Germany’s Romantic Road (Second Half): Dinkelsbuhl to Nordlingen

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The view from our hotel window in Dinkelsbuhl, and below…

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… the hotel itself (centre) with an open-air café in front of it.

Dinkelsbuhl is a remarkable town. Its walled centre preserves an astonishing array of wide-fronted, multistorey houses with peaked, steeply raked roofs dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. They stand in packed ranks along the town’s narrow streets. Most are neatly painted in pastel colours – creamy yellow, light orange, beige, moss green. Some stand out in scarlet, lemon yellow or brilliant white. Outwardly they are beautifully maintained with few concessions to the 21st century, but behind the neat facades everything is impeccably hi-tech and modern.

Somehow Dinkelsbuhl avoids being Disney-tacky. The locals are not decked out in faux-medieval costumes. The streets are narrow and cobbled as they were 500 years ago, with, in some cases, houses leaning over and looking down into them, each successive floor overhanging the one beneath. Public signage is in German gothic script. The Brothaus bakery – where we twice feasted on sweet pastries and cake-like bread rolls – tells customers it has been doing business in the same spot since 1616. A soaring 16th century stone church – St.George’s Minster – stands at the hub of the town.

We took a tour of the town in a large roofed cart pulled by two giant horses. As the waggoner – who was also our guide – waited for his cart to fill with customers, from time to time he took a sip from a huge glass of beer, each time returning the glass to its storage place under his seat. Apparently the prohibition on drink-driving doesn’t apply to horse-and-cart drivers.

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The narrow streets of Dinkelsbuhl seen from a horse-drawn cart.

An unpleasant incident occurred during the tour. As we clopped at walking pace through a web of alleys our guide gave us a lively commentary in German. Emmy and I didn’t understand a word of it, but following his outstretched finger we saw exotic sights we might not otherwise have noticed. We enjoyed his eccentric personality and the flow of his patter, and we joined in the outbreaks of laughter from the mostly German-speaking passengers. But a bookish-looking, grey-haired gentleman hugging an English-language guidebook was looking resentful. About twenty minutes into the hour-long tour he suddenly shouted “Stop!” The waggoner put his foot on the brake pedal and called out “Brrrrrr” to the horses. In the middle of a narrow street, with cars queueing behind us, the gentleman with his entourage of three crinkly ladies got off. “It’s all in German!” he announced indignantly (in English) to the German passengers. The waggoner’s eyebrows resumed their place over his eyes, and with the smallest hint of a smile he snapped the reins. The horses clopped forward. It had been a tiny but telling glimpse of English-language arrogance.

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Our eccentric, beer-drinking and very personable waggoner-guide.

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The picturesque hamlet of Raustetten. Our accommodation at the Waldeck Hotel is the building visible at the left edge of the village.

The fifth day of the Romantische Strasse took us from the hamlet of Raustetten south of Dinkelsbuhl, over a succession of easy paths 20 kms into the ancient town of Nordlingen. Walking conditions were perfect, with cool temperatures and motionless air under a hazy sky.

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Easy walking on the morning of our last day…

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… but light rain joined us around 11:00 am and stayed with us for the rest of the day.

But around eleven o’clock small spots of rain began to tick against our faces. The hazy sky was still high and bright, but it cast a fine drizzle over us. We broke out our rain jackets and walked on, hunched under our backpacks like a couple of Quasimodos. The rain stayed with us until we reached the ancient, almost perfectly circular defensive wall around Nordlingen at three in the afternoon. We passed through an arched stone gate into the town’s glistening alleys. We had reached the end of the walk. We averaged 18 kilometres a day over five days.

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The religious piety of former times is visible everywhere along the road between Dinkelsbuhl and Nordlingen. Here a forest sign reminds walkers that “God preserves the wilds and woods.” Or is it an entreaty? “God, preserve the wilds and woods!”

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Here are just three of about a dozen wayside crucifixes on the path between Raustetten and Nordlingen. In the more secular 21st century, perhaps they are speaking to passing hikers. “You think you’re suffering? Look up here. You’ve got it easy, mate!”

