Celebrating its 51st birthday this year is the Burgenstrasse (Castle Road), an innovation brought to the public by lovers of medieval castles, who were convinced that the fortifications and scenery of southwestern Germany were as impressive as the better-known counterparts of the country's Romantic Road, farther to the east and north. The route has been extended, from Mannheim on the west to Prague in the east, with the most important stops -- Heidelberg, Heilbronn, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Nuremberg, Bayreuth and Karlovy Vary -- lying in between. All in all, it's about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) of scenic touring, and, except for the peak months of July and August, far less crowded than the more popular Romantic Road. (Click here to see our map.)
There are altogether more than 70 castles and similar stately homes on the road that passes, along the Neckar River Valley in and around charming towns and villages, most with an impressive fortification perched above. One of the best reasons for driving the Castle Road is the repeating opportunity to stay in remarkably comfortable castle hotels overnight, or, if pressed for time, to visit them for lunch or dinner.
An early American visitor to the Castle Road was Mark Twain, who hiked from Heidelberg to Heilbronn, stopping off at several towns, including Bad Wimpfen, along the way. He later wrote of having a meal on "a raft that is gliding down the winding Neckar past green meadows and wooded hills, and slumbering villages, and craggy heights graced with crumbling towers and battlements." (The locals assure me that although Twain did write about a raft trip down the Neckar, the voyage "never happened".)
One caveat about the Castle Road, entrancing as it is: there were no signs in English on any exhibit in any castle I visited, whether there was a museum or not, so you'll have to rely on your guide for explanations most of the time. Only Guttenberg Castle had an English-language booklet about its history. In fact, the official site (www.german-castles-road.com) for the route is mostly in German, with only a few pages translated into English.
Almost totally destroyed in a firebombing on the night of December 4, 1944, the town was rebuilt by 1970, much of it in replication of the past. Most intriguing of all buildings here is St. Kilian's Church, dating back to 1487, with its beautiful altarpiece, sculpted by Hans Seyfer in 1498, each figure a separate piece of linden wood. Heilbronn has been famous as a wine-producing center since the 12th century.
Calling itself "the Pearl of the Neckar River Valley," the town is one of the most charming along the Castle Road. Take a walk through this historic place, starting from the top at Hirschhorn Castle, built around 1200, with additions through the late 16th century. Just below is the Carmelite Monastery and Church (c. 1400), from which you can stroll the town streets between half-timbered 16th-century houses, with decorative carvings to ward off evil spirits. A couple of houses were built on top of the town wall when space grew sparse. End up at the Langbein Museum, where Mark Twain stared down their Great White Stuffed Owl, and lived to tell the tale. The museum is open from Easter through October 31, daily except Monday and Wednesdays; Alleweg 2.
Dating from the 12th century, the castle today contains a hotel and dining room (Hirschhorn Castle Hotel) with a splendid observation terrace. The restaurant specializes in game in season. Try to stay in the main castle building, or risk trekking uphill (I counted 125 steps) from the annex. Double rooms from €110 ($145.70).
The Neuburg Castle Hotel (www.schloss-neuburg.de), a fine establishment, has been a hotel since 1949, in a fort dating back to 1384. There are 14 rooms, the standard double costing €115 ($152.32), breakfast included. Come here for great views.
A spa town for some 170 years, Bad Rappenau boasts of eight castles within its territory or outskirts, and for Lemberger red wine, which I heartily endorse for its smoothness and rich flavor.
Heinsheim Castle Hotel
Built originally as a farmhouse in 1730, and looking more like a country manor than a castle, the Hotel Schloss Heinsheim (e-mail: email@example.com) has two restaurants and 40 rooms; the doubles (with bath) start from €100 ($132.45) and include breakfast. It's owned by Baron von Racknitz, whose family has been in possession of the castle for 275 years.
The main feature here is the fort, built by the Stauffer emperors at the end of the 12th century, high above the river, with a chapel, arcades and the Red and Blue towers serving as its keeps. The tradition of a tower watchman is still maintained here. Check out the fascinating medieval Old Town with its many half-timbered houses and twisting lanes.
Off the beaten path is the Schweine-Museum (Pig Museum), full of kitschy porkers in ceramics and plastic, and other porcine mementoes. The locals think it's too vulgar for words, but it is good for a laugh. It's located at Kronengasschen 2 and is open daily, 10 to 5. Entry fees are €2.60 ($3.44) for adults, less for kids. Its website, www.schweinemuseum.de, is in German only, but, well, you'll get the idea.
The Barons von Gemmingen have lived here continuously since 1449 (though the castle itself dates from around 1200), and the current Baroness (of the 18th generation) may be your guide through the museum here, as when I visited recently. You can tour a kitchen, the torture chamber, a spinning room and the tower, among other sights, as well as look over a Wooden Library, composed of samples of German woods from about 1790. It's open daily April to October, otherwise by request.
Bird fanciers will love the German Falconry show at the castle, with birds such as vultures, eagles (bald and golden), snowy owls, and of course, falcons. Shows are offered from March through November by Claus Fentzloff and his wife, Bettina (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). You can get more details from the German Raptor Research Center (www.greifenwarte.com). The castle is located in Hassmersheim-Neckarmuhlbach.
You can enjoy lunch here, smack in the middle of the owner's vineyard, and drink wine from the same branches you see from the terrace. The castle dates from the 11th century, but the owners are the Gemmingens, who also hold the nearby Guttenberg Castle. Doubles from €100 ($132.45), including breakfast buffet, service charges and VAT (value added tax). It's located in Neckarzimmern, and its website is www.burg-hotel-hornberg.de.
Other Dining Out
A fine spot for dinner or lunch is Die Rainbach (www.rainbach.de), on the Neckar near the town of the same name. Though it is still boasting of a visit from Henry Ford, the welcome today is modern and the fare heavily regional. A favorite is the Wiener Art pork schnitzel with fries and salad at €14.50 ($19.21). Ortstrasse 9, Neckargem-Rainbach.
You might like to visit the Castle Road after seeing more popular parts of Germany, and taking a package is the easiest and often cheapest way to do that. We suggest heading to www.visits-to-germany.com for suggested suppliers.