The “Roads” of Europe

Part 4 – Germany’s “Romantic Road”

“Romantische Straße”

To most people, Germany’s “Romantic Road” is still a mystery . . . never heard of it. To those who have had the pleasure of travelling all or even part of it, this wonderful section of Europe stays with us for a long time. The culture, and culture shock, the history, art and architecture, the medieval villages, 2000 year old towns, fairy-tale castles and pastoral countryside, the delicious food and drink and wonderful people all add to the magic of this unforgettable area of Germany.

Rothenburg Street from Author Ian Kent

Rothenburg Street

The Romantic Road runs for 350 km (over 210 miles) from the Franconian city of Würzburg at the north end, to Füssen in the south, at the foot of the Alps. (right near King Ludwig’s fair-tale castle).

Before we carry on any further, let’s pause for a moment for a quick German lesson. I know, you really didn’t want a lesson just now, but it will help you understand some of the place names, how they got their names, etc., especially along the Romantic Road.

Bad means “bath”. This applies to “a room with a bath.” “ein zimmer mit bad” as well as natural hot springs and mud baths. If you look on a map of any German speaking country, you will see a lot of “bads”, and each time you see the word “bad” connected with a place. It usually means there is a natural hot springs around, that’s how it got its name.

Berg comes from “mountain”, yet Burg means “castle”. You’ll see a lot of cities and towns called . . . burg, or . . . berg. Like the Rothenburg mentioned above. This means the red castle (rot is “red”).  As you can imagine, there ended up being more than one village or town with the same name, so they started to distinguish one from the other by adding something distinctive about that village to its name. Thus “Rothenburg” became “Rothenburg ob der Tauber” or Rothenburg on or over the Tauber River (literally it means “the red castle above the Tauber River” as Rothenburg is situated on a hill just above the Tauber River running in the valley below). Similarly, you will see names like Würzburg, Augsburg, Nürnburg, Harburg and many more, all relating to the castles or walled villages of years past.

Many visitors land in Germany at the Frankfurt airport.  Upon arrival, they might see signs saying “Frankfurt Main”.  Most think this means the main Frankfurt airport.  Try again . . . it means Frankfurt am Main, or Frankfurt on the Main River, to distinguish it from another Frankfurt up in northern Germany.  Main, by the way, is pronounced “mine”, not “mane”.

Before I get carried away with German lessons, I want to emphasize that I am not a German speaker, but I’m fascinated by languages and how they are structured and how they evolve and grow.  I have learned a few tricks over the years, little facts which make it fun to consider when you look at the name of the towns or villages you travel through, especially if you have studied a detailed map to prepare for your trip.

We have been fortunate enough to have travelled the Romantic Road several times, both by bus and driving it.  Our first exposure to Germany’s Romantic Road was many years ago when Diana and I took our first trip to Europe, and were using a Eurail Pass for much of our travel.  The Rail pass covered the cost of the KD Ferries on the Rhine, then also covered a bus trip from Heidelberg to Rothenburg on Germany’s Castle Road.  This same bus continued south along the Romantic Road all the way to Fussen, and I think does this route every day.  This allows a person to get off somewhere to explore and stay for a night or two, and to carry on with the bus the next time it comes through.  I am assuming they operate the same way today.            

So Rothenburg was our first experience with the Romantic Road.  The tour bus that had driven us from Heidelberg that day, dropped us off at the entrance gate to the city of Rothenburg.  Rothenburg is a walled city, and the tour buses cannot enter the city.  I’m not sure if that is just during the day, or if they can’t fit through the city gates, large arched openings in the stone wall.

Gasthof Greifen listing from author Ian Kent

Gasthof Greifen listing

In any case, there we were, dragging our suitcases along the narrow cobblestone streets, through the openings in the wall, heading into the town.  Before long, we arrived at the main square in the centre of town, and we paused to take it all in.

Your first look at Rothenburg is breath-taking.  You are surrounded by cute, picturesque, fairy-tale like buildings.  Narrow, cobblestone streets, half-timbered houses with red tiled roofs and ancient looking wrought iron signs and classic old windows and doors.  We had read that this town was Germany’s best preserved medieval city.  Some of these buildings dated back a thousand years or more.

Once again, I pulled out an accommodation listing I had in my pack, and tried to figure out where exactly we were.

Bratwurst anyone? from Author Ian Kent

Bratwurst anyone?

