We all know Germany for its succulent sausage, massive beers and mid-Autumn festivals. But you might also search for a non-clichéd Germany. Where the lines dividing past from present and fairytale from reality are not so clear… In Southern Germany, between the Alps, the castles, the lakes and the deep history, you can write your own fairytale, on the road.
Munich, capital of Bavarian
Set off from Munich, the capital of the Bavarian region and Germany’s third largest city. If you hire a car directly from the airport, be sure to tick the main sights off your list and include the Marienplatz, the city’s great central square. There, you can watch Germans going about their daily lives between the landmarks dotted in and around the square. Right in the centre is the Mariensäule, a column topped with a golden statue of the Virgin Mary. To the west is the Frauenkirche, the principal cathedral and a symbol of the city.
But as beautiful as Munich is, the Germany you yearn for cannot be found in its larger cities. It lies yonder.
Garmisch and Partenkirchen
If you want dark, romantic and fantastical, drive off the beaten track and discover the towns and landscapes that have stood the test of time.
Buckle up, forget speed limits (we are in Germany after all) and head south on the Autobahn 95 to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a mountain resort town on the Austrian border that gives views onto Germany’s highest mountain.
The towns of Garmisch and Partenkirchen remained separate until 1935. You will notice the stark difference between the two halves of the town as you drive through it: Garmisch has acquired a more polished and modern feel whereas Partenkirchen, with its cobblestoned streets and faded frescos, has retained its historic patina. From there you will find plenty of tracks to explore (walking) the area of Zugspitze, known as the highest mountain of Germany.
Enjoy a Bavarian breakfast of Weißwuascht (white sausage) served with senf (sweet mustard) and soft pretzels, before retaking the front seat and driving around the north face of the Ammergebirge. Follow it round to its westernmost point — admiring the majestic beauty of the mountains along the way — and soon enough, you will arrive in Schwangau.
Onto the Romantic Road: Schwangau to Augsburg along the Lech
Schwangau is the southern extremity of Germany’s scenic ‘Romantic Road’, the rural route north. Here is where the country drive rebannally begins: from the off, you will be spoilt with some of Germany’s most beautiful treasures, both natural and man-made.
The four lakes that flank the mountainside road (Bannwaldsee, Forggensee, Schwansee and Alpsee) are breathtaking and will provide ample visual distraction as you amble along them.
You will undoubtedly come to an abrupt stop at the sight of the Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein castles. These feats of human genius are as unbelievable as they were grandiose.
The Neuschwanstein castle, certainly the most impressive of the two, stands tall on a hill overlooking the pristine alpine lakes and rugged foothills of Schwangau. The monument seems as if it has sprung forth from a dream and it has inspired the likes of Disney himself, whose Sleeping Beauty takes inspiration from.
From Schwangau, you should head north to Augsburg on the Romantic Road. This stretch of driving runs parallel to the river Lech. Many of the medieval locations hiding in Bavarian Germany are dotted along it.
Augsburg is one of the oldest cities in Germany and boasts some beautiful Renaissance architecture. Its city hall and cathedral architecture — that juxtaposes Romanesque and Gothic styles — are of particular interest.
To the vineyards of Würzburg, through Harburg and Nördlingen
From Augsburg, the Romantic Road veers northwest to its northern extremity of Würzburg. The city is renowned for its wine, and you can celebrate there, moderately, the end of your road trip with some of Southern Germany’s finest grape.
Along the drive up, there is much to see from the confines of your hire car — that’s the beauty of the Romantic Road — be sure to make the two stops before you arrive in Würzburg.
Your first port of call is Harburg (or Harburg Schwaben as it is known to distinguish it from a homonymous city in the region of Hamburg). It is a small town that has never left the Middle Ages, or, at least, that’s how it seems.
As you approach, a great castle atop a hill shall loom forth. Head in its direction, admire the architecture and enjoy a coffee in the hotel-restaurant that resides within. From up here, you can see most of a town that is stooped in history. Spend an hour or so driving along the country roads and take in the peaceful German countryside before heading half an hour up the road to Nördlingen.
The most interesting about this destination is that the town was built in the crater left by a meteor crash 15 million years ago. And it is one of the three remaining towns in Germany with an intact city wall.
Allocate some time to stretch your legs here. The Rieskrater Museum is focused on meteors and their collisions with earth. The collection features various moon rocks from NASA missions and you will also learn everything about the crater upon which the city sits: interestingly, many of the town’s stone walls contain diamonds that formed within the city’s rock bed following the meteor collision.
Before returning to the car and make haste to the final destination of Würzburg, climb the St. Georg Steeple, a church tower that the locals affectionately dub “Daniel”.
It provides sweeping and astounding views onto the town and a great photo opportunity. For those of you who have watched Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, the view from the Glass Elevator in the final scene is the view you are witnessing before you, give or take half a century.
It should then take just under two hours to drive to Würzburg and finish a road trip full of spectacular Alpine vistas, fantastical castles, meteors and brooding history.