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Cycling the Romantic Road

Neil and Judith Forsyth share the art, architecture and larger-than-life characters of one of the oldest tourist routes in the world, the Romantic Road through Bavaria in southern Germany, from the River Main to the Alps.

The Romantic Road began in 1900 as German Tourist Route One. After the World War II, the Mayors of Würzburg, Rothenburg, Augsburg and Füssen met to discuss what they could do to renew their shattered communities and give their citizens hope of a future. They agreed that this route would help promote the fairytale side of Germany but the original nationalistic name had to go so it became ‘The Romantic Road’ in January 1950. (A fortunate choice: one of the other names suggested was ‘The Road for Loving Couples’!) Originally the route was designed for cars and coaches but with the boom in cycle tourism in Germany in the 1980s and 90s came the Romantic Road cycle route.

So today we have an excellent 460km-long waymarked network of designated cycleways, sections of quiet country road and mostly good tracks through field and forest from Würzburg in the north to Füssen in the south. As it goes it passes through pleasant countryside and connects a string of historic towns and cities, many of them not really well known outside the Provinces of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria.

Naturally, you can cycle the route in either direction. We prefer to cycle from north to south, because of the first views of the Alps after Landsberg am Lech. The cycle route climbs valleys alongside rivers like the Tauber, a tributary of the Rhine and occasionally cuts sharply across hills and escarpments, leaving you with tantalising views of the Alps at the southern end. It is also easy in summer especially to reach Würzburg from Frankfurt or Munich international airports. During the summer months a coach, which can carry some bicycles, travels through many of the 28 settlements along the Romantic Road, giving you lots of flexibility in how much of the route you tackle at a time. Modern-day travellers discovering Bavaria at a leisurely pace may have much in common with some of the earliest travellers on this ancient trade route but whatever the weather your journey and accommodation will be much more comfortable.

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The clock tower of Bad Mergentheim

Once you start to explore Germany relatively slowly by bike, you will become aware of amazing art, paintings and sculptures, often in cathedrals but also in tiny churches, and meet a range of striking historical characters.

As we cycled slowly through Würzburg, dodging the tramlines and shoppers, we were drawn by signs to the Residenz, the old Bishop’s Palace. Like the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal this was one of the places not to miss. There we encountered first Balthasar Neumann, born in 1687, who developed engineering skills in the army and went on to become a builder of churches and palaces. By the time he arrived in Würzburg bishops had already been declared Electors and thus controlled both civic and religious life. With an apparently unlimited budget Neumann gathered the best artists like Giovanni Tiepolo, an Italian painter of frescos. The sheer size of the Residenz, and the intricate carving and paintings set the scene for other works of art we would see in Rothenburg ob der Tauber and in many churches we visited between here and Füssen. As we left Würzburg over the River Main bridge, our next view south took in the huge hilltop fortress of the Marienberg, and to the north in the city was the cathedral of St Kilian. This building is on the site where Irish three monks were martyred in the 7th century on their way back from a pilgrimage to Rome. Most of the present cathedral was rebuilt after WWII bombing.

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The picturesque square of Feuchtwangen

We were heading for the Tauber River, upstream of its confluence with the Main and across some short steepish hills on quiet roads. We enjoyed whizzing downhill into rural landscapes with small vineyards and orchards with gnarled apple trees, through the small towns of Tauberbischofsheim, now more known for its Centre of Excellence for Fencing than its Bishop’s Palace, then Bad Mergentheim closely linked to the Order of Teutonic Knights and a terrible slaughter of ‘witches’ in the Middle Ages.

Celtic farmers first cleared woodland, then the Romans came bringing vines and establishing their Villa Rusticas before the next wave of incomers arrived. They might have been Vikings, who habitually used the Rhine and its tributaries to make deep incursions into present-day Germany. Next came monks and pilgrims, spreading Christianity and bringing news. As they founded their monasteries and schools, they kept records about herbs, plants, animals, distilling and wine growing.

For our evening meal in tiny Weikersheim, with its delightful Schloß we were grateful to tuck into Grünkern burgers and sip a Schwarzriesling wine, produced only around here. Although the history of the European continent and the UK have many parallels, including plague and the Black Death, Europe certainly went in for famines and wars to a much greater extent. Every village has its stories of destruction or salvation, that of Grünkern dates to a famine when villagers discovered they could eat unripe grain from the cereal known as spelt without any ill effects.

