The Land of Baden-Württemberg is the result of combining the states of Baden, Hohenzollern and Württemberg after World War II, but feels coherent thanks to the strong Swabian identity of most of its people. In the rest of Germany Swabians are caricatured as hardworking, frugal and rather boring, yet their industriousness and inventiveness has made their region one of Europe’s wealthiest.
This industrial prowess makes up a big part of the Swabian identity, as does its regional food – a pasta-based cuisine that famously includes Spätzle; a love of good local wine; and a quirky regional accent. Baden-Württemberg is also influenced by its proximity to Switzerland and France, with which it shares much history.
Stuttgart and its environs are the industrial heartland of an otherwise fairly rural Baden-Württemberg. As the headquarters of industrial heavyweights that include Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and electronics giant Bosch, Stuttgart predictably oozes self-confidence and reeks of wealth.
However, surprises lurk here too, in the form of an attractive setting between a series of hills, down which vineyards run right to the city’s edges. Abundant city parks, thermal baths and Renaissance palaces all help make the compact, business-orientated town a likeable destination for a weekend or so. The car industry museums are particularly good and the city also has the region’s best restaurant and nightlife scene.
As a significant regional transport hub it’s also a good place from which to launch day-trips. The most obvious being Ludwigsburg, with its excessive Baroque palace and, at the other end of the hedonism scale, the old monastery at Maulbronn, whose buildings tell a story of a simple, long-forgotten monastic life. Both are brilliant, well-preserved and very different snapshots of Germany’s past.
Stuttgart’s also well-connected to the thriving nearby university town of Tübingen and the upbeat city of Ulm with its giant minster. Both interesting cities lie at the foot of an upland plateau known as the Swabian Alb. This thinly-populated agricultural region with its strong local dialect and identity rises as a steep escarpment some 50km south of Stuttgart, and runs southwest to all but join the southern Black Forest. Its wonderful limestone scenery offers interesting hiking and a rash of romantic castles built at strategic overlooks make equally good day-trips.
A short journey south of the Swabian Alb lies the vast Bodensee, where a huge body of water and Germany’s best weather combine to form a popular holiday destination. Konstanz is the largest and most engaging of several attractive lakeside settlements. West of here the hills rise and darken with the Black Forest, Baden-Württemberg’s most famous asset.
Meanwhile, in the far north of the state, the towns of Heidelberg and Karlsruhe stick out as two lively university cities that offer appealing stopoffs for visitors travelling between the Rhineland and the Black Forest. Though known for, and centred around, a palace, the Rhine-side location has given Karlsruhe an industrial base and a modern dynamism reflected in its world-class contemporary art and technology museum, the ZKM.
Heidelberg is more removed from modernity and a major tourist honeypot, thanks to an attractive valley setting and a mighty ruined castle. It’s particularly popular with Americans who like to follow in the steps of Mark Twain’s own enchantment with the city. A short hop distant, the workaday town of Mannheim is worth visiting for its Jugendstil architecture, if you have time.
Stuttgart is the main regional transport hub, but the whole state – with the exception of the Swabian Alb – is easy to navigate by public transport. Getting to remote places is of course easiest with your own wheels – and given the importance of the motor industry in the state, this is a part of Germany where roads are kept in premium condition, and you can really let rip on the Autobahn.
Only 15km from France, bright and busy Karlsruhe is one of Germany’s youngest cities. Meaning “Karl’s rest”, the town was created in 1715 by Margrave Karl Wilhelm of Baden as a place to escape his dull wife and spend time with mistresses. It grew as capital of Baden from 1771 and developed as a liberal town where art and science flourished, as did the university that still gives the town a happening feel.
After the war it lost out to Stuttgart as regional capital, but as seat of Germany’s two highest courts it still plays a significant national role and is also an important industrial base. Karlsruhe’s premier attractions are its excellent museums – particularly the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) with its contemporary art and high-tech installations – and the fact that the city lies within a well-priced regional public transport network, which puts it within easy reach of the Northern Black Forest and Baden-Baden. One unusual event in town to look out for is the Trachten and Folklorefest, when folk groups from all over Europe converge in the June of even-numbered years.
