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Travel: The Romantic Road

Germany’s most popular holiday route lives up to its name



Some roads, by virtue of geography or history, deserve more than just a highway number. "Sea to Sky" is a natural for the stretch of British Columbia's Highway 99 from Vancouver to Whistler, and Californians can justly refer to Highway 49 as the "Gold Rush Trail." But the name "Romantic Road" is less obvious for a 355 km stretch of highway in southern Germany.

Back in the 1950s a group of tourist agents coined the name to describe a "theme route" between Wurzberg and Fussen. The name stuck and the Romantische Strasse has become by far the most popular and busiest holiday route in Germany. Its name is not meant to promote a destination for honeymoon couples but rather a reference to the charm of its picturesque medieval towns and the beauty of the Bavarian countryside. We decided to go have a look for ourselves.

At Wurzburg, the official start of the Romantic Road, we transferred from our ship on the Main River to a minivan and began our sample drive with a look around town. From Marienberg Fortress, high up on the west bank of the Main, we got a sweeping view of the city - from the bridges and docks on the river, across the maze of narrow streets in the "Altstadt" (Old City), to the perimeter road and the forest beyond. The Fortress was clearly located where its occupants could spot an enemy approaching by either land or water. It was begun in the year 1201 but the history of Wurzburg goes back even farther.

In the year 686 three Irish monks were murdered in Wurzburg while attempting, unsuccessfully, to convert the resident Duke to Christianity. But instead of dampening the ardor of the church the murders gave the victims the status of martyrs. They were later sainted and Wurzburg became a destination for Christian pilgrims. By 742 it was a full-fledged Christian bishopric and home to the all-powerful prince-bishops who ruled the city for the next thousand years.

For the first 500 years the prince-bishops lived atop the hill in Marienberg Fortress. Hunkering down behind its protective walls and scanning the landscape for approaching trouble was a prudent survival tactic but life in a cold, drafty castle was dreary at best and usually downright miserable. In the early 18 th century Prince-Bishop Johann Philipp Franz von Schonborn decided it was safe to move to more comfortable quarters and, in keeping with his exalted self-image, undertook to build one of the most opulent, ornately extravagant residences ever conceived.

Schonborn died before his new house was completely finished and suitably decorated. But his successors, with the help of numerous world-renowned architects and artists, and virtually unlimited money, carried on for another 24 years and in 1744 the "Residenz" and its surrounding gardens were completed in a style worthy of a Bishop. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Residenz is one of the finest baroque structures in Germany - a lavish symbol of the wealth and prestige of Wurzburg's ruling bishops.

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