The Beautiful Romantische Strasse in Germany

I was in a rush to get to Eibergen, Netherlands by September 13.  I had nine days to explore the Romantische Strasse (a scenic route through quaint towns beginning in Fussen in the south and ending in Wurzburg in the center of Germamy), then make my way to western Germany and north to the Netherlands.  In the west of Germany, I wanted to see Strassbourg, the section of the Rhine north of Bingen, Bonn, Cologne, and Dusseldorf, before heading to visit my friends in eastern Netherlands.

September 4. Anne had choir practice and left the house early, and her son Robin had his headphones on and was busy playing a video game, so I left without being able to say goodbye.  I loaded my car which was now full to bursting and headed back to Augsburg. As I hadn’t managed to catch it open the day before, I headed back to St. Anne’s Church to see the excellent exhibit on Martin Luther’s refusal to recant his criticism of the catholic church. St. Anne’s was built in 1321 by Carmelite monks. In 1518 Martin Luther stayed with the Carmelite friars when he was in Augsburg to meet the papal legate, Cardinal Cajetan, who wanted Luther to submit to the pope. The church converted to Lutheranism in 1545.  The church ceiling is decorated with Baroque and Rococo stucco work, with frescoes by Johann Georg Bergmüller. The Goldsmith’s Chapel (Goldschmiedkapelle) was donated in 1420 by Conrad and Afra Hirn. I was particularly interested in the burial chapel of the Fuggers, which is the earliest example of Renaissance architecture in Germany. It was endowed in 1509 by Ulrich and Jakob Fugger. Among the features are a marble pavement, an organ with painted shutters, stained glass, choir stalls, a sculptural group of the Lamentation of Christ, and memorial relief tablets in the style of Dürer.

I left the church and walked five minutes to the Town Hall of Augsburg (German: Augsburger Rathaus).  It is considered one of the most significant secular buildings of the Renaissance style north of the Alps and was designed and built by Elias Holl, Stadtbaumeister (Master Builder of the town), in 1615–1624.  The original Augsburger Rathaus was built in 1385, and it was decided at the beginning of the seventeenth century to renovate it to accommodate the Imperial Reichstag. In 1609, the town council commissioned the renowned architect, Elias Holl, to draw up a plan for a new Rathaus, built in the Renaissance style with an onion dome. Inside the Rathaus, Holl built three overlaying halls: the Lower Fetz, Upper Fetz, and double-height Goldener Saal, or Golden Hall, with its magnificent doorways, murals and coffered ceiling. Adjacent to the Goldener Saal are the Fürstenzimmer, or Prince’s Rooms, designed as retreats for important guests.  I marveled at the immense ceilings and ornate stucco work.  The Goldener Saal is definitely a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture.

From there I walked around town a bit, visiting the house of Bertol Brecht (the museum was closed).  On prior visits I’d checked out the museum but declined from visiting because the entire exhibit was regrettably in German. I walked down the stately Maximillianstrasse, passing the Fuggerhäuser (Fugger houses), a complex of houses on the Maximilianstraße.  There are four main courtyards, and took a peek at the Damenhof (lady’s courtyard), the most charming one.  Then I walked on to the Katholisches Stadtpfarramt St. Ulrich und Afra (Catholic Church of St. Ulrich and Afra) to admire the Fugger altar.  I also walked through the protestant church next door, which had a lovely organ and the remains of some Baroque and Rococo ornaments.

Then I headed on to Rain, the next town on the Romantic Road map.  The town was not that large, and the town wall was mostly gone, though there still a portion of the outer wall visible in some of the gardens off the main street. I took a photo of a giant trowel outside of the town wall in front of the Blumenpark (flower garden), then wandered back to the center of town and visited the church. It had impressive frescoes from the 1600s.  I liked the one showing the devils in hell prodding people with pitchforks and the like.  Much more interesting than the depictions of heaven, somehow.  That was how they used to teach the gospel before Martin Luther and Guthenburg made it possible for the common people to read The Word. In a rush, I pushed on to Donauworth, which has many different towers and an almost intact city wall.  I crossed the river moat that ran around the town, and took a tour of the old church dedicated to the patron of shepherds, with whom I have a particular affinity (and admire greatly).

After walking the perimeter of most of the quaint town and admiring many traditional signs for the likes of bakeries and wine cellars, I headed to the medieval town and castle of Harburg.  I walked across an old stone bridge, admiring the old mill and fisherman’s stone house (now occupied by a messy family with lots of kids, definitely non Germans).  Below the castle, the small medieval town was filled with narrow streets and steep pitched roofs.  I walked this way and that before climbing a narrow path up to the fort-like castle.  It was closed for the day, and I didn’t have time to return tomorrow for a tour, so I soaked up as much as I could, imagining what it contained.  I left and decided to find a place to sleep before I reached Nordlingen, where I would explore tomorrow.

