While autobahn is great for speed enthusiasts, ANURAG MALLICK enjoys slow travel on a driving holiday across Swabia in Baden-Württemberg, taking the southern Red Route of the German Timber Frame Road through medieval towns with half-timbered houses and vineyards
Having caught the last flight to Stuttgart in the group, I had the least amount of time to do justice to the extensive spread at Restaurant Trollinger at the Mövenpick Hotel just outside Stuttgart Airport, let alone shower and change. But it was a taste of what lay ahead. Patience, I said to myself, as we got ready to take on the Deutsche Fachwerke Strasse.
The historic German Timber Frame Road runs 3,000km north to south through medieval towns with cobbled streets and half-timbered houses, heritage walks by guides in period costume and Swabian cuisine dished out at cellars, weinstube (wine restaurants) and biergartens (beer gardens). We were covering the 772km-long southern Red Route, a dramatic landscape where both history and geography had been shaped by the course of rivers and receding ice after the last Ice Age.
It was a short drive from Stuttgart to the charming little town of Bietigheim-Bissingen (actually two, for the price one). In 1975, Bietigheim and Bissingen, 3km apart, became twin towns. Locals fondly call them Bi-Bi! Anette Hochmuth from the German Framework Road greeted us near the town square and led us through the Unteres Tor (Lower Gate), the last surviving original gate.
Quirky art was typical of Bietigheim with sculptures like Kuhriousum (a cow on a milk can), Die Schwätzer (The Gossipers) and the outré Villa Visconti or House of Heads sporting a façade with heads of celebrities. We walked to the Marktplatz, the medieval town centre lined with spectacular buildings like the Rathaus (town hall). It was built in 1507 in the Black Forest region, dismantled and brought on rafts down the Enz River and reassembled here. Near the Old Latin School, Hornmoldhaus was one of the best-preserved Renaissance houses in South Germany with exquisite woodwork and painted interiors. It housed the Stadtmuseum (City Museum) and a miniature model of the town.
The reason they were called half-timbered houses was because of the wood-saving skeleton with self-supporting timber and curtain walls that had a filling of clay, mud, hay or brick. The method was both ecological and aesthetic. Stone was the privilege of the elite, which gave rise to the German expression steinreich or ‘stone rich’.
We continued to the wine village of Besigheim, surrounded by the Neckar and Enz rivers. Dominating the market square was the Town Hall built in 1359 and the charming Dreigabelhaus or Three-gabled house. The traditional Restaurant Ratsstüble is a great place to try Swabian delicacies. Swabia, a historic region in present day Baden-Württemberg, boasts its own distinct culture and cuisine. Our visit co-incided with Spargelzeit or Asparagus Season and the local favourite white asparagus was on the menu. Also on offer was Maultaschen, pasta stuffed with minced meat, spinach, onions and breadcrumbs. And thereby hangs a tale.
During Lent, ‘good’ Christians usually refrained from meat, but the cheeky Cistercian monks of Maulbronn Abbey were unwilling to do so. They hid the meat inside the pasta so God would not be able to see it! Since it looked like a tasche (bag) and came from Maulbronn, it was called Maultaschen. Nicknamed ‘Swindlers of the Almighty’, the coarser Swabian dialect was less charitable – the tongue twister Herrgottsbescheißerle means ‘God’s little bullshitters’!
Next up was Schorndorf, a 12th-century medieval town famous as the birthplace of Gottlieb Daimler, born here in 1834. His house and birthplace display his drawings, memorabilia and photos, tracing his transformation from a baker’s son to the inventor of the first small, high-speed petrol engine. The Galleries for Art & Technology had several of his inventions, automobiles and the first motorised bike. Daimler was working on an electric engine long before there was running water and electricity.
In 1350, when Schorndorf’s fortifications were expanded to encircle the burgeoning town with new walls, people appropriated the old city walls to save money. One such specimen was a crooked house on Rommelgasse simply known as The House on the Wall. The houses were so close together one wonders if they could have built a common wall and reduced costs. But a small alleyway separated the houses, to prevent fires from spreading rapidly.