Getting into Nordlingen was easy, but it proved hard to escape. The following day I went outside the town’s old walls to the railway station to buy tickets to our next destination, Zurich. The station was hard to find. Under a shroud of canvas behind temporary fencing, it was under reconstruction. It had been totally gutted. There was no ticket office behind the empty eyes of its windows. Amidst the scaffolding on the deserted platform stood an automatic ticket vending machine. Its instructions were all in German (abfahrt, fahrtkarten, bahnhof, gesamt) and I could not bring up Zurich on the screen. We trudged back into the centre of town and headed for the tourist information office.

“Can I go from Nordlingen to Zurich by train?”

The helpful matron behind the counter looked startled. She tapped at her computer.

“You can go by train from here to Aalen, then change to another train to Stuttgart, then change to another train to Singen, then change to another train to Zurich.”

I could see Emmy weighing our two big suitcases in her mind’s eye, then adding the heavy bulk of our backpacks. No way, she signalled to me.

The information officer looked at us with curiosity.

“Why don’t you just leave the same way you came?”

“We walked to Nordlingen from Rothenburg. It’s a long way. We’re not walking back!”

“You walked!?”

She was standing right beside a tall poster advertising the invigorating benefits of walking Germany’s Romantic Road. Evidently it was the first time she had seen a real Romantic Road walker. Perhaps she didn’t expect us to be grey-headed and wrinkled.

My solution was an expensive one. On Saturday, July 13th I hired a taxi to take us and our baggage the 100+ kilometres to Stuttgart Station where I was able to buy a train ticket direct to Zurich. Easy.

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Arrival in Nordlingen. Emmy is thriving, while that shrivelled creature in the background is definitely struggling.

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Germany’s Romantic Road (First Half): Rothenburg to Dinkelsbuhl

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The exotic, beautifully preserved centre of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria, western Germany. Our accommodation was a short walk from this square.

Anxious prologue (written July 5th 2019 in Rothenburg ob der Tauber). I’m a bit apprehensive about this walk. Just behind my eyeballs there’s a nagging voice saying “Are you ready for this?” It has been grating at my brain with three unanswerable reasons not to do the walk. First, it says, old age is withering your muscles. You don’t have what it takes to go up and down hills. Yes, it’s true. It’s a rude fact, and I was reminded of it yesterday when we checked into our hotel after a long and complicated trip from Amman in Jordan. The Gerberhaus Hotel is a traditional establishment in a large, picturesque 16th century house not far from the centre of Rothenburg. We were assigned a room under the roof, up three flights of stairs from street-side reception. After four months in Israel, Emmy and I have accumulated stuff, and yes… it’s mostly useless stuff. My suitcase weighs 26 kilos and hers 23 kilos. We also have heavy backpacks. The Gerberhaus has no lift, nor staff to help with luggage. So yesterday I had to haul my 26 kg bag, step by painful step, up to our attic room. Then Emmy’s. How many times did I go up and down those three flights of stairs? Five times, I think, and each time the stairs stretched up higher and steeper. My stringy old muscles were definitely not up to it. I’m feeling fragile. (This afternoon, we’ll pack up all our excess stuff and send it back to Canberra by DHL’s courier service.)

That small, grating voice is also reminding me: “You’re not fit, are you!?” Six weeks ago, we did a four-day hike through northern Israel (see my four reports on The Jesus Trail). Since then I have hardly exercised at all. Jerusalem’s summer heat put a stop to my daily walk from our apartment in the suburb of Katamon to my office at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies, a return distance of about five kilometres. I had to go by bus. I have lost condition. I can feel that my walking range – my stamina – has taken a big hit. And there’s no time now to build it up again little by little. We start walking the Romantic Road tomorrow with an initial hike of 16 kms.

Then there’s the weather. A week ago, Europe went through an unusual heatwave. Temperatures in parts of Germany sailed up over 40 degrees. I’m looking at my mobile phone right now: tomorrow’s maximum will be around 30 degrees. That’s too hot for two easily dehydrated old people who don’t have the strength or the stamina to carry a big load of water.

The prognosis doesn’t look good. We will walk tomorrow, but we are going to suffer.

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Emmy walks through an ancient gateway into the centre of Rothenburg town.

