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.