Rather more poignant were the cobblestone-sized memorials we literally stumbled upon. Started in 1996 by Gunter Demnig, these Stolpersteine or stumbling stones were created to commemorate victims of the Holocaust, put outside the house where they were last seen before being deported to concentration camps. Like Schorndorf, nearly 50,000 Stolpersteine can be seen across 18 countries in Europe, making it the world’s largest memorial.
In under an hour, we reached Esslingen, an old town with 1,200 years of architecture, criss-crossed by cobbled alleys, and the Burg (castle), with vineyards draping its slopes like a royal cloak, lording over town. One had to climb 300 steps for a view of Esslingen from the summit. For now the only fortification we were interested in was of the liquid kind as we ambled into Sektkellerei Kessler—Germany’s oldest producer of sparkling wine. After learning the secret of champagne in France, Georg Christian Kessler returned to set up his own company in 1826. Within the 1,000-year-old walls of the keller (cellar) they produced 1.5 million bottles annually.
Our eloquent guide Mr Roe took us on a tour of the inner city. “German history is too complicated with kings and kaisers fighting for power. After a glass of sekt you forget everything in any case,” he announced. And, thus, we set off to see the most important of the 800 monuments in the Altstadt (Old Town). Schelztor, the square gate tower, had a quirky installation of a man balancing on a pole. The Skywalker, designed by artist Van der Goetze in 1994, symbolised the medieval maxim that if you could support yourself for one year and one day, you became a free citizen.
Esslingen was the most important European town in the 13th century, superseding even Rome. It lay on the Route 66 of the Middle Ages, connecting Antwerp in the north to Venice in the south, crossing the Neckar River. Esslingen am Neckar prospered due to the two bridges that levied a high toll tax offering safe passage to merchants, thus developing as a trading location. It was the oldest, longest and widest stone bridge in Germany. Esslingen also had the oldest continuous timber-frame front with nearly 200 half-timbered houses.
The Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), with large doors for easy passage of wine barrels, was the best example of Swabian Allemanic architecture. The Rathaus served as a covered market where the baker, candlestick maker and other craftsmen exhibited their goods. Occasionally a death sentence would be carried out in the top window. The new Town Hall built in 1422 was an architectural marvel with nine bells that played over 200 melodies. Each day was represented by a different statue of the ruling planet, which changed daily thanks to a rotary device.
After an early dinner at the cosy Weinkeller Einhorn with its recurrent unicorn motif, we continued to scenic Blaubeuren, tucked amidst wooded slopes and rocky outcrops in the valley of the Danube. Being springtime, there was enough daylight to squeeze in a Segway tour to Blautopf (Blue Pool), source of the Blau, Germany’s most beautiful karst spring. Coursing through a 12km-long network of limestone caves and caverns, it emerges from the base of the Swabian Jura (Alps) ending in a 22m deep funnel-shaped pool. The spire of the Benedictine monastery and the water mill mirrored in its blue waters is heart-achingly beautiful.
Blaubeuren’s historic town centre was one of the best-preserved in Germany with lovely lanes to stroll around dotted with shops, cafés and inns. We stopped by at Urgeschichtliches or Prehistoric Museum to see its most prized object. It looked like a dressed chicken, but the 6cm sculpture was a remnant of the last Ice Age—a 40,000-year-old figurine of Venus carved from mammoth ivory. Excavated from the Hohle Fels cavern, 4km southwest, it is counted among the world’s oldest sculptures and is the oldest representation of a female figure.
At Biberach, another interesting female figure waiting for us. Dressed in a medieval style gown and her hair covered in a scarf (back then if you let your hair loose, you were a loose woman), the ‘wife of the master weaver’ welcomed us to the year 1533. “Watch out for the horseman,” she cautioned, as a motorcar passed close by. It was an entertaining city walk to Weberberg, the medieval craftsmen’s settlement.
In 16th century, around 400 looms were located along the lane and a quarter of the population lived off the weaving trade. Fustian, a cloth made of flax and cotton, was a big hit in the Middle Ages and the source of Biberach’s wealth. Since the flax had to be kept damp, weavers worked in the dank environment of the cellar, often developing chronic coughs. We continued our walk to the stunning Marktplatz (market square) dominated by the Stadtpfarrkirche or St Martin’s Church.