September 5.  I awoke and headed to Nordlingen.  I arrived by 10am and had the pleasure of walking most of the old town wall, still intact. Its 12 towers, each distinct from the other, are named for various guilds who were responsible for their upkeep, including a baker, blacksmith, tanner, and potter tor.  The town is one of only three in Germany that has an intact wall, the other two being Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Dinkelsbühl. Another attraction is the Saint Georg’s Church’s 90 m steeple, called “Daniel”, which is made of a suevite impact breccia that contains shocked quartz. Other notable buildings are the town hall (which dates to the 13th century), St. Salvator church and the Spital, a former medieval hospital. The Ries crater museum is located in the well-preserved medieval tanner’s quarter. I decided to go to the Nördlingen city museum (Stadtmuseum) to get a better sense of the region’s history, and learned that it had been one of Germany’s major trading towns, until its importance declined with the battles of the Thirty Years’ War. The Nördlingen trade fair (Pfingstmesse) was first mentioned in 1219.

As much as I liked Nördlingen, I had limited time, so decided to Wallerstein, which was pretty non-descript.  There was a nice plague pillar (if you can call that nice) in the main square, and a large monastery or convent that dominated a good part of the town.  I continued on to Dinkelsbühl, which has an intact city wall and impressive towers and gates, all different.  The town lies on the southern edge of the Franconian Heights and on the River Wörnitz. Fortified by Emperor Henry V, in 1305 Dinkelsbühl received the same municipal rights as Ulm (which before WW II had the highest church steeple in the world), and in 1351 was raised to the position of a Free Imperial City. During the Protestant Reformation, Dinkelsbühl was notable for being – eventually along only with Ravensburg, Augsburg and Biberach an der Riß — a bi-confessional (i.e. roughly equal numbers of Roman Catholics and Protestant citizens, with equal rights) Imperial City where the Peace of Westphalia caused the establishment of a joint Catholic–Protestant government and administrative system, with equality offices and a precise and equal distribution between Catholic and Protestant civic officials.

Every summer Dinkelsbühl celebrates the city’s surrender to Swedish Troops in 1632 during the Thirty Years’ War. This reenactment is played out by many of the town’s residents. It features an array of Swedish troops attacking the city gate and children dressed in traditional garb coming to witness the event. Paper cones full of chocolate and candy are given as gifts to children. This historical event is called the “Kinderzeche” and can in some aspects be compared with the “Meistertrunk” in Rothenburg. The name is derived from the two German words for “child” and “the bill for food and drink in an inn”, and is called such because of the legend that a child saved the town from massacre by the Swedish Troops during the surrender. The legend tells that when the Swedish army besieged the town, a teenage girl took the children to the Swedish general to beg for mercy. The Swedish general had recently lost his young son to illness, and a boy who approached him so closely resembled his own son that he decided to spare the town.

It’s a lovely town, one which I will definitely return to.  From there I drove to Feuchtwangen, whose origins can be traced back to the Benedictine monastery, which was mentioned in a document in 818 or 819 as being “fairly well off”. By 1197, Feuchtwangen had become a house of secular canons who were not monks, lived in their own houses, and said their canonical prayers together at the monastery church. Besides the monastery, there was already, since the earliest times, a village. With the help of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa came the establishment of a town sometime between 1150 and 1178. In 1241, Feuchtwangen became an imperial free city.  Together with other imperial free cities like Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Dinkelsbühl, the town tried to assert its interests to the princes through the Swabian League (founded in 1376 by 14 free cities). Feuchtwangen had become wealthy owing to its location on travel routes, and was many times given in pledge by the kings. In the end, in 1376, both the town and the monastery were pledged, or transferred, to the Burgravate of Nuremberg, which later became the Margravate of Brandenburg-Ansbach. The townsfolk could no longer buy their town’s freedom, thus leading to a relatively early end to Feuchtwangen’s status as an imperial free city.

I had a bit of day light and took advantage of it to push on to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a town which in spite of its kitschy Christmas shops, I love.  I walked to the town hall and monastery garden in the dusk light, and surveyed the Tauber river valley from the castle garden, and St. Blaise Chapel, the last remnant of Staufer castle built in 1170 by the counts of Comburg-Rothenburg.  I decided to come back in the morning, and headed off to find a suitable camp sight up river.  I finally found a grassy spot at the end of a road high above the river along which vineyards lay.

