Entering Franconia (Franken) from the north or west can be a disorientating experience for anyone expecting Alps, blue-and-white flags and Weisswurst – Bavaria’s northernmost region is not at all the Bavaria of popular cliché. Red and white are the colours of Franconia, the sausage of choice is Bratwurst and the unspoilt wooded uplands which cover much of the region rarely rise to mountainous heights, or feature on the itineraries of foreign tourists. In many respects, it has more in common with Thuringia or Hesse than it does with the “real” Bavaria to the south.
Franconia isn’t historically Bavarian at all. It owes its name to the Frankish tribes whose territory it originally was, and from the Middle Ages until the early nineteenth century it was highly fragmented. In Lower Franconia and Bamberg, ecclesiastical rule predominated, and the archbishops of Mainz in Aschaffenburg and the prince-bishops of Würzburg and Bamberg ruled their modest fiefdoms in some style, leaving behind the architectural splendour to prove it. Protestantism took root in the north and east, specifically in Hohenzollern-ruled Brandenburg-Bayreuth and Wettin-ruled Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, whose territories spanned the boundary between Franconia and Thuringia and whose judicious marriage policy ensured its familial links included many of the royal houses of Europe. Outshining all – until its decline at the end of the sixteenth century – was the free imperial city of Nuremberg, seat of the Holy Roman Empire’s imperial Diet and one of Europe’s great medieval manufacturing and trading centres. Free, too, were the little city-states of Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Dinkelsbühl, though political diversity ended when Napoleon incorporated Franconia into the newly upgraded Kingdom of Bavaria – previously a mere duchy – in 1806.
Yet it remains a fantastically diverse place to visit. Unterfranken (Lower Franconia), centred on Würzburg, is wine-growing country, with a feel of the sunny south; it is also the starting point for the Romantic Road, a tourist route linking many of Bavaria’s most beautiful towns. In Oberfranken (Upper Franconia), the Protestant religion and beer predominate. Here, the cultural and historical associations are with Wagner in Bayreuth and with Luther and the British royal family in Coburg; everywhere there’s a sense of the proximity of the lands of central Germany to the north. Bamberg remains a splendid exception, a beer town through and through, but opulently Catholic in an otherwise Lutheran region, and one of Germany’s most beautiful cities.
In Mittelfranken (Middle Franconia), Nuremberg is unmissable for its fascinating and occasionally uneasy blend of medieval splendour and Nazi bombast, while Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Dinkelsbühl are perfectly preserved medieval gems, if scarcely undiscovered by visitors. Though the towns and cities are the major attractions, Franconia’s wooded hills and national parks offer tempting opportunities to escape the crowds, whether by bike, on foot or in a canoe down the lazy Altmühl.
While long-distance hiking and cycle trails cross the region, the bigger cities have fast main-line rail connections and many smaller towns still have a rail link – though the trains serving them can be slow.Read More
Grown on the slopes above the meandering River Main, Franconia’s wines are fuller bodied and often drier than other German wines, their distinctiveness arising in part from the climate, which is less kind than that of the wine-growing regions further west. Summers are warm and dry, but winters are cold, rainfall is high and frosts come early, so slow-ripening varieties like Riesling are less important here. Müller-Thurgau – which is also known as Rivaner – and Silvaner are the significant white-wine grape varieties, with new crosses such as Bacchus also coming to the fore. Red wines are grown in the west of the region, around Aschaffenburg, while Würzburg’s Stein vineyard has given rise to the generic name Steinwein, which is sometimes used to describe all Franconian wines. Most distinctive of all is the squat, rounded Bocksbeutel in which Franconian wines are bottled – very different from the tall, slim-necked bottles used by most German wine-makers. Much the easiest way to experience the wines is in one of Würzburg’s traditional Weinstuben.
You can also tour the impressive Staatlicher Hofkeller cellars by the Residenz, where the €6 price of the tour (March–Dec Sat hourly 10am–noon & 2–5pm, Sun hourly 10am–noon & 2–4pm) includes a small glass of wine. The city has a busy programme of wine festivals throughout the summer months, culminating with the alfresco Weinparade am Dom in September; the tourist office has details.
The Romantic Road
The Romantic Road
Though there are tourist roads that crisscross Germany for everything from wine to fairy tales and half-timbered houses, the Romantic Road remains by far the best-known internationally. The “Romantic” name is something of a catch-all, but the route does encompass much that is most traditionally – and charmingly – German, from walled medieval towns to fairy-tale castles and richly decorated Rococo churches, and it’s precisely this combination of historic sights and lost-in-time-charm that makes the journey worthwhile. Created in the 1950s to boost tourism, it threads its way south from the River Main to the Alps as the landscape progressively changes from gentle, rolling agricultural country to the fringes of the mountains. Along the way, it passes by some of Germany’s most remarkable and famous visitor attractions: the Residenz in Würzburg, the perfectly preserved medieval towns of Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Dinkelsbühl, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Wieskirche and “Mad” King Ludwig II’s Wagnerian fantasy castle of Neuschwanstein. Much the easiest way to travel the Romantic Road is, of course, by car, but if you don’t have your own transport the Eurolines-affiliated Europabus (touring.de) travels the road once daily in each direction from mid-April to October between Frankfurt, Würzburg, Munich and Füssen, with special offers for hikers and cyclists and facilities to transport bikes; you can book tickets for the bus online. There’s also a 460m cycle route, most of it fairly gentle and characterized by well-made local tracks or quiet local roads, or you can follow the route on foot; the GPS data for the entire walk can be ordered from the Romantic Road website, romanticroad.de.