The hulking, slightly ominous-looking, detached building 2km southwest of Karlsruhe’s Schloss was once a munitions factory, but like so many defunct industrial buildings it has leant itself superbly to becoming an exhibition space. The Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, or ZKM, occupies the building’s vast airy halls, and includes cafés and restaurants, space for regular and dependably great temporary exhibitions as well as three excellent museums; a combined day-ticket permits entry to all.
Art and gadgetry collide in the Medienmuseum which is chock-full of entertaining electronic gimmicks that synthesize various elements of music, film, photography and design into creative and interactive art installations which can easily take all day to explore. Activities include using electronic dice to create a pastiche of a waltz by irreverently cobbling together bars of Mozart; using a vast image library to create collages; and shooting small movies using geometric shapes.
All this is of course based on computer technology, so as a tribute you can see the maze of tubes and cables of the world’s oldest operable computer (1941). Look out also for the 1950s-and 1960s-vintage optical illusions of the Neuer Tendenzen, or Nouvelles Tendances, an avant-garde school of art that pioneered this style. If all this hasn’t left you fuzzy headed enough, the top floor of the museum is replete with various playable video games from every era.
After Medientechnologie, the Museum für Neue Kunst (Museum for Contemporary Art) could easily be an anticlimax, but its thoughtful exhibits are engaging, and include 1960s Pop Art, but are usually dominated by contemporary art that reflects on aspects of modern-day Germany.
At the end of the ZKM, and accessed by a separate entrance, is the Städtische Galerie, the most staid – if still accomplished – of the ZKM museum trio. It focuses on local and postwar German art, but is usually most worthwhile for its temporary exhibitions, which try for broad popular appeal – such as exhibitions of graphic novels.
Nestled in a relatively isolated valley, 33km northwest of Stuttgart, the small town of Maulbronn is famous for the medieval Kloster Maulbronn, which is so well preserved it still exudes monastic contemplation and labour. Founded as a Cistercian monastery in 1140, it was dissolved during the sixteenth century after which it became a Protestant school: fans of former pupil Hermann Hesse may recognize it as the semi-fictional Mariabronn in his book Narziss und Goldmund. Parts still serve as a school but only for around fifty pupils.
Initially the most striking feature of the monastery is the wall that encircles it and other defensive fortifications, dating from an era when the region was wild and fairly lawless. Within the compound a tidy collection of Gothic half-timbered buildings reveal themselves, looking much as they would have done five hundred years ago.
You can wander the compound free of charge, and there’s a useful information board showing the layout and original uses of the buildings outside the visitor centre, which sells entry tickets to the church and refectory, and rents out moderately useful audio-guides.
For a heady century the small town of Ludwigsburg was adorned with grandeur as the seat of the Württemberg dukes and Germany’s largest Baroque palace. During that time a planned town developed on the basis of free land and building materials, and a fifteen-year tax exemption. The elegant Marktplatz at its centre suggests these planned origins with its perfectly balanced streets radiating from a statue of palace founder, Eberhard Ludwig, flouncing on a fountain.
When Friedrich I’s Neues Schloss rose in Stuttgart, 14km to the south, Ludwigsburg suddenly reverted to provincial obscurity, although its Versailles-inspired palace continues to draw visitors and delight lovers of Baroque. The town returns the compliment by theming as much as it can in this style, including its Christmas market. Other seasonal high-points include the mid-May Pferdemarkt, a traditional horse festival, with much clip-clopping around town; the Schlossfestspiele (June to mid-Sept; schlossfestspiele.de), a classical music, opera, dance and theatre festival; and, in early September, the Venetian-style costume Carnevale.
Schloss Ludwigsburg was born out of Duke Eberhard Ludwig’s envy of palaces admired on military campaigns abroad. French troops, who in 1697 reduced the ducal hunting lodge here to ashes, provided the required excuse to build a replacement, in the form of a Baroque palace, duly begun in 1706. Just before its completion, the duke demanded two further wings, in part to lodge his mistress. The court was furious at his extravagance, yet a second, far larger Corps de Logis rose to close the square.
