It began with Disneyworld. As a child, I fell in love with Epcot, the world-within-a-world in the monster Florida theme park. 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's 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 my 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 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 band 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 immediately shut me 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.
Before long, we were in Würzburg. Located on the river, it’s a city of spires and steeples and has a 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 impressive secrets. The Würzburg Residenz is a fresco that celebrates 18th century decadence. Italian artist Tiepolo (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. 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 away from the tourist trail, but the Benz Hotel is definitely worth visiting. Set within a series of vineyards, it’s so tranquil that you’ll instantly feel soothed from 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 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 along the way.
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 20th century postwar period. 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. Many of the hotels are newly converted barnyards, and no matter how long you spend in the town, it’s hard not to expect cute talking animals to emerge on the cobblestone.
For the gruesomely minded traveler, a trip to the Medieval Crime Museum is 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 trying to understand 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.
"Buried deep in Middle Franconia, Feuchtwangen has a ridiculously rude sounding name, but it’s a fascinating place to explore recent German history."
The best thing about Rothenburg is that it 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 the best beer garden and sausages in town. Book a room before you sit down so after trying 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. Because we were in no state to appreciate anything with picturesque, olde worlde pretentions, we’d swerve back to the Autobahn to 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 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. It has a ridiculously rude sounding name, but it’s a fascinating place to explore if you’re interested in 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 you'll also see strange futuristic municipal buildings. They date back to the '30s, but next to the wooden buildings, they look like heavy cement spaceships. After travelling through a tunnel of bright green overhanging leaves before entering 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 glamourous, 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.
Feuchtwangen had quelled all our urban urges, so after another Autobahn fix, we were back to our old pattern. We were surrounded by nothing but the dark 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 lucky you might spot some exciting animals. A 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 modern times.
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 beer halls, 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 moisturizer make everything feel cosy.
It’s only when we left Augsburg that I realised 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 see the Wieskirche. It's a UNESCO heritage site that rose to prominence in the 18th century, after one of the statues in the monastery was thought to be crying. Hundreds of years later, people are still making religious pilgrimages to the Wieskirche.
The most magical stop of all comes 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 breathtaking Neuschwanstein Castle, perched high on the horizon. As I fixed my gaze upon it, I was instantly transported back to my childhood. It was an inspiration for Sleeping Beauty Castle at Florida’s Disneyland Park; finally, I had found the fairty-tale Germany that was painted in my imagination all those years ago.