Report from Schillingsfurst, our first stop. As predicted, July 6th dawned dry and hot. As we walked out of Rothenburg at 9:00 a.m. the sun was already like a branding iron in the cloudless sky. Initially there wasn’t much shade. We walked through quiet fields of beige-yellow spelt-wheat and bright green corn. Luckily our trail notes (supplied by Macs Adventure: https://www.macsadventure.com/holiday-1479/germanys-romantic-road ) were detailed and clear, and the trail markers along the route were frequent and clearly visible.

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Much of our route was on smooth minor roads through rich farmland.

But by the village of Bochenfeld, less than half-way through the day’s walk, attrition had climbed like a gorilla onto our shoulders. It was a relief to enter a stretch of shadowy woods and sit for half an hour on some fallen logs. We ate a little and drank a lot, enjoying the restorative quiet. Tiny waspish-looking flies traversed my outstretched legs, hovering like tiny helicopters on a reconnaissance mission over the ridges and gullies of my clothes, sniffing out my sunscreen lotion and salty sweat. There were a few lazy chirps in the trees, but otherwise all was silent. A church bell tolled from kilometres away, muffled in the heavy heat of late morning.

In the afternoon our stops became more frequent, but around 3:00 pm we managed to edge into the village of Schillingsfurst – wrapped in Saturday afternoon somnolence. From the terrace of our accommodation at the very welcoming Die Post Hotel, high on the slope of a valley, the countryside rolled out to the horizon: orange roofs of farmsteads amid a quilt of corn and wheat fields, belts of dark forest, small villages holding fast to the spikes of their church towers, high-tech ridge-top windmills slowly, gracefully waving their slender arms in the late afternoon breeze.

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A typical country hotel along the Romantic Road: our accommodation in Schillingsfurst.

It was a relief to reach our destination, but in a kind of mild delirium I made a mistake. I drank a big stein-mug of Bavarian beer, then at dinner devoured slabs of beef that (the publican told me proudly) had been marinated in rich red wine for six days, and followed it with an ice-cream dessert dressed in a high-octane liqueur. The combination of alcohol and dehydration triggered an attack of gout in my right big-toe joint. The following morning I was yelping in pain and limping. The day’s walk to Feuchtwangen – 22 kilometres – grinned at me in evil anticipation of my suffering.

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A selfie in the cool of the forest.

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Ouch! Ow! You can’t see my face, fortunately, but my gout-ridden toe is killing me.

Dear reader, I won’t impose on your reserves of sympathy with details of my agony. Anyway, I don’t remember much of the day… I was walking through a paracetamol induced fog. Somehow the kilometres crept past like ghosts. At least the temperature had fallen to around 20 degrees. As we walked unsteadily into Feuchtwangen I swore a solemn oath: never again any alcohol of any kind in any quantity during this month of walking. And… success! I have strictly observed the oath for a whole two days.

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After our hot first day of walking, we are religious about keeping well hydrated.

We have found the Germans we have met to be warm and friendly, tolerant of our practically non-existent command of German, and wonderfully ready to help. We had two examples of this as we left Feuchtwangen. I asked our hosts at the Karpfen Hotel to prepare two packed lunches for us to eat on the road the following day. As we checked out, our lunches were handed to us.

“How much?”

“Oh, no charge,” was the smiling reply. Inside each pack we found three freshly cut sandwiches (thick cheese and ham), a tomato and a boiled egg. Free! On the edge of town we stopped to buy water at an old mill that had been turned into a popular restaurant. The proprietor emerged with a big bottle of top-quality mineral water.

“How much?”

“Oh, no charge,” was the smiling reply. And we hadn’t even entered the restaurant!

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Just outside Feuchtwangen, the converted old mill where we were given free mineral water.

This earthy generosity lent wings to our feet. My painful toe had settled down, the rich green fields and shade-filled forests flashed past, and by three o’clock in the afternoon we were passing under Dinkelbuhl’s tall, red, medieval clock tower. Survival is a kind of success, and we had survived the first half of the walk. Time for a day’s break in the exotic surrounds of “Germany’s most beautiful old city”.

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On the outskirts of “The most beautiful old city in Germany”. (More on Dinkelsbuhl in the next post.)