September 6.  I awoke and returned to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, stopping at a quaint town on the way and walking through its deserted streets. The name Rothenburg may refer to the process of retting (“rotten” in German) flax for linen production, or to the red roofs of the town. I went to the city museum, located in the old Franziskaner (Franciscan) Monastery and learned that the town was established at the same time as the castle, while the walls and towers were built in the 13th century. Still preserved are the White Tower and the Markus Tower with the Röder Arch. Part of the exhibit was dedicated to Jews in Rothenburg. Rabbi Meir Ben Baruch of Rothenburg (died 1293, buried 1307 in Worms) had a great reputation as a jurist in Europe. His descendants include members of the dynastic family von Rothberg, noteworthy in that they were accorded noble status in the 19th century, becoming the hereditary counts of Rothenburg (Rothberg). The German Order began the building of St. James’ Church, which the citizens have used since 1336. The Heilig Blut (Holy Blood) pilgrimage attracted many pilgrims to Rothenburg, at the time one of the 20 largest cities of the Holy Roman Empire.

There was also a lot of religious art and relics in the museum (makes sense since it was a former monastery), including a multi-panel painting depicting (the usual) scenes from Jesus’ life.  I particularly liked the centuries-old stone statues of various religious figures. From the museum I did a quick walk through the pretty town, and had a nice conversation with an employee in a highly-touted falafel place in town. I drove along the river, passing my campsight, to Creglingen.  There I walked up the hill to view the only extant part of the city wall.  There was a nice view of the town and river below, and I spent 20 minutes walking around town (and taking advantage of the hot day to indulge in ice cream) before pressing on. Next I visited Röttingen, a big wine-producer (this area of Bavaria is the driest and best for grape cultivation).  The rathaus was under construction, and I enjoyed the very old main square.  It was getting cold, so I took a brisk walk along the gardens that encircled the town wall.  From there I headed to Weikersheim, home of the famous Weikersheim Palace (Schloss Weikersheim) built in the 12th century. It was the traditional seat of the princely family of Hohenlohe, and has been owned by the state of Baden-Württemberg since 1967 when the palace was bought from the estate of Prince Constantin von Hohenlohe, who had encouraged arts-related activities at the palace. Visitors can tour parts of the Renaissance palace and the Baroque garden with many statues. Sadly, it was after hours, so I had to admire palace and gardens from a distance.  It was the first village since Rothenburg with a noticeable tourist population.  Bookmark Weikersheim for a return visit. In the dimming light, I drove on to Lauda – Koningshofen, and I walked along the gardens next to the river and admired some interesting architecture before heading on to Tauberbischofsheim, home to Kurmainzisches Schloss. It was dark and I decided to find a place to camp for the night.

Sept 7 –  I awoke and headed to Würzburg, the last town on the Romantische strasse scenice route.  Today my GPS led me straight to the Würzburg Residence.  Often I end up in an industrial part of town near the train station instead.  I parked on a tree-lined strip and headed into the palace garden, which had to be planned within the town fortifications. The solution included two bastions of the fortified town wall, using its differences in height to create a spatial landscape. From west to east there is a rise in ground, until the level of the wall is reached. Near the residence itself, the Hofgarten (or Court Gardens) is designed in a very formal, Baroque style. Farther away, the style changes to an English garden with small forests and meadows. Designs for the former part were made by Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, Balthasar Neumann and François de Cuvilliés. It was mainly created in 1759-70. Johann Peter Alexander Wagner added putti, vases, urns and two monumental sculpture groups, the Rape of Europa and the abduction of Proserpina, sited in the central axis between the Orangery and the southern pavilion of the Residence. Three monumental gates lead to the Court Gardens, commissioned by Friedrich Karl von Schönborn.

The principal architect of the palace was Neumann, court architect of the Bishop of Würzburg.  The palace was commissioned by the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg Johann Philipp Franz von Schönborn and his brother Friedrich Carl von Schönborn in 1720, and completed in 1744. Although other architects participated in the palace construction, Neumann was able to give the project his personal imprint, which became his life’s work. The Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, assisted by his son, Domenico, painted an other-worldly ceiling fresco on the four walls and ceiling above the main staircase. This fresco, the largest in the world, was created between  1750 and 1753. Each of the four known continents at the time,  Europe, America, Asia and Africa, are represented by an allegorical female figure and typical flora and fauna, based on the painter’s imagination. Europe is full of fancily dressed “civilized” folk, while America is represented by a native American in a feathered headress and populace who are nude.  Africa’s figure is nude above the waste, while Asia’s is more clothed.  Apparently, the state of undress represented the relative barbarism of the continent being represented.

