If you’ve never taken a European river cruise, the first thing to know is that they keep you busy. The distances between ports are short, so every morning brings a new place to discover. So the later days of my cruise on the Viking Odin brought three historic German towns in quick succession — Heidelberg, Rothenburg and Würzburg — in an area known as Germany’s Romantic Road
First up, the town that is famous as home to one of Europe’s oldest and most distinguished universities. That reputation has only grown through the years, making Heidelberg a magnet for foreign students from all over the world.
For most of those who visit, however, the biggest attraction is Heidelberg Castle, a huge structure that looms over the town from a nearby hill. The first castle was built on the site around 1300 A.D., and in the years since, it has served as the home for famous people including Elizabeth Stuart, grand-daughter of Mary, Queen of Scots.
The castle was attacked by many foes over the years, and by the 1700s it was a ruin. But even in ruins, it became famous. Some of the world’s eminent writers and artists, from Mark Twain and Goethe to J.M.W. Turner, found it a romantic sight, and they spread the word, making Heidelberg a must-see for tourists of the day.
Today, the old castle has been partially restored, and a grand thing it is, with many of the original walls and statuary intact. And walking through, it’s easy to see why the old-time literati saw it as the stuff of legend. Some of the buildings are beautiful and imposing, studded with ornamentation and fronted with masterful sculptures.
The castle even has a centrepiece: the biggest wine barrel in the world. Built into a gloomy cellar, it’s so big there are stairs and walkways around it so you can see the whole thing. Unfortunately, you don’t get a drink – these days the barrel is empty except for some preservatives.
As for the town itself, there are the university buildings and a great church in the market square. But Heidelberg is mainly a place to shop and relax, with dozens of stores and restaurants lined up along its main street. Some of our group shopped, others stopped for a beer or an ice cream; I found a café with free wi-fi (not an easy task) and did some blogging.
The next morning we were off to Rothenburg, one of the few medieval towns in Germany that still has its city wall intact. In fact, the medieval town is mostly intact too, making it a good stop if you want to see what life looked like in the Middle Ages (click on the photo if you want to see the town plan in detail).
Rothenburg (officially Rothenburg ob der Tauber) is in the Franconia region of Bavaria, and it has a curious history. It was a free imperial city, meaning it was controlled by its citizens rather than the church or some other power. However, the town chose to become Protestant during the Reformation, which led to attacks by Catholic forces during the 30 Years War.
That led to its downfall, which turned out to be a good thing – for us, at least. No longer a thriving centre, Rothenburg was passed by when the industrial revolution came along, and it remained much as it was in the 17th century, a kind of living time capsule.
The main square features a town hall with a 200-foot tower: you can climb it if you’re brave enough to try its steep and narrow steps. Once up top, you get a great view of the town – and then all those steps to get back down.
Nearby is St. James’ Church, which like the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges, claims to have a drop of Christ’s blood as its prized relic. That has made the town a prime stop for religious pilgrims over the centuries.
You can spend a pleasant morning strolling the cobblestone streets of Rothenburg, admiring the old buildings and the medieval oddities. One museum displays an iron basket in which bakers were dunked if their bread didn’t come up to the required weight.
But for me, the big attraction was the wall itself, which you’re free to climb if you want to see what it was like to be a defender of the town back in the day. I mounted the steep flight of steps to find myself walking along a curving stone walkway, which seemed to stretch on forever. Below me, the neighbourhood was spread out like a postcard.
Every now and then I encountered a guard house, spaced just close enough to the last that no attacker would be out of range of medieval weapons. And every few feet, a cross-shaped arrow slot so you could get a shot at anyone who tried to get under the hail of fire and rush the wall.
Even though there are thousands of miles between them, walking the Rothenburg city wall felt very much like tramping along the Great Wall of China a year earlier (you can see my photographic journal here). And as it turned out, neither wall prevented invaders from getting in and having their way with the place. Somehow there’s always a weak spot in the armour.
Since we were a little slow making our way down the Rhine, partly due to the low water level, our visit to Würzburg was a one-stop affair. However, the stop was well worth the effort. After all the quaint German towns of the Middle Rhine, the Bishop’s Residence of Würzburg was a spectacular surprise.
Today, bishops generally preside over churches and cathedrals, and handle the church’s affairs. But in the 1700s, they were pretty much politicians. And in 1720, Prince-Bishop Johann Philipp Franz von Schönborn decided to have a grand palace built in Würzburg. Construction took decades, but by the time it was finished, the architects had created a place that rivalled Versailles in its full-blown opulence.
The palace is a grand sight from the outside, but it gets truly impressive when you enter the front doors, which were built extra wide and high so you could drive a carriage with four horses inside. (Legend has it that Napoleon tried to enter with a six-horse carriage and had to step down and walk in.)
Inside, classical sculptures and decorations were everywhere, but the eye was immediately drawn to the grand staircase, and then to the huge, curved vault above, completely covered with an extravagant fresco by artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
The fresco, reputedly the largest in the world, depicts the known continents at the time: Europe, Asia, Africa and America. Each is represented by a female allegorical figure, with a surrounding cast of characters, including Arab traders, American Indians and exotic animals like elephants. The artist himself appears in one corner.
Other highlights included the White Hall, bedecked with more rococo flourishes than you thought possible; the red, white and yellow Imperial Hall, decorated with huge historical paintings; and the Mirror Cabinet, a room whose walls are completely covered in mirrors, cut into different shapes and framed like a giant, shining jigsaw puzzle.
Only a few of the hundreds of rooms in the palace are open to the public. Even more unfortunate: no photographs are allowed inside the buildings, so I can’t show you any of the marvels inside the Bishop’s Residence. It’s a good excuse to take a European river cruise and see them for yourself.
One final sombre note, however, and one that puts the whole place in perspective: 90 percent of Würzburg was destroyed by a British bombing raid in 1945, including most of the palace. So much of what we saw was a reconstruction – including the Mirror Cabinet, which was painstakingly pieced together using only old photographs and a piece or two of the original glass.
Ironically, though, the huge, vaulted ceiling where Tiepolo painted his enormous fresco survived the bombing – despite initial fears that it wouldn’t stand up even when it was first built.
The truth is, while the history of Europe is filled with ancient wars, it’s hard to tour the continent without running into reminders of the last two great wars. Some of them are dark, but it’s important to see them with our own eyes. That’s what we did on our next stop, Nuremburg, and I’ll share that with you in my next post.
I was a guest of Viking Cruises on this trip. However, the views expressed are my own.
Photos taken with the Nikon D5500 SLR and the Fuji XQ2 compact.