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Dinkelsbühl – Bavarian countryside at its prettiest

Upstream the Tauber valley narrows and the towers of Rothenburg ob der Tauber comes into view. Large half-timbered buildings line the streets, with archways opening into courtyards, and horse-drawn wagons rattle over the cobbles. People from every corner of the earth, with languages to match, throng the narrow streets. We tried to get a good view of the Meistertrunk scene, the figures moving around the clock in front of the Rathaus (Town Hall) illustrating the story of Georg Nusch who saved the city and its people by drinking at one swallow a six pint tankard of wine. (Don’t try this at home.)

At this point in our trip, the temperatures had climbed, reaching 30°C after lunch. As we reached delightful Dinkelsbühl and Feuchtwangen and crossed the invisible lines of European watershed, separating water flowing to the North Sea from that flowing to the Black Sea, the 49th Parallel and the Limes, a Roman defensive wall similar to Hadrian’s Wall between England and Scotland, our priorities began to change. How soon each morning could we eat breakfast? Where were the next drinking water fountains or cafés selling Radler/shandy or Spezi, a Cola/lemonade mix? Where were the shady woods and how could we avoid the dust created by the combine harvesters?

We dropped down into Nördlingen just off centre in its 25km wide meteorite crater, the Ries, through the steep edges of the melted rocks of 15 million years ago. Apart from the original limestones and sandstones, this was the oldest landscape feature we would encounter before reaching the Alps. Nördlingen, too, has idiosyncratic features, with its tower named Daniel, in the church of St George, occupied by a human watcher and a calico cat. The cat deters pigeons and is paid in cat food. Nördlingen has had a 10-day fair at Whitsuntide since 1219. In the old days such fairs were places where goods were exchanged, news passed on, inventions viewed and later copied and probably the gene pool was improved by fruitful liaisons. Market halls were built, innkeepers profited and some funds salted away for rainy days.

Fortunately for cyclists, the River Wörnitz has cut a route through the southern crater edge where the enormous Harburg castle stands. We followed the Wörnitz alongside water meadows, spotting our first hilltop, onion-domed churches. Around Rothenburg the cultivation changes from vines to hops. Here there are numerous breweries producing light and dark beers, which we tasted in the evenings.

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Rothenburg, loading the Romantic Road Coach

Onwards to the south, we crossed the Danube in Donauwörth, a busy but pretty little town. Here touring cyclists congregate in every bar and cake shop, because the Via Claudia Augusta route over the Alps, the Romantic Road and the long and beautiful Danube Cycle Route meet here.

Until we reached Füssen our route was to be intimately linked with the River Lech, which rises in the Alps near Füssen and flows northwards into the Danube in Rain, a village just to the east of Donauwörth. Graf Tilly, the leader of the Catholic forces in the Thirty Years War, was wounded by a cannonball in Rain in 1632 and died a few days later.

A few kilometres further on, we passed the too-realistic crucifixion scene in front of the parish church in Biberach and crossed over the River Lech to follow a long green river corridor into the centre of Augsburg.

We were impressed by all the churches, especially those where Catholic churches shared sites with Protestant churches, as in Feuchtwangen. There is an especially fine example in Augsburg too at the southern end of Maximilianstraße, the RC Basilica of St Ulrich and Afra and the protestant St Ulrich. Augsburg’s other important historical connection concerns Martin Luther and Cardinal Cajetan who met in Jacob Fugger’s mansion in 1518 to discuss Luther’s rejection of certain Catholic practices. Luther lost the argument then and was lucky to escape the city. He was exonerated in 1530 and by 1555 the Peace of Augsburg, allowed Protestants to worship freely in the city: in view of today’s widespread religious intolerance, a most remarkable turnaround.


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We left Augsburg and climbed to Friedberg with its fine town centre, then returned into the Lech Valley past a series of dams and reservoirs through the Lechfeld Woods, an important leisure area for Augsburg’s inhabitants.

Augsburg is the third biggest city in Bavaria with 265,000 inhabitants, founded in 15BC by Caesar Augustus. In the 16th century Augsburg was the richest town in the world, because of two families, the Welser and the Fuggers. The Welser were traders who sent ships to the Americas. The Fuggers were weavers and later bankers to royalty, the nobility and the church. Jakob Fugger, called Jakob the Rich (who was probably worth more than Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and the Queen put together) founded the oldest social settlement in the world, the Fuggerei. We visited this town within the city with its own church and school, 53 houses with 106 four room apartments with rents of only 88 cents annually. Tenants must be Catholic, born in Augsburg, poor, married and have a good reputation and home by 10pm. If not they have to pay a fine of 50 cents.

