical Bavarian ‘zwetschgendatschi’ plum cake. Thus fortified, we continued on to our next destination: a little town near Munich that would serve as the base for our visit to Augsburg, our last stop on the romantic road—all the hotels in Augsburg having been booked out for a guild conference.

Dinkelsbuehl - Moat 1
The moat around Dinkelsbuehl
Dinkelsbuehl - Rowhouses
Rowhouses with flowers
Dinkelsbuehl - cafe haagen
Coffee and Zwetschgendatschi
Dinkelsbuehl - Cafe and bulldog
Cafe, doggie and statue
Dinkelsbuehl - Church between houses
Church spire
Dinkelsbuehl - Scooter in alley
a scooter in a narrow alley
Dinkelsbuehl - Tiny house
Tiny house
Dinkelsbuehl - Tower
a solid stone church tower
Dinkelsbuehl - Window flowers
Flowers again
Dinkelsbuehl - Moat 2
Another view of the moat, with the town having grown beyond it

Augsburg, a modern city with a long history

When we got to Augsburg the next morning, we found it the least ‘romantic’ of the places we had seen so far. The feel was that of a bustling modern town paying tribute to its historical banker-patrons by just getting on with business, despite its sprinkling of medieval walls, churches and towers. What we found very interesting, though, was the Fuggerei: a charitable township for the needy founded in the 1500s by the Fugger family of bankers, and still maintained by them today. The conditions for residence in the township’s houses have also remained unchanged since then, including the rent, which is the equivalent of approximately 0.8 Euros per year! We spent an interesting hour or so among the Fuggerei’s modest but cozy-looking houses, its little gardens, and its small underground WWII museum, housed in an erstwhile bomb shelter.

After visiting the Fuggerei, we walked along the grand old boulevard—the Maximilianstrasse—in the old town, and gandered at the old housing complexes built for the Fuggers that still line the boulevard. On the boulevard, we also saw Augsburg’s famous fountain of Hercules, as well as the abbey of St. Ulrich and St. Afra, which interestingly combines two churches, one Roman Catholic and the other Lutheran.

Done with Augsburg and the romantic road, we headed off to our next destination: the tiny village of Ainring near Austria, and just across the border from Salzburg.

Augsburg - Pit stop car
Evening pit stop off the highway
Augsburg - Pit stop Minnie
Sunset over the fields
Augsburg - Fuggerei street
The Fuggerei houses
Augsburg - Fuggerei - Vine-covered house
Vine-covered house at the Fuggerei
Augsburg - Pump
Ancient Fuggerei handpump
Augsburg - Fountain
The fountain of Hercules
Augsburg - Church
The abbey of St. Ulrich and St. Afra

Also read: Part 1 (Wuppertal and Cologne); Part 2 (Brussels and Nieuwpoort); and Part 3 (the Rhein)

Top tips

  • In Wuerzburg, prices for accommodation, food and parking in the historic quarter are, predictably, higher than elsewhere.
  • The Wuerzburg Residence opens early, so if you have a tight schedule, it might make sense to put that first on your list.
  • Visiting Rothenburg around lunchtime or later would be a good idea if you want to avoid the morning busloads of tourists.
  • We regretted not being able to spend more time in Dinkelsbuehl. If you can, we recommend spending at least a day there.
  • The bustle of Augsburg may come as a slight shock after the rest of the romantic road. Be prepared.
  • In Augsburg, the Fuggerei is definitely worth a visit.
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