Scenic and Thematic Routes

Scenic and Thematic Routes

There are over 80 of them, and they’re everywhere. But which are truly worth the detour?

Germany’s tourism planners have a liking for linking. Towns, regions, themes, traditions, commodities, all get bundled into special itineraries, making destinations, in theory, easier to market.   It seems that every part of German culture is fair game for themed routing, from food (there’s everything from cheese and wine routes, to asparagus roads to commodities such as glass and ceramics. In all, there are over 80 of these thematic routes, far too many to list here. Avenues of trees, lines of windmills, and even a selection of ferries all provide sufficient excuse for a tailormade itinerary. There’s even a Pope Benedict Route, tracing the current Pope’s journey from humble Ratzinger to Catholic potentate.

Some of this thematic bundling is just a way of trying to entice visitors into an area they’d never otherwise visit, such as the German Fen Route up in the flatlands of the north. Some of it is ideal for dipping into if you happen to be in the area, such as the enormously long (2,800km) Half-Timbered House Road which links towns and villages down right down the spine of Germany, in an abundance of lovely facades which makes you realise quite how attractive many more German cities could have been if it hadn’t been for war.

Occasionally the branding can be off-putting to some of the travelling public; ask most red-blooded males whether they’d like to spend a week on the Romantic Road, and they’re likely to instruct you to go take a running jump, which is a shame, because the Romantic Road links some of the best of Germany. But in general the thematic routes are worth having a look at, wherever you are going, and half a dozen or so are good enough to be the basis for a trip.

Top dog

Probably the best is the aforementioned Romantic Road (Romantische Straße), a 350-km route which runs through scenic rural Bavaria from Würzburg to the foothills of the Alps at Füssen.

Starting point Würzburg is an imperial city of some majesty (the Residenz Palace is a World Heritage site) on the banks of the river Main, with vineyards in the surrounding hills.  Ecclesiastical architecture is particularly fine, along with some of the most remarkable works by Tilman Riemenschneider, a woodcarver who created figures and tableaux of supreme elegance, and whose works are found all over Bavaria.  There follow a succession of pretty towns, many with half-timbered houses, as the route meanders through Franconia.  The next highlight is Rothenburg, further along the Tauber valley, a beautifully preserved cobbled town and formerly independent imperial city surrounded by a high wall, also UNESCO-listed, which rightly thrives on tourist business.

Rothenburg on the Romantic Road
Rothenburg, one of the highlights of the Romantic Road

Then comes Dinkelsbühl, barely less appealing, and the larger city of Augsburg, where the world’s first almshouses are still in use.  A big attraction on the last stretch of the route is the Wieskirche Pilgrimage Church at Pfaffenwinkel, also a UNESCO world heritage site and one of a series of churches in rural settings in Bavaria. Its interior is fabulously decorated in ridiculously over-the-top almost hallucinatory rococo style.

Finally, the route ends in Füssen, yet another well preserved medieval town, but this one is already into the foothills of the Alps, and therefore a great jumping-off point for mountain activities. But most people come here for proximity to Germany’s finest castles, particularly Neuschwanstein, the soaring flight of fancy that inspired Disney’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

If the idea of the Alpine foothills appeals, with all its castle and lakes, then there’s another Bavarian route which intersects with the last part of the Romantic Road. The Alpine Road is a scenic route which surfs right along the breaking wave of mountains, all the way from Lake Constance in the west to Königssee in the east, a distance of around 450km. The views can be spectacular, and the route takes in 20 mountain-surrounded lakes like Tegernsee and remote monasteries like that at Ettal, as well as a dozen castles like Linderhof and Hohenschwangau (and of course Neuschwanstein). There are dozens of walking trails and unspoiled mountain villages. Literal high points are Oberstdorf, Garmisch-Partenkirchen (the resort closest to the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain), Ruhpolding and Berchtesgarden, all of which have skiing in the winter.

Tell me a story

While the above routes focus on spectacular pieces of scenery, this next one plays more on the imagination as it moves between locations for a variety of much-loved traditional stories. The Fairytale Road starts down in Hanau, on the outskirts of Frankfurt, and runs up through the centre of Germany to the port city of Bremen. The journey links locations for the stories of the brothers Grimm, such as the Town Musicians of Bremen, the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Rapunzel’s Tower at Trendelburg, and even Little Red Riding Hood country, which is around Knüllwald.  You’d be surprised quite how many of ‘our’ folkloric tales – Snow White, Puss in Boots – are actually in the Grimm collection. Although the route is visually more low-key than its Bavarian colleagues, it is nevertheless quite charming in its towns and villages, and more often runs along a pleasing riverside road along the banks of the lazy Weser.

By way of complete contrast, the Route of Industrial Culture throws the spotlight on Germany’s ability to roll up its sleeves and get on with the business of making things. This route requires an interested and sympathetic eye, because you couldn’t call the industrialised Ruhr a ‘scenic area’. The circuit loops around the cities of Essen, Dortmund, and Bochum, in a region where one urbanisation merges into another. Amongst its highlights are a beautiful coal mine (Zeche Zollverein), now major tourist attraction, a gasometer (Oberhausen) that’s become an art gallery, an extensive  inland river port (Duisburg) which has become a sophisticated place of recreation, and a blast furnace (North Duisburg) which has become a multi-purpose park and events venue. Serious money has been spent here to give these industrial dinosaurs a new lease of life, and this was internationally acknowledged when the region became the first industrial zone to be awarded the title ‘European Capital of Culture’, in 2010.

The last route worth a special mention here is the Castle Road. As any Germanophile will know, this nation was once a loose collection of individual fiefdoms, principalities and electorates, and for centuries its ruling families provided the rootstock for monarchies right across Europe, including our own House of Windsor. As a result, it has a multitude of castles, palaces and manor houses, and many of the most imperious and best-preserved are linked together in an East-West route that runs from Mannheim all the way across to Prague. Aside from big name destinations like Heidelberg and Rothenburg, this route is particularly worthwhile for the mid-sized Franconian and middle-Bavarian cities which are often overlooked by mainstream tourism, places like Bamberg, Ansbach and Nuremberg. The route also picks out restaurants and hotels in palatial and historic settings, with bedrooms in castle towers and dining rooms in castle taverns, so don’t forget to pack your thermals and your cummerbund.

Several of the more popular routes are detailed on the German National Tourist Board website but there are many more. Check the websites for the region(s) you plan to visit.