God knows le hubby and I need a little more romance in our life. The most romantic time we’ve had since our eldest was born was binge-watching Dexter on his laptop while the progeny was fast asleep in the next room.
Yeah, there’s nothing quite like watching Michael C. Hall hacking the limbs off some victim to bring on the fuzzy feelings of love.
But it turns out that the Romantische Strasse, or Romantic Road — all 355km of it — didn’t contain that kind of romance.
Romance, in this case, referred to a throwback to the Middle Ages.
The Romantic Road you see, was an autobahn winding past the bucolic German countryside, connecting some 28 medieval villages. The only way to do this is by car. Because what could be more pleasurable than driving down a highway with zero speed limit, fast and furious-style…in a friggin’ station wagon. #badass
There’s a lot of debate as to which of these towns are the best of the lot, but we decided to spend several nights in Bamberg and Rothenburg ob der Tauber after much head-splitting research on my end.
Walking around Bamberg was just plain joy; there were no major sights to see, so we just strolled around its UNESCO-heritage Altstadt, or old town, with its warren of cobblestone streets filled with higgledy-piggledy houses and bisected by rushing rivers and canals.
Because of the lack of modern eyesores (here’s looking at you again, Frankfurt), it felt as if I had fell through the rabbit hole and ended up in 14th-century Germany, but one that’s free of 14th-century issues like filth, ignorance and the bubonic plague. Unfortunately, there were no medieval folk hanging around — just a lot of daytrippers compared to Dresden.
The town was crowned by the Bamberger Dom, an imposing cathedral set on top of a hill that doesn’t require an athlete’s stamina to climb.
It houses the remains of he only pope to be buried outside of Italy or France: the luckless Pope Clement II, who got to strut his stuff for only one miserable year before he kicked the bucket.
However, it was the architecture of the Altes Rathaus (Bamberg’s medieval town hall) and Alte Hofhaltung (the old court) that captured the hearts and mind of Hollywood. It was in these places that Orlando Bloom — clad in pouffy shorts — swashbuckled in front of the camera for The Three Musketeers, according to sources.
While picturesque Bamberg is lively during the day, it can get eerily quiet at night. We stayed at Villa Katharina, a neat little modern hotel close to the historic core so we were able to schlep into town whenever we feel like it. When night falls however, the streets, though well lit, are purged of humans. So the only partying here is between you and the odd stray cat — though being in our tedious 30s, le hubby and I were more than fine with this.
Lots of eateries and restaurants at the fringes of the altstadt are a hive of activity in the evenings though, so we ended up having pho and sushi because a week has almost gone by and our Asian genes are kicking in. It wasn’t memorable — Asian restaurants in Europe rarely are, ESPECIALLY ones that serve both Vietnamese and Japanese cuisines — so we didn’t take a picture.
The next day, we were ready to move on. We arrived in Rothenburg ob der Tauber — which translates into Rothenburg ‘by the Tauber (river)’ in German — the big daddy of antiquated German towns.
We couldn’t have picked a better place to stay than Gasthaus am Klosterhof, a loft-style apartment located on the top floor of a beautifully restored half-timbered house. It really added to the whole Middle Ages experience, except that we also had modern amenities a big comfy bed and hot showers. It was a wonderful refuge from the horrors outside.
Just what is outside, you ask?
People. Lots and lots of people.
This once dignified and prosperous town now unabashedly spreads its legs for the millions of visitors that trample through it each year. It’s drowning in kitsch and souvenirs — including a delightful Christmas Village and Market that operates 365 days a year — and busloads of smiling Japanese tourists ready to buy them.
While I have developed a soft spot for anything frivolous such as Christmas (Santa! Reindeers! Nutcrackers!), I was willing to look past the other shit, even the Hello Kitty-loving Picture Nazi who was dropping f*cking peace signs in front of a giant teddy.
Why? Because our visit was timed to coincide with the Imperial City Festival, which is in my opinion one of the most enjoyable family-friendly festivals in Europe.
For three days, the town’s 1,000 odd residents will come together to reenact various scenes from the past, be it a dance or a game. The main Market Square and streets were filled with music, medieval children and lots of men in knight’s costumes — if you’re into that sort of a thing. Our little one had the time of his life.
Of course, we know German parties are merely an excuse to chug a few pints so yeah, a lot of drinking happens in between — and it was a little strange to see the Pope himself getting drunk on a midday (what happened to staying in character?).
We somehow managed to squeeze in some sightseeing amidst all the merriment.
A tower-studded Wall surrounds the town, and we spent a good few hours walking — or in Mika’s case, marching — it. We were wowed not so much by the beefy fortifications but rather by the people who have donated massive sums of money (I am talking a lot of zeros) towards the wall’s preservation. Their names and donations are etched onto it.
Gosh, I wish I was rich enough to adopt a few bricks.
There is also a castle, but it is long destroyed and replaced by the Burggarten, a fine park for picnics and running around shrieking your head off if you’re a toddler.
We also walked beyond the wall to the lush-green valley below. When we saw how apple trees grew with wild abandon on the hillside, our Asian genes kicked in once more. Our mothers somehow thought it a good idea to hoarding apples like it’s World War Two again and we were all out of food. It was disgusting. As a result, the trek back up was hell; it turns out that smuggling up two tonne of apples in one’s backpack rendered one terribly unfit for this exercise.
We (barely) made it.
To gain a deeper insight into Rothenburg’s past, we — and hundreds of other tourists, it seemed — joined the Night Watchman Tour. Night Watchmen were like security guards of the past, but armed with deadly medieval weapons instead of a baton.
Rick Steves calls him a medieval Jerry Seinfeld, and he was pretty droll — if you could hear anything he was saying with all those people around in the first place. He’s become a bit of an international celeb after several interviews with foreign press, and apparently, there’s a Japanese-speaking night watchman now too. I don’t know about you, but the thought of a burly German man bowing and saying “Arigatou gozaimasu” makes me giggle.
After several days of frenzied sight-seeing and apple-gorging, we attended the final grand parade to marked the end of the festivities. Torch-bearing townsfolk marched to the centre of the town to the beating of drums and blaring trumpets.
Mika was elated because he was invited to join in the march together with his nana. Le hubby and I were not that lucky: we stood watching quietly on the sidelines when I was elbowed in the ribs by a big German brute. I would’ve been delighted to return the favor by kicking him in his nuts. Unfortunately, he looked like he was at least half a century old and, as an Asian, I’ve been taught to respect my elders.
The night ended with fireworks. It always does. Not that I was complaining.
Villa Katharina, Bamberg Small, modern and very child-friendly boutique hotel with rooms arranged around a lawn with a pool. 10 minute walk to the old town. $$$
Gasthaus am Klosterhof, Rothenburg ob der Tauber Cozy, beautifully-furnished apartments in a traditional half-timbered house, located within the walls of the old city. $$
- The best way to get around the Romantic Road is by a car.
- There are dozens of medieval towns on the Romantic Road but if you have young children with you, visiting more than three towns might be overdoing it. We based ourselves in two towns just to get a feel of what life was like in these two places — and were surprised to discover they were quite different, especially at night!
- Try timing your visit with Rothenburg’s Imperial City Festival, which happens on the first week of September every year. It’s remarkable baby-friendly but even those without kids will have plenty of medieval fun!