Beautiful Bavaria and the Romantic Road

Itinerary: 

  • Day 1: Cologne
  • Days 2-6: Romantic Road- Frankfurt, Rothenburg, Nordlingen, Augsburg, Fussen
  • Days 7-9: Munich
  • Days 10-13: Berlin and Potsdam

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: June 11-23, 2014

Our Odyssey: 

Our week in the Bavaria region of Germany has been an indulgence of the senses- the feel of wind on my face driving in our rented VW Golf convertible, the taste of beer, the spectacular views of the countryside near the Alps, the raucous of singing voices and clanging steins in beer halls, the powerful screams of celebration when Germany scores a goal in the World Cup, and the smell of hearty German meals. The beauty, beer and bratwurst that comprised the bulk of our road trip from Frankfurt south to Munich made this a particularly wonderful part of our journey.

We started our time in Germany with a quick one night stop-over in Cologne, which is actually a few hours north of the state of Bavaria. I mentioned in my previous post this city is actually spelled Koln in German. In case you were still wondering why this is, the English words for German places are generally derived from the Latin nomenclature for the region. For example, when the Romans occupied Cologne, they called it Colonia. While we didn’t spend much time in this city, we saw some of the highlights during our one evening there just walking around. Cologne is famous for its cathedral, which is the largest in Northern Europe. Building of the cathedral started in 1248 but was halted in 1473. Work did not begin again until the 19th century and was completed in 1880. It is also, apparently, Germany’s most-visited landmark.

The next day we took a train to the Frankfurt airport, where we picked up a rental car we had reserved. Somehow we got upgraded from a little Chevrolet Spark that had no air conditioning to a VW Golf convertible, which we were quite excited about. We think the upgrade was due to Tim and the clerks friendly exchange and shared love for Porsche’s, Germany’s own high end sports car made in Stuttgart. We then drove to our hotel in Frankfurt and after settling in, walked to the historical city center, Romerberg. The square is about as cute as you would imagine a medieval Bavarian city center to be, and I was surprised to learn that most of the original buildings were destroyed in bombings during WWII and have since been rebuilt in their original styles. The nearby cathedral, or Dom, is also significant as it was the site of coronations of the German kings from 1352 onwards and later of the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire.

After our stroll through a few other churches and squares, we used Tim’s offline TripAdvisor app on his phone to start a self-guided tour pertaining to the famous 18th century author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whom I had studied a lot in school as part of my German literature specialization. Goethe was born in Frankfurt and some of the sites you can see in the city are his childhood home and a statue in one of the main squares (which was particularly difficult to find, but we did!).

At this point we were hungry so we decided to treat ourselves to a meal at a historical tower that we just stumbled upon called the Eschenheimer Turm. The tower appears to be the quintessential medieval tower. It also looks very new, and Tim and I assumed it was damaged and later restored at some point. In actuality, however, the tower was part of the original city fortifications from the 15th century and remains one of the oldest and most unaltered buildings in an area that was largely reconstructed after the war.

We had heard that Frankfurt was famous for its apfelwein, or apple cider, so we ordered some to split with dinner. It is definitely an acquired taste as it is quite tart, but it was pretty cheap and worth trying.

The next day we commenced our great Bavarian road trip along the “Romantic Road” by heading south to Wurzburg Residenz, or palace. The building of this palace was requested by the Prince-Bishop of the city Johann Philipp Franz von Schönborn and his brother Friedrich Carl von Schönborn in 1720, and completed in 1744. The interior of this palace was the most beautiful Tim and I had seen yet in terms of decoration and color. The grand staircase at the entryway is large and dramatic, and its ceiling is a grand fresco painting representing each of the four recognized continents at that time. What was most unique about each of the rooms was the impressive use of stucco (plaster) to decorate the walls. There are several areas on the ceilings and walls where it looks like a fabric is draped across it, but in actuality it is the expert craftsmanship that went into the stucco work in these rooms.

After our tour of the palace, we hit the road again, top down, to make our way to Rothenburg, perhaps the most picturesque medieval German town in Bavaria. The town is very well preserved and visiting it is like going back in time. We took a walking tour with the night watchman, who, historically, would be the one responsible for walking the city at night to protect it from fires or enemies, but now is a tour guide. If you are interested, you can find videos on YouTube of this tour, which was very fascinating about the way of life and history of this city. One of the most interesting pieces of information is that the city was actually saved from bombing during WWII by the command of an American general who knew of the beauty of the city from stories his mother, who had visited there once, would tell as a boy. For this reason he orchestrated a peaceful entry into the city and as a result the city remains in its original form today.