However, Eberhard Ludwig was almost modest compared with his successor Duke Carl Eugen. Upon ascending to the duchy throne in 1744, the 16-year-old ruler declared the Residenzschloss his home and established the most vibrant court in Europe where the finest opera, ballet and French comedy was offered, and extramarital dalliances were part of the menu too: the Duke forbade ladies from wearing blue shoes at court except “those who would … devote their honour to him … (and who should) never appear without this distinguishing mark,” notes a 1756 court report. Small wonder his wife stomped back to her parents after eight years of marriage.
Of the sixty-odd rooms on show of the palace’s 452 across eighteen buildings, the older ones are perhaps the most extravagant: a gorgeous allegorical fresco of the arts and sciences for Eberhard Ludwig in the Ahnensaal (Ancestors’ Hall) leads to Carl Eugen’s charming Schlosstheater, which entertained Mozart, Casanova and Goethe and where classical music is still staged in the summer. Eberhard Ludwig’s Schlosskapelle spurns Protestant piety to show off ritzy Baroque.
The east wing’s Satyrkabinett features cherubs above moustachioed Turkish prisoners of war who lament Eberhard Ludwig’s success in the field, and trompe l’oeil frescoes play tricks on the ceiling of the Ordenshalle, the festive hall of the ducal hunting order. The new Corps de Logis is largely dressed in opulent early Neoclassicism that ranks among Germany’s finest, a makeover for Frederick I’s summer retreat; the Stuttgart king who became so bloated through gluttony that he had to be hoisted by block and tackle on to his mount until one could be trained to kneel camel-fashion. The palace entry ticket also covers small palace museums of theatre and court dress, and a shop retails the hand-painted china of a factory established in 1758 by Carl Eugen.
To the rear of Schloss Ludwigsburg lies the Blühendes Barock, its landscaped gardens, which provide a natural breather from the head-spinning opulence inside. Largely landscaped in naturalistic style, punctuated with a castle folly, a Japanese garden, an aviary and a whimsical fairytale garden – complete with kitsch sound effects – they’re a relaxing spot to lounge and picnic.
Presiding over the confluence of the Rhine and Neckar 19km from Heidelberg, Mannheim has a big-city feel quite unlike its bookish neighbour. It gained urban status in 1607 under Elector Friedrich IV of the Palatinate, its glory days coming a century later when Elector Carl Philipp transferred his capital from Heidelberg. The industrial revolution affected the city profoundly: Karl Benz founded his motor company in Mannheim in 1883; three years later he tested the world’s first real car here.
Mannheim lost much to World War II bombs, but the major landmarks were restored afterwards, the museums are excellent and it remains a good place to see Jugendstil (Art Nouveau). Nowadays it’s one of Germany’s most cosmopolitan cities – a fact reflected in the multiethnic make-up of platinum-selling local R&B group Söhne Mannheims (Sons of Mannheim).
Ulm lies just south of the Swabian Alb, some 95km southeast of Stuttgart and 85km east of Tübingen, but it’s the city’s location on the Danube that shaped it most. In the Middle Ages it enabled Ulm to build great wealth from trading, boat building and textile manufacture. Ulm became an imperial city in 1376 and then leader of the Swabian League of cities, which it used to throw its weight about on the European stage. Over time though, corruption, wars and epidemics whittled away at the city’s greatness; then, in just thirty minutes in December 1944 its glorious Altstadt disappeared beneath 2450 tonnes of explosive.
Luckily its giant Münster came out relatively unscathed, and parts of the Altstadt have been reconstructed, but Ulm has also used the opportunity to experiment with some bold modern buildings. This sets the scene for a city that is as forward-looking as it is nostalgic and one that celebrates its festivals with an almost Latin passion. The best place to appreciate Ulm’s skyline is on the eastern side of the Danube in the modern and uninteresting Neu Ulm – a city in its own right and in Bavaria.
