To keep René and Andy Reed's daughter, Jenna, happy on her first trip abroad, we suggest castles and more castles.
Last year, René and Andy Reed, of Mission Viejo, Calif., went to Hong Kong and were dazzled by the bustling city. The year before that, they enjoyed a peaceful driving tour of southwestern England. For both trips, their daughter, Jenna, stayed behind with friends and relatives. But after a recent vacation to Washington, D.C., where all three Reeds had a great time, Andy and René felt that Jenna was ready for her first trip overseas.
Touring the medieval villages, castles, and gorgeous countryside along Germany's famed Romantic Road seemed like a good fit. "We want to focus on a small portion of the country and not rush too much," René wrote to us. "We're looking to see as many sights as possible but at the same time have an easygoing, relaxing trip."
Andy bought a few guidebooks and did some Internet research to put together an eight-night itinerary. The route planner at viamichelin.com and tiscover.de, a German booking engine and tourist source, proved especially helpful. Andy and René mapped out the trip to include visits to the medieval city of Rothenburg and two famous castles near Füssen. They booked lodging on their own but contacted us for advice about sights that would make the trip especially fun for Jenna. "Our daughter really likes traveling," René wrote. "She's into art and history and castles, as well as typical kid stuff--adventure, animals, and such."
One of the Reeds' first questions was whether to stick to Germany or dip into neighboring countries. We said concentrating on Germany was the way to go. There's no shortage of worthwhile destinations while touring the Romantic Road and Bavaria. Moreover, the experience is already like visiting several countries, given the strong regional identities that developed over Germany's long history of being divided into many small states.
After picking up their rental car in Frankfurt, the Reeds will drive 75 miles southeast to the baroque city of Würzburg, where the Romantic Road officially begins. We suggested that their first stop should be the Residenz, the immense, 18th-century palace of the local prince-bishops. This UNESCO World Heritage site arguably surpasses any of Europe's royal residences, thanks to the marvelous design of Balthasar Neumann. An unknown when the Residenz was built, Neumann is widely considered the greatest architect of his era. Behind the beige, relatively understated facade are more than 300 ornately decorated rooms. At the center of the horseshoe-shaped palace is the treppenhaus, a grand stairway in an all-white room.
Given Jenna's interest in animals, she's sure to want to see Wildpark, one of the largest zoos in Europe. It's less than an hour from Würzburg in the spa town of Bad Mergentheim. Many of the animals live not in cages but in environments approximating their natural habitats. There are otters, bears, and birds of prey, but the big attraction--albeit kind of a creepy one--is a pack of wolves that emerges from the forest to eat their fill before disappearing back into the woods.
The Reeds will spend two nights at Rothenburg ob der Tauber, about an hour south on the Romantic Road. Encircled by stone walls from the 13th century, Rothenburg is worth the visit even with the summer crowds. We recommended walking around the walls and climbing up the tower of the Rathaus (town hall) to gaze down on the compact old city. Nearby are several attractions that appeal to kids. Käthe Wohlfahrt is Europe's largest year-round Christmas store, with a 12-foot-high nutcracker and a towering tree decorated with more than 1,000 glass balls and 7,000 lights. The Puppen & Spielzeug Museum houses a huge collection of historic dolls and toys. And then there's the Figurentheater, famous for its puppet shows. Performances are in German, but the puppeteers include some material in English and anyone can enjoy the broad humor.
With a full day to cover the remaining 160 miles to Füssen, the Reeds have time for several quick stops. At Schillingsfürst castle, falcons, eagles, and vultures fly during three daily demonstrations. Farther on are two medieval towns that, like Rothenburg, are surrounded by preserved walls: Dinkelsbühl, with its cobblestone streets and 16th-century homes, and quaint Nördlingen, which lies in the heart of the Ries, a moonscape formed 15 million years ago by a meteorite.
Toward the end of the Romantic Road, the isolated Wieskirche (Meadow Church) is not to be missed. What's most interesting here, beyond the rococo extravagance of the building, is the reason the Wieskirche was built. In the late 1730s, word spread that tears had appeared in the eyes of the Scourged Savior, a statue of Jesus shackled in chains. Pilgrims flooded the area to see the statue--it was said to work miracles--and a richly decorated church, completed in 1754, was constructed to welcome them.
In order to avoid the worst of the crowds, we recommended the Reeds leave early from their hotel in Füssen for visits to Schloss Neuschwanstein, the most outrageous of the fantasy castles commissioned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria (and inspiration for the faux castles at Disney parks), and the adjacent Schloss Hohenschwangau, which was built for his father, Maximilian II. A short, rewarding hike leads up behind Neuschwanstein to the Marienbrücke, a slender iron bridge that spans postcard views of the castle and surrounding mountains. Alternatively, they could drive to Schloss Linderhof, the only one of "Mad" Ludwig's castles actually completed during his lifetime. It's in a park dotted with follies, including a pavilion with a throne framed by enamel and wrought-iron peacocks.
The following day, the Reeds will drive to the small town of Maulbronn, clustered around an impressive, well-preserved medieval monastery. The Kloster Maulbronn is a compound of more than 30 buildings, most constructed between 1150 and 1390, with a remarkable irrigation network of canals, drains, and reservoirs that still distributes water.
Back on the castle track, we steered the Reeds to nearby Schloss Lichtenstein, set magnificently on a high, narrow peak. It remains the property of the Urach family, who had it built more than 150 years ago. If the Reeds are feeling ambitious, they can check out the Urachs' original seat, the spa town of Bad Urach, home to many cute, half-timbered buildings so characteristic of central Germany.
From Maulbronn, the Reeds will continue on to Speyer; its 11th-century Kaiserdom (Imperial Cathedral) was once the largest church in the West. Speyer has a distinguished culinary tradition: It is widely considered the birthplace of brezel, the salted bread that, across the Atlantic, became the pretzel. Fresh, hot pretzels cost about 50¢ at bakeries throughout Germany, and Speyer is a good place to give them a taste test.
The Reeds will spend their last three nights at the village of Beilstein, on the River Mosel. We suggested they take a relaxing cruise on either the Mosel or the Rhine and let the pretty scenery of waterside towns, steep vineyards, crumbling castles, and rocky outcrops come to them. Depending on their mood, they can book an all-day voyage or hop from one village to the next as they please.
Before the Reeds return to Frankfurt for the flight home, there's one final castle. Owned by the same family and kept largely intact for more than 800 years, Burg Eltz is in a remote wooded valley near the Mosel. While touring the soaring stone building, with four separate residences and multiple turrets and towers, it's easy to envision living like a king--or a princess--during the Middle Ages.