By Wesley Owens
Europe’s scenic Castle Road is a long one, stretching some 1,000 kilometres from Mannheim in Germany to Prague in the Czech Republic. Along the way, travellers pass 70 castles dating to medieval times and beyond. But arguably the most attractive section – and the one with most the castles – unfolds beside the quiet Neckar River near historic Heidelberg. As an alternative to the more tourist-intense Romantic Road to the east, the Castle Road, or Burgenstrasse, deserves consideration.
Driving the route, with a visit to Heidelberg, provides a counterpoint to dynamic Stuttgart, Germany’s powerhouse city that lies just south of the Neckar. A visit to both areas gives insight to two sides of German culture, history, and outlook.
Heidelberg is an easy hour-plus drive south from Frankfurt (Germany’s busiest airport gateway) on the A5 and is recognized as one of the nation’s top tourist cities. Little wonder. It’s a very old and pretty city – one of the few to have been spared from aerial bombings during the Second World War.
This is home to Germany’s oldest university, and the cultural artifacts and architecture that have grown around this scholastic vortex keep visitors coming back. Especially to Heidelberg’s Old Town where picturesque Bismarckplatz, the Town Hall, and Renaissance gems like Knight St. George from 1592 can be seen. Heidelberg University, with more than 30,000 students, is anchored by Untere Strasse, a riverside street featuring a colourful variety of coffee shops, bars and assorted dining places.
Bisecting the town is the Neckar River, and above it on the bluffs is Heidelberg Castle. The striking red sandstone palace is a Gothic masterpiece, built in the 1200s and subjected to destructive sacking by French soldiers in 1689. Less than one hundred years later, it was burned by a lightning strike.
It’s now in ruins, but regal and rambling ruins. And it’s a most striking start to tour a portion of the Castle Road along a route that can eat up the best part of a day’s driving, depending on the number of stops made.
On this route is Burg Hirschhorn with 12th-century origins and overlooking the town of the same name. A steep, narrow road runs up the bluffs behind the castle, with a place to park just steps from the structure’s stone walls.
One can wander through the bones of the castle and up into its tower for a panoramic view of the river, town and countryside below. A restaurant terrace serves filling lunches topped off with beer, brewed as only the Germans can.
The city of Heilbronn is just 80 kilometres from Heidelberg on the Castle Road, but after a day touring alongside the river, it’s convenient to grab the entrance ramp onto autobahn A81 at Heilbronn and head south to Stuttgart for the night.
Bombed into near-rubble by Second World War air attacks, the city that rose from the destruction is one of Germany’s most dynamic economic centres. Yet in the course of its urban revival, the city has ensured that its historic core be rebuilt to at least emulate the original structures.
Within this core is the vast Palace Square, used as a military drill and parade ground from 1746 until the middle of the 19th century, when it became a Baroque park open to the citizens of Stuttgart. And so it continues to this day, a place where people relax on the grass to enjoy their lunch break, or just take in the sun.
With the warm weather comes a schedule of open air concerts by well known jazz, blues, pop and classical artists. Meanwhile, the inner courtyard of the nearby Wurttemberg State Museum is converted each year into a Christmas market – one of the largest in the land.
Within walking distance are sights like the Upper Palace Gardens, Marketplatz (Market Square), Rathaus (Town Hall) and Markthalle (Market Hall). Also close is the Konigstrasse, Stuttgart’s main shopping boulevard and the longest pedestrian mall in Europe. The eye-catching Museum of Art is housed within a towering 27-metre glass cube, which glows at night and casts its light into the Palace Square.
Heavy industry drives the economy of Stuttgart, but even that takes on the aspect of art, considering that the primary product of the factories is vehicles by Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. Both companies have located their head office and manufacturing plants here. And both maintain historic records of their iconic brands in modern museums with comprehensive displays.
Mercedes-Benz has showcased its cars in its landmark museum since 2006, and the Porsche museum opened in 2009. Both can be easily accessed by city transit trains and should be on the must-see list for motor heads. Even non-enthusiasts can’t help but admire the adventurous architecture used in both buildings.
Just 40 kilometres south of Stuttgart, you can reconnect with the Neckar River, and Germany’s medieval past, in the serenely historic town of Tubingen. A visit is like being catapulted from the modern hustle of Stuttgart to a centuries-past pace of life on the slow moving river.
Here, the colourful half-timbered houses so symbolic of German history crowd the river’s edge, packed shoulder to shoulder. Tubingen is largely populated by students attending the university, and some of the oldest buildings, including the Old University Hall, hug the river.
The city’s status as a centre of learning was apparently the key to sparing Tubingen from attack by American and British bombers during the Second World War – as was allegedly the case with Heidelberg.
Both universities are venerated and respected (the University of Tubingen was originally established in 1477) and the two cities only differ in size. With a population of just 80,000 (Heidelberg has 145,000), Tubingen remains an historic gem brought to life by the buzz of a student population. It’s chock-a-block with attractive dining establishments and cozy pubs along narrow, crooked streets impossible to resist. They lead not only to wine cellars, bars, and boutiques, but also to historic sites such as the Old Wood Market, the Protestant seminary, the Holderlin Tower and Castle Hohentubingen.
A stop in Tubingen is a wonderful way to wind up this short tour of two distinct sides of German life, existing so close to each other in busy, still-prosperous Germany.