After the tour, we set out on a walk along the ramparts of the town wall, but got distracted a few minutes into our walk by the sound of music and loud voices. Following the noise, we stumbled upon a festival and a beer garden where a band was playing a mix of both modern pop and rock music as well as what we assumed was more traditional German folk music. Beer was flowing into half liter steins and Tim and I were more than excited to join the party. It ended up being a really fun night and we didn’t get back to our hotel until after midnight.

The next morning, we finished our walk around the wall of the city and also stopped by the Christmas Museum and shop. Rather than paying to go into the museum, we browsed the shop which was actually pretty fun even though neither Tim nor I are much into knick knacks or over-the-top decorations. I recommend the museum’s website to learn more about the history of Christmas celebrations- it is actually an interesting read!

After a little bit more walking around and checking out some of the scenic views into the Tauber Valley, over which Rothenburg is situated, we got back on the road and made our way to Nordlingen, stopping in Dinkelsbuhl, a smaller town with a look and feel similar to Rothenburg, for lunch on the way. Nordlingen is an interesting town because it was built in Ries Basin, a 25km crater that was formed 15 million years ago. This gives the region an interesting landscape, and one that is different from other craters we’ve seen in the past. Rather than being barren and distinct, the rim of this crater is more subtle at this point as towns and fields have been built throughout it.

While in Nordlingen we stopped at the Rieskrater Museum, which focuses on the history of the crater in which Nordlingen lies as well as craters and meteors in general. Unfortunately, all of the exhibits are in German so we didn’t get as much information out of the visit as we typically would have, but several of the exhibits were still quite educational and informative. After our visit here we climbed most of the way up the tower, which locals call “Daniel”, of the cathedral St Georgskirche to get some views of the city from above.

Upon leaving Nordlingen, we stopped in the small town of Harburg to visit the Harburg castle, which resembles a small village – in fact, it is one of the largest and oldest castles in southern Germany. The castle dates from the 11th century and was the property of the Staufer royal family initially, although was eventually given to the Oettingen family where it remained for 700 years. On the guided tour we were able to see the church and then walk along the wall of the property, visiting the towers, prisons and dining room, and a few other rooms as well. I would have liked to have been able to explore more independently, but all in all it was interesting to walk around this ancient castle.

Our next stop was Augsberg, the largest town on our route. We found this stop to be a lot less charming that the others, but while walking around we stumbled upon the cathedral which was actually quite cool. Many cathedrals you see in Europe are similar and it is easy to stop appreciating the beauty of the architecture and space when you have seen so many, but this one, dating from the 10th century, had some unique features. In particular, the stained glass, dating from the 11th century, is the oldest in Germany, and some experts say the world as well. Most ancient cathedrals I have seen have been restored or repaired so much that they no longer keep that feel or aura of their age, but this one was dripping with history- from the mausoleum with worn headstones and plaques, to the peeling fresco paintings revealing even older paintings beneath them.

The next morning we got up very early to get to the Neuschwanstein Castle before the crowds. This castle is the one the Disney castle is modeled after and looks more like the fairy tale image of a castle than any other we visited. The castle is relatively new, dating from the 19th century. King Ludwig II built the castle as a home where he could get away from the town and it sits on the top of a hill overlooking a lake and the Alps. The setting is absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately, Ludwig II was not so great at money management and his building endeavors far exceeded his budget and he went into debt. Having been ignoring matters of the state, he was deemed insane and unfit to rule, and was escorted from his castle fewer than 200 days after moving in. A few days later, Ludwig II and one of the doctors were found drowned in a river in suspicious circumstances. A few weeks after his death, his castle was opened as a museum. The rooms of the castle are inspired by operas written by Ludwig II’s friend Richard Wagner, and the paintings on the walls and the tapestries portray different scenes from the operas. The decorations are also very extravagant, yet there are signs throughout of how the castle was never completed. For example, his elaborate throne room has no throne, and the site where he intended to build a bath tub is now a staircase for tourists to use. Visiting this castle is actually bittersweet- it is easy to admire the beauty of it, but the beauty of it is what led the king into debt and eventually to be deemed insane.

That evening we stayed in the town of Fussen nearby. We walked around the town during the afternoon and enjoyed a brief hike to some man-made waterfalls along the river. We also got a true German dinner- Tim got meatloaf and roasted potatoes, and I got pork loins with cabbage and a potato cake, and we both had a few beers. After dinner we went to a World Cup viewing party that was showcasing the German game that evening, where we had a few more beers, met some locals as well as some other tourists, and ended up with German flag face paint on our cheeks. It was a fun, celebratory night, especially since Germany won the game and the whole town came alive with excitement.