Once we got our bearings, we discovered we were close to an old building called ‘Gasthof Greifen.  The location was correct, but we could not see any sign.  We discovered later that their fancy wrought iron sign was ‘in the shop’ for repairs or repainting.

Gasthof Greifen sign with the main square visible from Author Ian Kent

Gasthof Greifen sign with the main square visible

I found the large front door, with a tiny nameplate and a doorbell button, so I pushed the button.  I was not familiar with the European/German protocol, but I thought this should work.  There was another small sign beside the door which read ‘Ruhetag’.  I didn’t know what that meant, but I thought it might mean ‘ring for service’, so I kept ringing the bell and eventually a lady came to the door.  Luckily, she spoke English, so I asked if she had a room vacant for two weary Canadian travellers.  She did, and was very gracious as she showed us into this very old house, up some stairs to a lovely room, overlooking the street below. She tried to explain that the restaurant part of the guesthouse would not be open today because it was ‘Ruhetag’.  This means ‘rest day’, and it is common in most German speaking countries to have a rest day once a week, so they advertise which day either on their front door, or these days on their website.

Apparently, this guest house/hotel dated back to the 1400’s, when it was the mayor’s house.  It had been ‘renovated’ in the 1700’s, and was currently undergoing more renovations and updating.  It was a wonder of ancient architecture, huge wooden ceiling beams, sagging from centuries of bearing the weight of the upper floors of thickly sawn planks.  The door frames were built for smaller people, and I almost had to bend over a little to enter our room.  We have been lucky every time we’ve stayed there, as we’ve always had a room overlooking the street, and we could also see what was going on in the main square.            

Another interesting German lesson: the address of this guest house was ‘Obere Schmiedgasse 5’.  You’ve learned the word for street (strasse),but gasse means a lane, and Schmiedgasse means ‘smithy lane’, most likely named when the local blacksmith worked there.  So “Number 5, Upper Smithy Lane” becomes our address.   Ahhhh, the things you learn when you travel!

Stairs up to walk around the top of the wall from Author Ian Kent

Stairs up to walk around the top of the wall

I will not go into detail about our stay there, other than saying it was an absolute delight!  Rothenburg has so much to offer, from walks around the top of the city walls, a year-round Christmas store (Käthe Wohlfahrt, described in a previous travel tale), a Medieval Crime and Torture museum, and a woodcarving of the “Holy Blood Alter”  in St. Jakobs Church, from the late 1400’s.  This carving is an incredible piece of work, done by one of the most famous and skilled wood carvers in history, Tilman Riemenschneider.

Holy Blood Alter carving from Author Ian Kent

Holy Blood Alter carving

As I said earlier, we have returned to Rothenburg and the Romantic Road several times, both with friends and one time with my sister Helen who still talks about the wonders of this old medieval city.  During one trip, there was a large festival of some kind going on, with horse and carriage processions, and a beautiful young lady with a huge glass of wine in her hand.  I guessed she was the festival Queen, or some other special celebrity.

I will not go on about the entire road as there is more than enough material to write many stories, even an entire book (I think several books have been written about this road), but I will tell a little story about one occasion when were travelling with friends, drivng down the Romantic Road.  As usual, I had done a little research, and hours of pouring over detailed maps of the area, and just off to the side of the road, just north of the walled city of Dinklesbuhl, I found the little village of Hellenbach.

Hellenbach from Author Ian Kent

Hellenbach

So, of course, as we drove south along this road, I watched for the signs, and eventually turned off on a small side road.  Not far in, we came across a sign welcoming us into the village of Hellenbach.  Of course, we all had to get out of the car and have our photo taken, just to prove that we had been to Hellenbach!  That was funny enough, and we had a lot of laughs showing this photo to family and friends at home, but when we showed it to our German speaking neighbour, she said “Oh, they have rabies in that town?”  Apparently, the little red notice on the post below our ‘Hellenbach sign’, says “Tolwut!, Gefährdeter Bezirk” which translates as “Rabies! Endangered Area”.  Wow!  Who knew?  From that, we’ve had a lot of additional laughs when telling the story of our little excursion to Hellenbach! 

The blessings, or dangers of not knowing the language!

Click here to read part 1 – Fairy Tale Road

Click here to read part 2 – Castle Road

Click here to read part 3 – Wine Road


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