The Volkswagen Transporter had everything that we were looking for in a hired vehicle – efficient, reliable and most importantly German made. It would have been a travesty to use a vehicle other than a legendary German automobile on German roads. All nine of us were about to start our tour of Germany’s famous Romantiche Strasse or the Romantic Road. We had grandiose visions of cruising along the Autobahn with no distracting speed controls in sight. Those of us who had inherited the romantic gene (and this included the men) were eager to explore the romance potential of Bavaria’s romantic road. The children, having heard stories about the mad king Ludwig were keen to see the famous Neuschwanstein castle, the inspiration behind Disney’s sleeping beauty castle in Disneyland.
Germany’s Autobahn is a network of highways of almost 11,000 kilometres that connect the country’s various cities. Renowned and envied the world over for having no speed restrictions, the reality is a little different. Certain stretches and especially the dangerous ones have speed limits as low as 100km per hour but largely Germany has done away with the speed restrictions. Though Hitler took credit for the Autobahn, in reality the third Reich only built a quarter of the entire Autobahn network with the plans and designs being made much prior to Hitler. The Autobahn being well marked with arrows on every road makes it virtually impossible to get confused or disoriented (lest you are used to driving on the left side of the road). Once on the Autobahn, it is difficult to gauge the speed that you are driving at and we easily cruised at speeds of 220 kms/hour. It is definitely a unique experience to drive (or be driven) on motorways free from jams and potholes alongside polite drivers who do not use their horns unnecessarily.
The Romantic Road is a themed route that runs through Germany’s Bavaria district and is one of Germany’s top tourist attractions. It starts from the city of Würzburg and continues till the town of Füssen, nestled at the foot of the Alps. The romantic road runs in parallel to the Autobahn and is a single way route through the Bavarian countryside. The road itself is not much to talk about but the medieval cobbled towns and villages that it connects gives the route its romantic flavour. Several of these towns have wine festivals and other pageantry going on in summer and traipsing through one delightful town after another, marvelling at the architecture, sampling the local culture and the heady Franconian wine is what the romantic experience is all about. Though the Romantiche Strasse is a much slower road than the Autobahn we still managed to visit a total of six unique towns and spent a night each in four of them.
The prettiest of all the towns on the route is the village of Rothenburg ob der Taube and it very much lives up to its reputation. Such is its appeal that it gives you the feeling of having walked into a custom made fairy tale set. The town is complete with vivid tumble down cottages and stores dedicated exclusively to teddy bears and everything related to Christmas. We took an evocative walking tour which started at night, where we were led by the quaintly dressed night watchman through the alleys of the town and who regaled us with the history of Rothenburg. The town of Dinklesbühl is another striking town with cottages in myriad shades of cheerful colour brightening up the streets and a beautiful serene church as one of the highlights. We just missed a wine festival in the tiny village of Lauda but were entranced to see an entire road lined up with colourful umbrellas, the significance of which was lost on us. We had a hearty conversation about Lauda in German with a German fellow who was keen to chat to us, a conversation I’m afraid to say neither side understood at all.
Before starting off we were a little worried about the cuisine that would be on offer in Bavaria. We need not have worried. Not only did the cuisine not disappoint but we were overjoyed to find out that even a simple pasta dish tasted so much better in Bavaria than any other part. May be the scenic surroundings had something to do with it. The potent Franconian wines were on offer everywhere which ensured that we continued our explorations of the romantic route in high spirits.
Our last stop was at the town of Füssen home to the famous castles of the mad king Ludwig. The king who has been described as a shy and imaginative dreamer took the throne when he was only eighteen. After Bavaria lost the battle to Prussia, the king lost the right to control his army. He was never the same after that. He started to live in a fantasy world and built castles and palaces to which he would retire isolated from the rest of the world. He started to sleep during the day and lived at night often travelling in full costume when he went out. The king went on building castles going further into debt until the banks threatened to seize all his property. It was then that the Government declared him insane. He was interned in a palace and soon after was found dead along with his psychiatrist (who had certified him insane). The cause of their death remains cloaked in mystery.
The Neuschwanstein castle is only one of the castles built by mad king Ludwig and the inspiration behind Disney’s sleeping beauty castle. It is considered one of the most romantic castles of all times and its location in the mountains further lends credence to this belief. It was the king’s intention to travel to the castle in a balloon. He preferred isolation to such an extent that in one his castles he built a lift in his dining room through which food could be transported thus avoiding contact with the servants. The castle also has a cave with coloured lights and an opening in the ceiling in one of rooms through which he could hear music from the singer’s halls. The castle was opened to public only seven weeks after he died. It is ironical that Ludwig’s castles where strangers were barred from visiting when he was alive now welcome tourists from all over the world and remain one of the main areas of revenue generation in Bavaria.
The Germans we met often expressed great delight to know that we had chosen Germany as a holiday destination. I suspect that the country does not get too many Indian tourists. In fact our hotel manager in Füssen told us that we were his first Indian customers and much to our amusement went on to pronounce each of our surnames accurately . I hope that we left behind a favourable impression for other Indian potential visitors.
There is no doubt about the romance potential of each of the villages that we visited and while the area has charm, the trip left me strangely dissatisfied. After all Germany, with her robust and complex history, is so much more than just pretty towns offering the idealic life. The Dachau concentration camp where Jews were interned during Nazi times was not far from Munich but we did not have time to visit it. This was my first visit to Germany and yet my curiosity had not been satiated. There is so much more to the country and I would like to go back and see the places that played such a significant part in history.
As Würzburg is closer to Frankfurt and Füssen is closer to Munich, you can either fly to Frankfurt and start your romantic journey from Würzburg continuing all the way up to Füssen and fly back from Munich or vice versa. Cars can be booked online and can be picked up from one airport and dropped off at the other. Hiring a car in Germany is hassle free. Coach tours of the romantic road are also available. The Romantiche Strasse is sign-posted in brown but it would be useful to keep a map of the route with you. The romantic route can be customised to include towns and cities that interest you so some research before you actually travel will be useful. You can either use the Romantiche Strasse to travel between these towns or use the Autobahn to travel between them faster. Most hotels keep an English menu along with a German one. Make sure that you ask for one in case you do not speak Deutsche.