Driving in Germany is a dream. Drivers are generally polite and patient, the roads are well maintained and signage is clear. Just take care on the autobahn if you pull out to overtake – it takes a while to get used to the speed at which some vehicles travel. With no limit on many motorways, German drivers like to put their foot down.
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Pick up your car from Frankfurt Airport and away you go. Depending on traffic, it’s only 20 minutes’ drive to the city centre. Exploring the towns and villages around the Rhine and Main (pronounced ‘mine’) we take a leisurely five days, with a recommended two nights in Frankfurt. There are numerous moderately-priced family-run hotels en route. Nowhere is more than an hour’s drive from the city, so if you prefer, you could do day trips, basing yourself in Frankfurt.
Our first stop is due north to the delightful town of Bad Homburg, where wealthy Frankfurt inhabitants have always come to relax. As the name suggests, it’s a spa town and in the centre of the park – 100-acre Kurpark – is the Kur Royale spa, fed by natural thermal waters. A day pass allows you to use the extensive facilities. In the cobbled town centre you’ll find independent boutiques and attractive restaurants. If you visit in the summer, you may catch one of several food fairs with mouth-watering stalls and a brass ‘oompah’ band drawing the crowds.
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Move on westwards, but still north of the Main, to Hochheim. It’s a pretty, sleepy town, with many historic half-timbered buildings. St Peter and St Paul church has 18th century Baroque frescos. The ceiling is spectacular and took the artist Johann Baptist Enderle over four years’ to complete. Instead of his signature, the artist included an image of himself in his great work, which you can see if you look carefully.
Our next stop is Rudesheim, still travelling west. Park up and buy a ‘Ring ticket’ to take the two/three-hour trip; it’s on level ground and well marked. At the top is the striking 38-metre tall Germania monument to mark the Unification of Germany. First ascend by cable car, take a leisurely walk across the top through beech woods, with far-reaching views of the Rhine, and then descend by ski lift.
Catch a river boat from Assmannshausen to your starting point, this time viewing the villages, bridges, castles and the monument from the water. You may notice Hotel Krone while you are waiting for the boat – it’s the oldest in Germany, dating from 1541. Back in Rudesheim, make sure you try the Rudesheimer coffee, served with yeasted sweet bread called baumstriezel.
Markets At Michelstadt
We now travel south-east away from the river to Michelstadt, a rural market town with medieval origins. If you look carefully at the original town hall, in the cobbled square, you can see the date, 1484 painted on the hard-as-iron wooden timbers. This is a convivial spot to sip a beer, especially if the sun is out. Germany has among the best selections in Europe of alcohol-free beer and is enjoyed by everyone. Try some ‘alkohol-frei’ weissbier, a speciality of the area.
It’s worth browsing in the small independent shops and ducking down the side streets, where you may come across the grim Thieves Tower, dating from the 14th century. If you fancy traditional local food, you could try the wild boar casserole with home made noodles in the 300-year-old Zum Groenen Baum restaurant.
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Ivory At Erbach
Continuing south, we reach the ‘ivory’ town of Erbach in the Odenwald – a forested upland area. The Earl of Erbach learned about ivory carving on one of his Grand European Tours during the late 18th century and thought it would benefit his village. At its peak, the town had hundreds of ivory carvers and was known throughout Germany and beyond. The ban on ivory in 1989 almost killed the trade. But new sources of ivory – ironically thousands of years old – mammoth tusks preserved in permafrost – came to light in Siberia and the trade lives on. The Ivory Museum, one of the few in the world, reopened in its new home in Erbach Castle in August 2016.
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Splendour Of Amorbach
Moving east, through thickly wooded forests to Amorbach in Bavaria, our main goal is a superb Rococo abbey. But first, we visit a simple Gothic chapel at Amorsbrunn which you would miss if you didn’t know it was here. A feature of the chapel is the large fresco on the outside, dating from 1576. Pilgrims have been drawn here for centuries by the holy water, with alleged healing properties. Outside, is a stone holding tank of the water, fed by the fast flowing stream, and impressions where thousands of pilgrims have put their feet and fingers.
No matter how many churches you have seen, little will prepare you for the splendour of Amorbach Abbey, a fitting finale. Rococo in design, expect soaring marble columns, life-size plasterwork statues, acres of gold, a surfeit of fat cherubs, a huge black iron fretwork screen with intricate workings, colourful ceiling frescos, one of the largest pipe organs in the world and a pulpit so ornate, it assaults the senses. If you are lucky enough to hear the organ play, the emotions it engenders will stay with you long after you leave.
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Home Via Frankfurt
It’s now a short drive back to Frankfurt, a compact, interesting city. Divided into north and south bank by the River Main, the south is home to over 50 museums and art galleries while the north has the main shopping centre, old town, financial institutions and railway station. As Germany’s only city with skyscrapers, Frankfurt also has the Aldstadt, where exact replicas of the medieval houses that once stood have been built at Romerberg Plaza.
Don’t miss the Kleinmarkhalle indoor produce market, popular with locals, to rival any I’ve seen. Here you‘ll find neat, beautifully arranged stalls, some selling the ‘seven herbs’ used to make the ubiquitous green sauce, served in traditional Frankfurt restaurants. With its numerous green spaces – despite the skyscrapers – a simple walk along the south bank of the Main, dotted with established sweet chestnut trees, is a most satisfying activity.
When it’s time to go, the airport is well signposted, south of the river. My guess is, like Arnie and me, you’ll be back.
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