The next day, our last day of our road trip, we started heading to Munich, where we were to return our rental car. On the way, we stopped at Wieskirch, a pilgrimage church dating from the 1740s. The church was built as a shrine to house a statue of Jesus that was believed to have miraculous powers. The story of this statue begins when it was initially built from scrap materials for a festival. Afterwards, being a rather ugly and dingy statue, it ceased to be used. One couple, however, would pray to it in their evening prayers, and they said that one night the status appeared to be crying. The story spread quickly and soon people were coming from all over Europe to see this statue. The initial shrine that was built, which is about the size of a small walk-in closet, was quickly overwhelmed by the number of visitors, and so the larger church was built. The rather bland outside is a stark contrast to the explosion of decoration inside the church. Decorated in the rococo style, the inside is an array of beautiful stucco and fresco painting works.

A few hours later we arrived at our hotel in Munich, and decided that evening to go check out a popular beer hall in town, Hofbrauhaus. This place, albeit a bit touristy, was awesome! If you have been to the Fest Haus in Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Virginia, or the Essen Haus in Madison, Wisconsin, then you have an idea of the type of fun this place can be. Decorated with fresco paintings and filled with lines of benches and wooden tables, Hofbrauhaus is the home of a famous German brewery. They serve good food, good beer, and the place is loud with the sound of a traditional Bavarian band playing and the sound of clinking jars of beers and people cheering. The entire vibe is very celebratory and exciting.

The next day we went on a walking tour of the city and got to learn some very interesting bits of Munich history. The tour started in Marienplatz, the main square of the city. The old town hall has a glockenspiel on it that, three times a day, plays a song while characters move about on a turning wheel telling a story. The first level is a marriage celebration of a royal couple. They sit at a table while others dance around them and a Bavarian and an Austrian knight engage in a joust. The Bavarian knight wins, of course. The second scene is of people dancing, and the story behind this dates back to the plague in Germany. Once the plague was over, people were still too fearful to go outside and go to the markets and socialize, so the king ordered a handful of his men to go outside and dance in the square, to encourage everyone else to come outside and revitalize their city again. The scheme worked and the celebration of the end of the plague is commemorated on this musical clock tower.

Another stop on the tour was to Frauenkirche, a church that, allegedly, the devil built. The legend goes that when the church was being built, the devil was outraged, and swooped in to try to stop it. When he arrived in the church it was rather dark and he did not see any windows. He thought to himself that he quite liked this church and may want to live there in the darkness. He summoned the architect over and made a deal to pay for the rest of the building of the church so long as no more windows are built. The architect agreed and the devil swooped out. Upon completion of the cathedral 20 years later, the devil returned to see how it turned out. He was appalled to see light streaming in, but couldn’t see any windows. He moved around the cathedral and then saw that there were indeed windows lining the cathedral, only they could not be seen from the entrance due to the architecture of the building. Outraged, he called the architect over, and asked him why he went back on their deal. The architect told him those windows had been there all along, and that he had kept his word not to build anymore. The devil, realizing he had been tricked, slammed his foot into the floor and left. The footprint is still visible in the church today.

The tour also took us by the old royal residence Alter Hof, where the royal family lived from 1255 to the 1400s, as well as the newer royal palace. One of our last stops was to a unique WWII memorial- it is simply a line of gold paint along a side street. The story behind this memorial is rooted in the history of the street itself. It sits one block away from where a Nazi monument stood during the regime, and it was required that whenever someone walked by the Nazi monument, they must salute to Hitler. The monument was monitored constantly to ensure people complied. Germans resistant to the Nazi government would duck off on this side street to avoid having to walk by that monument and salute something they disagreed with. Eventually the Nazis found out about this and began monitoring the side street as well, punishing those who turned onto it without an approved reason. To memorialize the bravery of those in the German resistance, this golden line in the ground reminds us about this protest to the Nazi regime.

We ended our day with a walk through the Englischer Gardens, a huge public park with a lake, a few beer gardens, and spots where people actually surf in the river. It was a pleasant but long walk, and afterwards we went back to Hofbrauhaus for their delicious cheese plate and sausages before heading to bed shortly after.

Today we leave Munich and Bavaria for Berlin, where we will dive into more WWII history. I am sure much of what we will encounter will be an overwhelming of our senses, and especially our emotions. I am grateful to have had this past week in Germany, highlighting the beauty of the country and the culture, especially considering how in grade school we primarily learn about Germany as the bad guys of the world wars. Experiencing the culture in a more complete light, and with its broader history in mind, Tim and I both appreciate the celebratory attitude of the German people, the quaint medieval towns and the grand castles from the 10th century to the 18th. With these experiences and new knowledge, we are eager to soak in the rich and complex history and culture we will discover in Berlin.

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