One connection Ulm likes to celebrate, in memorials and merchandise, is its link to Albert Einstein, born here on March 14, 1879. Never mind that the great Jewish physicist lived here for only fifteen months and that he refused the town’s 70th birthday gift of honorary citizenship; paving slabs and granite pillars mark his birthplace on Bahnhofstrasse (later obliterated by bombs). More striking are Jürgen Gortz’s wacky bronze of Einstein with his tongue out, and the excruciating monument mounted on it in the form of one stone (“ein Stein”), opposite, which lie a 750m walk northeast of the Münster in front of the Zeughaus.
Albrecht Ludwig Berblinger aka the “Tailor of Ulm”, crash-landed his home-made hang-glider into the Danube in 1811, eighty years before his pioneering countryman Otto Lilienthal took to the air. Ulm has since warmed to its tailor as an eccentric hero – a plaque on Herdbrücke marks the spot where he took off – but in his day Berblinger was mocked mercilessly. Worn down by ceaseless jibes, his business in tatters, he died bankrupt in 1825, a drunkard and gambler. Ironically, his design has since proved to be workable, and only the lack of thermals on the day caused failure and ruin.
Few summer weekends go by when there’s not something going on in Ulm, and particularly on its central Münsterplatz which hosts the June Stadtfest and a famously grand Christmas market in December. But the city’s biggest annual bash is Schwörwoche (Oath Week) in late July, which centres on the Danube, and celebrates an annual mayoral address in which a pledge to honour the town’s 1397 constitution is reiterated. This rather solemn affair takes place at 11am on Schwörmontag – the penultimate Monday in July – but is bookended by a couple of livelier celebrations.
The enchanting Lichtserenade (Light Serenade) in which candle-lit lanterns are floated down the Danube takes place on the previous Saturday, and the big event, Nabada, starts at 3pm on Schwörmontag when all manner of vessels and raucous crew navigate their way a couple of kilometres downstream to a fairground. Water pistols feature heavily in the celebrations – and local department stores discount them on the day.
The Danube is also the focus of other traditional frolics whose origins go back to the fifteenth century and are held every four years (next in 2013 and 2017): Fischerstechen (Fishermen’s Jousting) takes place on the river on the second and third Saturday in July and a Bindertanz (Coopers’ Dance) is held on a pair of July Fridays the same year. Finally, the banks of the Danube also host a biannual July event, Donaufest (even years), which celebrates the music and culture of the communities along the river’s length; Austrians, Hungarians, Serbians and Romanians arrive to sing, dance, and sell snacks and handicrafts.
On its southeastern side, the Swabian Alb tends to fall away more gradually than in the west, but in many places the Danube has cut a tremendous gorge through the rock, producing steep cliffs and spectacular scenery, particularly in the Upper Danube Valley. Much of this is protected as the Naturpark Obere Donau, which is centred on this forested and steep-sided limestone valley and is particularly colourful in both spring, when wildflowers bloom, and during its magnificent autumn foliage: all best appreciated on hikes that head up to the many viewpoints above the valley.
With a railway along much of its length, the region is very accessible for day-trips from Ulm. However, this very quiet region also has plenty of inexpensive accommodation, encouraging longer exploration, particularly by bike following the Donauradweg (Danube cycle path) that begins at the source of the Danube in the unassuming provincial town of Donaueschingen and follows the Danube for 199km to Ulm. There’s plenty of smaller wildlife along the route to watch, particularly on the marshy right bank of the Danube between Ehingen and Ulm, which teems with waterfowl.
Some of the most dramatic sections of the Upper Danube Valley lie around the village of Beuron, 28km west of Sigmaringen. The town gathers around an enormous Baroque monastery, which is of scant interest but for the chance to attend a service at the monastery church and hear monks who are world famous for their expert Gregorian chanting. Beuron is also at the centre of some great hiking territory. Obvious and rewarding destinations include the Knopfmacherfelsen, a viewpoint 6km from town, and the youth hostel at Burg Wildenstein.