As America was most recently “discovered” in the minds of Europeans, she was represented by a “barbarous” native. Europe’s figure holds a scepter and is symbolized by a bull, and has a boy playing with a cannon. The Americans practice cannibalism on some prisoners, and is symbolized by a crocodile. Asia is symbolized by a tiger and elephant, and the crosses of Golgotha are visible in the background. Africa is symbolized by an elk, and depicts a caravan of turbaned Magi. Tiepolo was helped by his son Giandomenico and the stuccoist Antonio Bossi. On the “top” of the ceiling there is a depiction of the Prince-Bishop with Mercury approaching from Olympus while Apollo launches the sun horses, surrounded by incarnations of the stars. The fresco also incorporates Tiepolo (in the southwest corner) and Neumann, in the center of the southern front, leaning on a cannon.

Other masterworks of Baroque/Rococo and Neoclassical architecture in the palace interior include the grand staircase, the white room, the chapel, and the Imperial Hall. The building was reportedly called the “largest parsonage in Europe” by Napoleon. It is known as one of the most beautiful palaces in Europe. It was heavily damaged during World War II, and restoration has been in progress since 1945, in large part thanks to Lieutenant John Davis Skilton, a monuments specialist in the U.S. Army who was instrumental in preserving many of the art treasures after his arrival at Würzburg in June 1945. One of his first actions was to build a roof over the bombed interiors to protect them from weathering. Apparently his motivation to protect the remaining architectural treasure sparked the local population to follow suit.

I was awed by the splendor of the palace.  Every room was dripping with detail, whether stucco work, paint, or gilding. The White Hall was the audience chamber located just after the grand staircase and is dominated by the Rococo stucco decorations of Antonio Bossi. The white stucco works on a light gray background are composed of a large quantity of rocailles, mixed with images of real items, especially of military purpose.The lack of gold and color allows the eye to rest between the splendors of the staircase and the Imperial Hall beyond. Five crystal chandeliers were used to light the room.

The Imperial hall opens to the east from the White Hall and is located in the center of the garden front. It was used to receive visiting dignitaries, including the Emperors-to-be on their voyage to Frankfurt and on the return trip to Vienna. It was created in 1749-51 at enormous cost. The walls consist of stucco work faux marble in shades of red, white and yellow.  It turns out that faux marble (stucco on wood) is often more expensive than real marble. The dome is painted in white, decorated with golden stucco work and frescoes by Tiepolo, showing an idealized history of the diocese of Würzburg. One picture, Die Trauung Kaiser Barbarossas und der Beatrix von Burgund durch den Würzburger Fürstbischof 1156 shows the marriage of Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa and Countess Beatrix of Burgundy, consecrated by Gerold, Bishop of Würzburg. The opposite picture shows Frederick II appointing the Bishop of Würzburg Duke of Franconia. On top of the dome a painting shows the Brautfahrt: Apollo in the sun chariot leads the bride Beatrix surrounded by Venus, Ceres and Bacchus towards the Emperor Frederick II, who is accompanied by the Bishop of Würzburg.

On either side of the Imperial Hall stretched 150 meters of enfilade, a suite of rooms formally aligned with each other, leading to the north and south Imperial Apartments (Kaiserzimmer). The Imperial Apartments served as reception halls and accommodation for important guests. The impact of both apartments is generated by a sequence of rooms of increasing degrees of decoration. The most decorated room of the Southern Apartment is the Spiegelsaal or Mirror Cabinet. Its walls consist entirely of glass panels, decorated on the back using either paintings, or drawings engraved into a gold ground and then underlaid with dark gloss paint. All the paintings and drawings show oriental, especially Chinese, scenes. The southern part also includes the Toskanasaal. The highlight of the Northern Apartment is the Green Lacquered Room. Its multilayered wall coverings consist of a metallic green color decorated with paintings and golden ornaments.

Something that makes the Residence particularly dear to me is the fact that it is filled with original furniture, not period-correct replacements. During WWII, all of the furniture was moved to safe locations, and much of the wall paneling and other removable elements of rooms were also moved.  However, some features could not be moved, particularly the painted glass in the Mirror Cabinet.  They attempted to move a few pieces, but to no avail.  The glass shattered. The Residence is by far my favorite palace.  And ironically, it was affordable to visit, while others which had been completely burned and had no original architecture or furniture charged triple the price.  There’s no accounting for taste – or price.

After touring the grounds, I headed to the city, only to learn that the town was one of the most heavily bombed in WWII, and that only 7 buildings stood at the end.  There was a moving account of the destruction wrought by the bombing, and I took a brochure in English so I’d be sure to remember the details.  I have been continually saddened by the bombing of so many towns in Europe. Most towns couldn’t afford to recreate Baroque, Rococo, Neo Gothic, or Renaissance architecture. Instead, they slapped up grim, ugly, “modern” 1950s style architecture.  Concrete buildings replace the lovely sculpted scrolling stone.  What a piece of work is man.


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