Dinner was at Weinstube Goldener Rebstock where we had been granted the community table. Usually anyone walking into the restaurant could occupy a free seat there and successive people bought the next round. For this, the table came with a bell with the word ‘stammtisch’, which we were told not to ring, unless we wanted to buy the whole restaurant a round of beer. We were happy with our steamed potatoes with cheese platter and *seele (literally, ‘soul’) German footlong with ham.
The next day we came to Pfullendorf, between the river Danube and Lake Constance, where a ‘robber from the 1820s’ took us on a tour. Starting from the northernmost and highest point, Obertor (Upper Gate), the robber decoded secret signs marked on wealthy houses and how money was hidden on wooden beams. The Altes Haus (Old House), built in 1317, was one of the oldest townhouses in Southern Germany with a museum tracing the town’s history. We ended the tour at the subterranean restaurant Felsenkeller with a meal of mashed potatoes and ham baked inside a whole loaf of bread.
Any more food and we would have rolled down the steep vineyard slopes all the way to Meersburg. It was located on the northern shore of Bodensee or Lake Constance, the largest lake in Germany. Our guide Jutta said the lake freezes once every century (the last time was 1963), an event celebrated with a procession of St John’s statue. Literally, the Castle on the Lake, Meersburg’s baroque skyline was shaped by wealthy prince bishops who employed the famous baroque architect Balthasar Neumann. The Alte Burg (Old Castle) is said to be the oldest in Germany that’s still inhabited.
We explored the chapel in the baroque palace Neues Schloss (New Castle), the Rathaus (Town Hall) and the oldest medieval inn Zum Baren (The Bear) dating back to 1250. Staatsweingut Meersburg is the best place to learn about the region’s wine. Descending sharply to the lakeshore, the vineyards have southern exposure and limestone rich soil originating in the Ice Age, unique to German viticulture. With lovely views of boats and yachts on the lake, lined by pretty hotels and restaurants, Meersburg was the prettiest wine village in Germany. Ironically, the best view of the vineyards does not belong to Meersburg, but to Constance.
Legend has it that on the manor Haltnau Wendelgard, all the vineyards belonged to a not-so-pretty lady, her face disfigured by a harelip. She longed for love and wrote a letter to the Mayor of Meersburg that if he or a member of his town council took her out for dinner every Sunday, and gave her a long kiss, all the vineyards would become part of Meersburg.
She must have been rather unsightly as the proposal was unanimously rejected. She then wrote the same letter to the Mayor of Constance. Our guide, Frau Jutta remarked, “We don’t know whether the men of Constance were blinder, greedier or less sensitive, but ever since, the vineyards have belonged to Constance and not to Meersburg.” It was time to swig one for the road.
Good to Know
Deutsche Fachwerke Strasse or The German Timber Frame Road is a 3,000 km tourism trail that starts from the fishing town of Stade at the mouth of the Elbe River in north Germany and ends at Meersburg on Lake Constance in the south. Divided into six colour-coded regional lines, the route connects nearly 100 towns with half-timbered houses, historical sites and diverse geographic zones – Elbe River to Harz Mountains in Lower Saxony (Blue Route), Harz to Thuringian Forest (Orange Route), Weser Hills via North Hesse to Vogelsberg and Spessart Uplands (Brown Route), Lahn Valley and Rheingau (Yellow Route), the confluence of Rhine and Main into Odenwald (Purple Route) and Neckar Valley, Black Forest and Lake Constance region (Red Route).
By Air: Fly to Frankfurt Airport and take a connecting flight to Stuttgart, capital of the in Baden-Württemberg region.
From the airport, depart by private coach on the Red Route (772 km), starting with Bietigheim-Bissingen, 25 km north of Stuttgart and Besigheim, 8km north of the twin towns. Ludwigsburg, 15 km south of Besigheim has more hotels and is a good overnight stop. Bypass Stuttgart town and drive 35 km to Schorndorf and another 35 km to Esslingen. Continue 76 km southwest to Blaubeuren for an overnight stop. Cover Biberach, 41 km south, and Pfullendorf (53 km further away) en route to Meersburg, 37 km on the northern bank of Lake Constance. Meersburg to Stuttgart is 186 km.
