An unusual slice of south-western Germany, 200km long and 50km wide, Swabia is a treasure-trove of history and geology.
Overshadowed by its westerly neighbour the Black Forest, and out-mountained by the Allgäu and Upper Bavaria to the south, Swabia and the Swabian Alps are easily overlooked. But this is a formerly-volcanic high-plateau region (up to 1,000 metres) with some very distinctive towns (usually ending with –ingen) and lonely castles amidst striking scenery. Here are juniper-covered heaths, meadows full of flowers, beech woods, limestone rocks, lakes, fossil treasures, stalactite caves, waterfalls and thermal springs.
The key gateway is Stuttgart, and main city Ulm, at the downstream end of the finest early stretches of the Danube, where the river twists and turns as it slices through the limestone.
Life in Swabia was hard in pre-industrialisation days. The land was unproductive, the weather difficult, and the Swabian people developed a reputation for being stingy and crafty, rather like the Scots. With a strong regional accent, they are objects of gentle fun elsewhere in Germany, as in the much-loved traditional nonsense song Uff de schwäbsche Eisebahne, which tells of the voyage of a local train through Swabian countryside, and of the Swabian who didn’t want to buy a ticket for his goat, so he tied it onto the end of the train and was surprised to find it dead on arrival.
The Swabian people developed a reputation for being stingy and crafty, rather like the Scots
In fact their hard existence prompted many Swabians to migrate down the Danube, starting 300 years ago from the port of Ulm, to populate the furthest points of the growing Austro-Hungarian empire. They settled in parts of what is now Hungary, Serbia and Romania, maintaining their German identity, but at the end of the Second World War many tens of thousands were sent back. There’s a museum in Ulm telling their story.
Sigmaringen is home to the first spectacular river castle on the Danube, still lived in by a Hohenzollern prince, although the Hohenzollern family seat is actually to the north, on high ground near Hechingen. This fairytale property was built by King Wilhelm IV between 1850 and 1867 in the Romantic style, and it would be the most spectacular castle in Germany if it hadn’t been trumped by King Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein, a few years later.
One of the most popular slices of Swabia is the valley of the river Blau, and particularly Blaubeuren, the handsome resort town and monastery where the blue river emerges from the ground in what is effectively a vertical cave, the Blautopf. Take in both castle and Blautopf, ending in Ulm, and you’ll get some impression of what Swabia is all about.