Heidelberg to Rothenburg ob der Tauber: 100 miles
East of Heidelberg, the Castle Road follows the course of the Neckar, along which castles emerge from the crests of hills like capped mushrooms. We excitedly count each one, like kids on a road trip spotting license plates. At the town of Neckarzimmern, in the Tauber Valley, we pull a hard left to Hornberg Castle, an 11th-century keep, where we stop for coffee and cake on the castle’s terrace, with a view of the red-roofed village below.
The walled city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one of the few towns in the Tauber Valley that has remained virtually untouched since the 17th century. And for the next couple of days, we stay on its main street in a storied old pile called the Hotel Eisenhut. Once among the most prosperous in Germany, Rothenburg suffered an outbreak of the plague in the early 1600’s and was sacked soon after in the Thirty Years’ War. The town never recovered, and as a consequence, little was built; the city is a medieval time capsule of half-timbered houses and arched gateways that pass through the bases of stone towers.
Despite being a picture-perfect town full of tourists, Rothenburg, truth be told, is not the most exciting place. It is, however, known for the Restaurant Mittermeier. In the busy basement enoteca, decidedly less pricey and formal than the fine-dining room upstairs, dark walnut tables are full of hip young locals; it’s like being back in the 21st century. The owner, 42-year-old Christian Mittermeier, is a voluble, bearlike man who apprenticed as a butcher as a teenager, before managing a small hotel just outside of town. After a glass of red wine and some goat ragoût, we ask his advice on the best vineyard in the region to visit. “Mine!” he says. “Meet me at nine tomorrow morning and I’ll take you myself.”
Rothenburg ob der Tauber to Weimar: 165 miles
True to his word, Mittermeier shows up the next morning, and together we drive north through pastureland and orchards brimming with apples and pears—it’s no wonder the Germans call this the Romantische Strasse. Up the side of a steep ridge sits Mittermeier’s winery, Tauberzell, where we try the Riesling grapes and take in the valley below. “There is the Tauber River, which means fish; the mill, which means grain and bread; the fields with sheep, which means meat and wool; and beyond, the village,” he says. “From this one spot, I can see everything that is important to me, and no factory in sight. It must have been like this 500 years ago.”
On the way back, Mittermeier insists we stop at Mainbernheim village, where his cousin owns a hotel-restaurant called Gasthof Zum Falken. It’s a Thursday, one of the two days each week when his cousin, Lars Zwick, makes fresh bratwurst from pork butchered in town. Zwick serves each of us a pair of perfectly grilled sausages over sauerkraut, with a glass of local Riesling, before we head out.
After dropping Mittermeier back in Rothenburg, we drive north on the Romantische Strasse toward Weimar, a town of an altogether different provenance. If Rothenburg is a time machine to the Middle Ages, then Weimar is a portal to the Enlightenment; J. S. Bach and Franz Liszt both lived in the city center during some of their most productive years. As we cruise down the tree-lined streets, the country’s genteel past comes to life, with stately slate-roofed houses rising from walled-in yards. The Bauhaus movement was founded here in 1919.
Judging by its modern interiors, you would never suspect that our hotel, the 313-year-old Hotel Elephant, was once the preferred meeting spot for intellectuals like Goethe. For dinner, we head to the nearby Anno 1900, a Beaux-Arts–style pavilion jutting out from the side of the historic Hotel Anna Amalia. Franz Kafka lived in the hotel building in 1912, as did his longtime friend Max Brod. Outside, the weather has turned cool and crisp. I pull Sandra close and together we set off, our footfalls echoing off the cobblestones.