Romantik Hotel Friedrich von Schiller, Bietigheim
Hotel Blauzeit, Friedrichstrasse, Ludwigsburg www.blauzeit.com
Hotel Ochsen, Marktstrasse, Blaubeuren www.ochsen-blaubeuren.de
Flair Hotel zum Schiff, Bismarckplatz, Meersburg www.hotelzumschiff.de
Eat & Drink
Try Swabian delicacies like pancake soup, spätzle (local noodles), maultaschen (stuffed pasta), seele (long baguette) and white asparagus. Wash it down with Apfelschorle (apple soda) or wine schorle (wine with soda), Kessler sparkling wine cellar at Esslingen, regional wines like Lemberger, Blaufränkisch, Dornfelder, Riesling, Kerner, Müller-Thurgau and Trollinger, besides German beer like Dinkelacker and Holgenbrau.
Restaurant Trollinger, Mövenpick Hotel, Stuttgart Airport www.trollingerstubn.de
Must try: German buffet spreads
Restaurant Ratsstüble, Besigheim http://www.ratsstueble-besigheim.de
Must try: Asparagus soup, maultaschen, spätzle
Felsenkeller, Heiligenberger Straße 20, Pfullendorf www.felsenkeller-pfullendorf.de
Must try: German beer, ham baked inside a whole loaf of bread, Swabian mashed potatoes
Weinkeller Einhorn, Esslingen http://www.weinkellereinhorn.de
Must try: Roast beef, German style pork chops, with cellar dating back to 729
Restaurant Golden Ente, Biberach www.zur-ente.de
Must try: Duck liver, leg and breast of duck, rump steak with roasted onions & spätzle
Restaurant Goldener Rebstock, Biberach www.goldenerrebstock.de
Must try: Seele, Potato cheese platter, German beer and excellent whiskey collection
Sektkellerei Kessler, Esslingen http://www.kessler-sekt.de
Must try: Germany’s oldest sparkling wine maker of Hochgewächs, Jägergrün, Cabinet & Rosé and Kessler Creations like Riesling and Weissburgunder
Brennerei Rossle, Blaubeuren-Seissen http://www.brennereiroessle.de
Must try: Schnapps and liquors in exotic flavours like apple, peach, orange, ginger and vanilla
Staatsweingut Meersburg http://www.staatsweingut-meersburg.de
Must try: Secco white sparkling wine pairs well with cheese, the dry Meersburger Lerchenberg Muller-Thurgau is excellent with asparagus, the slightly almondy and buttery Hohentwieler Olgaberg Weissburgunder goes with everything, the Meersburger Jungfernstieg Spatburgunder Blanc de Noirs is ideal with white meat whereas those who love spicy, hot, Indian food might prefer the special Rosé Gutswein Spatburgunder Weissherbst.
Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart documents over 125 years of auto industry history in a single continuous timeline www.mercedes-benz.com
Gottlieb Daimler Gebursthaus (Birthplace) in Schorndorf www.daimler.com
When to go
Christmas markets in winter at Stuttgart (one of the oldest and biggest in Europe, started in 1692) and Baroque style medieval Christmas market in Esslingen are held in Nov-Dec
The Tourist Information at Markplatz in Pfullendorf organizes free town tours every Friday 10 am between May to October, covering the old town, the Rathaus, Steinscheuer (a granary converted into a library) and other half-timbered houses. http://www.pfullendorf.de
Meersburg’s Tourist Information on Kirchstraße 4 offers 1½ hr guided walks at 10:30 am on Tues/Thurs of the historic Old town, past the fortress, on the terrace of the New Castle, into the Castle Chapel and the Wine Museum. It is free for Lake Constance Experience Ticket holders or € 5.00 per person. www.meersburg.de
For more info, www.germany.travel
Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Outlook Traveller. Read the story on OT at http://www.outlooktraveller.com/trips/on-a-ride-through-swabia-driving-in-germany-1007936