HOHENSCHWANGAU, Germany -- I was driving along the Romantic Road when I realized a few things. For one, bombs cannot kill cities. For another, eccentrics sometimes create masterpieces. For a third, except for the plague and witch hunts, the olden days seem awfully recent here.
Created in 1950 as a marketing tool to attract U.S. servicemen and their families stationed in Germany, the Romantic Road stretches 217 miles between Fussen and Wurzburg. Today, it attracts visitors lured by medieval villages and castles that appear more like movie sets than real places.
Yet what you see today is only an echo of a thousand years of history. Behind every flowerbox and window pane is an incredible story.
The family of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria considered him to be pretty much a loser. Ludwig despaired of his royal duties and retreated to the mountains, where he built himself several extravagant palaces steeped in fantastic originality and oddities, blowing through the family’s royal fortune. Today, the two most famous are Linderhof and Neuschwanstein. They are amazing.
Linderhof, many travelers’ favorite (about 45 minutes east of the Romantic Road near Ettal), has a stark white exterior and a small interior dripping with gold, lapis, china, marble and jewels. Constructed in the 1870s, it feels like stepping inside a Faberge egg, or perhaps a gilded cage.
The nearby Castle Neuschwanstein, however, is Ludwig’s hallmark. Massive as an ocean liner, set among the dramatic mountains and waterfalls in Hohenschwangau, its turrets and towers are testaments to Ludwig’s theatrical taste.
You go in on a timed ticket with a group of about 25, climb a steep spiral staircase, and get surprised. Giant murals depict scenes from Wagner operas. Golden floor candelabras shine in a ballroom that never held a party. A silver-plated swan fountain nests in the bedroom. A throne big enough for Goliath looms in the immodest throne room.
This castle was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s castle in the Magic Kingdom, but it saw few happy times.
Declared insane and dethroned in 1886, Ludwig drowned in a lake only a few days later at age 40. To this day, the German people do not know if it was suicide, murder or an accident.
But here’s the kicker: Ludwig’s folly turned out to be a major tourist attraction. About 1.3 million people visit Linderhof every year, and the same number visit Neuschwanstein, which also was a finalist in 2007 as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.
The dreamy king did good. Really good.
I have to admit, I cheated. The Romantic Road (basically, B-17 and B-25) is a two-lane winding road that can be slow with nowhere to pass. I began driving it in the south near the castles, but with fog blotting out part of the landscape, I detoured onto the A7 Autobahn and sped two hours north to sunny Dinkelsbuhl, where I rejoined the Romantic Road.
The town with the adorable name is small, warmly charming, and the kind of place you might expect to see the real boy Pinocchio walking down the lane.
Walk the perimeter wall, with gates and towers that date back to the 14th century. Enjoy the somewhat kitschy painted store signs in Gothic text (my favorite was the hearing aid shop called “Haus des guten horens” — literally, “The House of Good Listening ”).
There’s a harmony here, and the shopkeepers are very friendly for Germany. In December, like others on the route, this town has a big Christmas Market.
About 30 minutes north of Dinkelsbuhl is the oddly named city Rothenburg ob der Tauber (“on the river Tauber”). This jewel of the Romantic Road features stately half-timber architecture, a big central market square, huge churches and busloads of tourists.
It’s so pretty that scenes from the first Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was filmed here. The medieval-walled town dates back 1,000 years and gives off a jolly air, as if Santa might park his sleigh to grab a schneeballen powdered sugar pastry down at the bakery.
Unfortunately for little Rothenburg, it was singled out by the Nazis as the ideal German town. The town’s Jews were wiped out. With German troops stationed there, it was targeted by Allied bombs in 1945, which destroyed about 40 percent of the town. It rebuilt.
Today, you cannot tell what fell down and what did not. You see only a place that has reinvented itself many times, that survived, is still here and has a storybook charm — and a little Jewish memorial garden near the White Tower.
At the northern end of the Romantic Road is the carefully constructed city of Wurzburg.
My favorite part is the Alte Mainbrucke (old main bridge), a 15th century walking bridge lined with gigantic stone statues, much like the Charles Bridge in Prague. But the most famous attraction is the Residenz, a massive palace built by the prince archbishops in the 1700s. You can visit 40 rooms and realize that, hey, these archbishops never went broke, just baroque.
Founded as a religious center in the eighth century, Wurzburg was ruled by prince-bishops for hundreds of years, later prospering as part of Bavaria.
But here’s what else to know: In 1945, 90 percent of the town was bombed and burned to bits by the Allies, killing an estimated 5,000. The U.S. military kept a presence here until Jan. 14, 2009. That accounts for a slight American feel to the wide streets, the fast food, the good English that sales clerks speak.
Wurzburg rebuilt. It rebuilt its glorious medieval churches and royal residences and bridges and towers. Now it is a huge tourist draw. Visited by 3 million day visitors and 650,000 overnight visitors a year, people come to see the old architecture, which truly is stunning, all the more so because it is actually a recreation of what was there before, a whole town that sprang back to life, in a romantic burst of hope.