We were impressed by all the churches, especially those where Catholic churches shared sites with Protestant churches, as in Feuchtwangen. There is an especially fine example in Augsburg too at the southern end of Maximilianstraße, the RC Basilica of St Ulrich and Afra and the protestant St Ulrich. Augsburg’s other important historical connection concerns Martin Luther and Cardinal Cajetan who met in Jacob Fugger’s mansion in 1518 to discuss Luther’s rejection of certain Catholic practices. Luther lost the argument then and was lucky to escape the city. He was exonerated in 1530 and by 1555 the Peace of Augsburg, allowed Protestants to worship freely in the city: in view of today’s widespread religious intolerance, a most remarkable turnaround.

We left Augsburg and climbed to Friedberg with its fine town centre, then returned into the Lech Valley past a series of dams and reservoirs through the Lechfeld Woods, an important leisure area for Augsburg’s inhabitants.

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Rothenburg Kobolzeller Gate

At weekends the woods are full of cyclists. Older cyclists seem to experiment to see how slowly they can move without falling off and the young want a real work out, so they cycle much, much too fast.

Next we climbed gently to Landsberg with its historic town centre: the Dripping Tower on the Marktplatz formerly used by market traders to keep their tubs of butter and dripping cool. The facades on the buildings on the Marktplatz were laid out by Dominikus Zimmermann around 1716. They look as though he gave his kids a cardboard box and scissors with instructions to make a skyline.

Landsberg has a darker side. Hitler was imprisoned here in 1923-24 and wrote Mein Kampf. At the end of WWII as Allied Forces approached, concentration camp prisoners nearby were marched back to Dachau, close to Munich. Many of these weakened and starving slaves died or were executed on route. The town also has connections with American popular music: Tony Bennett helped take the town in 1945 as an infantryman and was part of the occupying forces afterwards. Johnny Cash was a sergeant in the USAF here in the early 1950s.

We left Germany’s sadder history behind and cycled into Hohenfurch in Pfaffenwinkel. ‘Curate’s corner’ might be a way to translate Pfaffenwinkel, a corner of Bavaria stuffed with small picturesque towns, Roman remains, gentle hills and meadows occupied by pale cows, and with a baroque masterpiece of a church around every corner. It is a great place for an active holiday with cycle routes and footpaths and cross country skiing in winter. Walkers can reach the village along the Lech Höhenweg from Landsberg to Füssen,part of the Romantic Road long-distance walking route. Soon after we saw the Alps for the first time, still distantly blue but showing that the end of our journey was close.

Next came the highest point on the Romantic Road – the Wieskirche (870m), a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The story dates from a crucifix given by Steingaden monks to an innkeeper’s wife, which in 1738 began to weep. So many pilgrims came afterwards that the monks commissioned the Zimmerman Brothers to build a new church to house the statue, now part of the high altar. The plain exterior hides an interior showing Christ’s resurrection. It is completely over the top, but well worth visiting.

We dropped into Halblech and cycled around and over a moraine-filled landscape. A distraction from the hard pedalling was the view of the Alps and that white thing up on our left – Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein Castle.

Finally, we reached Füssen (808m), best known as the city of the Royal Bavarian castles: Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein. To be pernickety, the castles are actually in neighbouring Schwangau, but the railway station is in Füssen, where most early visitors arrived. Thousands of tourists stay in Füssen just to visit those two castles but the city has much to offer, with a long and convoluted history that began before the Romans. We found that the old walled town with its painted houses, castle, narrow alleyways and wide streets was a good place to unwind, order a Dunkel-Bier and try to digest all we had seen along the Romantic Road.

For more information check out the Romantic Road website.

Map of  Germany
Forsyth Judith

Judith Forsyth

Judith Forsyth (née Instone) was born in Worsley, Manchester in 1942. After university she taught geography for over 20 years at Manchester High School for Girls. Judith took an active part in the life of the school organising field trips and expeditions, and enjoyed a sabbatical six month long stay in India. She left to marry and moved to Germany. Once there, she lectured at an American university and was a freelance editor for a scientific publisher. A keen hillwalker and cyclist she enjoys the German way of life especially touring by bike and on foot through the country and its neighbours.

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Forsyth Neil

Neil Forsyth

Judith and Neil Forsyth are both Lancastrians, born in the early 1940s and learned to cycle at an early age. Their bicycles were much used, until they stopped cycling in their 20s.

Judith worked as a teacher for 20 years before moving to Germany to marry Neil. He left Britain some years earlier to work for a German engineering company. He was reintroduced to cycling by colleagues at weekends. Once in Germany she too, learned the delights of continental cycling. Together they explored much of southern Germany, eastern France and Switzerland by bicycle. They gained a reputation for British eccentricity with their neighbours by Alpine cycling on Brompton folding bikes. They are both very fond of Switzerland, especially its superbly laid out and signposted cycle routes.

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