The Fantastic Road
One of SouthWest Germany’s newer tourist routes, the "Fantastic Road" links some of the prettiest cities and most beautiful countryside in the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg. From Weinheim and Heidelberg in the north, the route goes south to Lake Constance then loops back up to Heidelberg.
With 10 suggested stops, each with its own character and history, this is the perfect route for the first-time visitor to SouthWest Germany. It takes in Germany's oldest university towns and elegant spa resorts, wine villages and the family seat of the last German emperor. Not forgetting Lake Constance, one of Europe’s most beautiful stretches of water.
At times, the route follows the Neckar River; at others, it goes through the romantic Black Forest and the Swabian Mountains. But there is more: restaurants boasting Michelin stars, award-winning luxury hotels, family-run inns, and cheerful local taverns.
Drive all of it, or part of it: start anywhere you like; go clockwise or counter-clockwise.
DISTANCES: from north to south 250 miles/400 km; the total loop is an easy 500 miles/800km. Allow 5 to 7 days.
Driving from north to south, Weinheim is the first stop on the Fantastic Road. Back in 1764, the German emperor declared: “This is where Germany starts turning into Italy!” See what he meant in a café on the Market Square, with its handsome Rathaus (town hall). Stroll the narrow streets, past half-timbered houses in the Tanners’ Quarter. The town is dominated by two castles. The 900-year-old Windeck is now an atmospheric ruin; climb up for the view and then relax in the beer garden. Wachenburg castle is more modern; a century ago, it was still being built!
Plan to allow plenty of time in Heidelberg. The delightful Old Town offers medieval houses, cobbled lanes, churches, and taverns. The lively buzz is provided by students from Germany’s oldest university, founded in 1386. Tour the Student Jail; enjoy a Student’s (chocolate) Kiss! Cross the Neckar River and stroll along the Philosophers' Walk. Explore the ruins of the ancient castle and ride the funicular to the 1,850-ft / 567-m summit of the Königstuhl. Heidelberg inspired the German Romantic Movement 200 years ago; today, it is still one of Europe’s most romantic cities.
Elegant is the best way to describe this spa city on the edge of the Black Forest. In Roman times, visitors came to soak in the natural hot mineral water springs. For 250 years, Europe’s aristocracy, the rich and the famous came to see and be seen. And they still do! Sophisticated pleasures include glorious gardens and parks, a fine concert hall and art galleries, a race course, luxury hotels and a glamorous casino that actress Marlene Dietrich described as “the most beautiful in the world.” And there are two spas for relaxing and recharging your batteries. One is modern; the other is an opulent gem from the 19th century.
One of the prettiest towns in the Black Forest, Gengenbach is picture-perfect. There are half-timbered houses and window boxes overflowing with geraniums, narrow alleyways and tall watchtowers, church spires and ancient gates. In front of the grandiose town hall is Gengenbach’s mascot, a stone statue of a knight, standing atop a fountain. And all round are vineyards, planted by monks 1,000 years ago. Do as the locals do: stop in an ancient tavern and order a glass of red or white wine from those very vineyards.
Overlooking the River Rhine, Breisach is dominated by St Stephen’s Cathedral (St. Stephansmünster). Built between the 12th and 15th centuries, the building is partly Romanesque, partly Gothic. From here, there are grand vistas over the Rhine valley to the Black Forest and the Vosges mountain range across the river in France. With the Kaiserstuhl and Tuniberg, two of Germany’s finest wine regions nearby, Breisach is also home to the Badische Winzerkeller, one of Europe's largest and most historic wine cellars. Take a tour; then sip a glass of local sparkling wine.
What Oxford and Cambridge are to England, Tübingen and Heidelberg are to SouthWest Germany. In Tübingen, the 500-year-old university is the hub of this fine medieval town. On the way up to the hilltop castle, climb stone steps and wander up narrow alleys. Take time to photograph the old houses and visit craftsmen, such as potters and goldsmiths, working in their studios. Take a trip in a flat-bottomed punt along the Neckar River, lined with towering sycamore, or plane, trees.
You cannot miss Hohenzollern, set high on a crag in the Swabian Mountains. The ancestral home of Prussian kings and German emperors boasts 1,000 years of history and looks like a castle. But, it is actually Neo-Gothic, built only 150 years ago. From the battlements and towers, the panorama ranges over the surrounding countryside. Inside are grand state rooms, where highlights include important paintings, valuable silver, delicate china, and in the Treasury, dazzling jewels and the magnificent Prussian royal crown.
>> Hohenzollern Castle
On the northern shore of Lake Constance, Meersburg is surrounded by vineyards. Standing on a steep hillside are the upper and lower towns, connected by stone steps. Germany’s oldest inhabited fortress (800 years and counting), still looks formidable; inside are the Knight’s Hall, dungeons and narrow passageways, plus a remarkable collection of armor and medieval weaponry. Next door is the 300-year-old New Palace, a pink jewel of Baroque architecture, with an unusually elaborate staircase. Outside, its vast terrace looks south over the lake to the snow-capped Alps.
With its Mediterranean micro-climate, Mainau is renowned for its floral gardens. Just offshore on Lake Constance, this was, and still is, home to the Bernadottes, related to the Swedish royal family. The garden, one of Europe’s most magnificent, was created some 80 years ago. Today, plants range from the exotic, such as orchids, to the more familiar tulips, roses, and dahlias. But there is more, from the butterfly and palm houses to the Baroque palace. Best of all, Mainau is easy to get to, by boat or via a bridge.
>> Mainau Island
One of the oldest and most important cities on Lake Constance, Konstanz matches 2,000 years of history with contemporary fun. Some 600 years ago, with three popes all claiming the right to the papal throne, the council held here was the focus of the European world. Unity was finally achieved and the schism ended. Today, the Old Town retains an atmosphere of history, but visitors enjoy modern pleasures, such as strolling through the parks and gardens on the lakeshore, and photographing Imperia, the rotating statue of a woman that overlooks the small harbor. With its regular ferries and cruises, Konstanz is an ideal base from which to explore the Lake Constance region.