Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Along the Romantic Road

Navtej Sarna

NAVTEJ SARNA recounts his drive past fairy tale castles

JUST an hour out of Munich, I fell prey to something that often tempts motorists on the white, majestic autobahns of West Germany: I turned off the autobahn into a more normal-paced motorway. The autobahn sped away, meanwhile, in wide sweeping gestures, carrying with it the smell of scorched tyres.

Our motorway soon become a single-lane road where overtaking was, for the most part, forbidden. Not that anybody could be bothered. We were on the renowned route of old-fashioned, languid traveling, Romanticshe Strasse, Romantic Road.

Writers of tourist pamphlets will label us as infidels. The Romantic Road is travelled downwards by the cognoscenti. From the old University town of Wurzberg which outlooks the river Main, down through the rolling green Tauber valley, the celebrated town of Rothenburg on the Tauber and a string of medieval pearls with their town halls, cobbled streets and limitless charms until you come to the Bavarian royal corner where stands Ludwig II’s famous fairy castle of Neuschwanstein – “ a Wagnerian dream turned to stone.” Beyond that lie the mighty Alps….

But we were doing it in the other direction. Inexperienced, perhaps, uncouth and unlettered in the ways of cultural travelling. Nevertheless, we slipped easily into the gentle pace of the Romantic Road and its idyllic treasures as they dozed in the gentle summer sun.

The Alpine landscape slips along with the silhouettes of the rocky castles of Ludwig as the road swings through the unspoilt towns of Landsberg and Friedberg and past Augsburg, the 2000-year-old town which boasts of the oldest stained glass and the largest open air theatre north of the Alps.

The old imperial town of Donanworth greeted us sleepily, confident of its thousand-year history. In the afternoon heat, we leaned over the bridge for a peek below. We could hardly believe that the gentle stream that flowed below was the lazy Danube. But then it all seemed a little beyond belief.

We always wanted to see a real castle. And, there was – silent, majestic – yet welcoming.

The castle of Harburg dominated the country below. And then there was the old, very old, town of Nordlingen with its old church in the centre of the town with its crumbing outer wall.

All around there were the gabled houses with the triangle fronts, red and yellow flowers bursting out if the windows. They say that Nordlingen started first as a Roman settlement….

One doesn’t drive fast on the Romantic Road. The sun was beginning to set and the twenty towers and gateways of Dinkelsbuhl formed historic silhouettes. There was music, and peace.

Everybody takes a long time to explore Rothenburg on the Tauber, easily the most famous of the towns on this route. This “Frankish Jerusalem” with its turrets and fortifications rises over the Tauber valley and houses a wealth of history in each picturesque tavern, square and street.

The market-place, the town hall, the house of the master-builder and the beautifully carved wrought iron shop signs take one back through the centuries to the times of legends and tales. Like the one about the Drinking Feat that took place during the Thirty Years war.

A certain General Tilly occupied the town in 1631, threatening to plunder its wealth and put the councillors to the sword. The wine-keeper toasted the general with a three and quarter litre tankard of heavy Franconian wine. The General promised the town a reprieve if any citizen drained the mighty tankard in a single go. An ex-mayor with the name of Nusch performed the deed in ten minutes, saved the town and then slept for three days. A gabled tavern celebrates the deed to this day.

Intoxicated, we drifted down the road. A wrong turn led us up a hill where it was all green and quiet and pretty. And then back on the route to the castle of Weikersham where it was too hot and sunny to walk through the baroque gardens, said to be among the finest in Germany, and through Bad Mergentheim from where once the Teutonic knights ruled. Now a famous curative spa is the attraction.

Reluctantly, it seemed, the road petered out before Wurzburg.

We turned the car back onto the autobahn, towards a big city with a huge airport, departmental stores and traffic lights. Away from the romance of a bygone world.