Finding a `theme' enhances travel

HOW can you make a week's tour of southern West Germany a delight and not a panting chase from one castle to the next? What is needed is a theme for the trip, a point of view, and the advice of someone who understands the difference between quality and quantity.

For us, both theme and direction were supplied not by a travel agent but by friends who adore Germany and are themselves incurable romantics.

We also found some help, however, from an interesting new computerized guide for time-pressed travelers, developed by Avis Rent- a-Car. You tell Avis in advance where you're going in any of eight European countries and pick one of eight interest categories (castles, history, ``undiscovered,'' etc.). Back comes a ``Personally Yours'' guidebook that directs you in and out of cities and tells where to find a good restaurant or hotel, as well as what to see. While I wouldn't rely on such a printout as my only guide, ``Personally Yours'' can be a very useful aid in touring, and it costs nothing extra beyond the rental car fee.

Our first stop on the ``Romantic Road'' north of Munich was Rothenburg, a walled, medieval village so carefully preserved that entering one of its massive gates is like stepping back in time 500 years. Being enveloped in cobblestoned, half-timbered antiquity, yet pampered in the comfort of a first-class, small family-run hotel adds considerably to one's appreciation of history. So does outstanding cuisine, and that first night the fresh local lake trout grilled in butter at the 721-year-old Markusturm Hotel (Markus's Tower) was as good as any I've had in the Rockies or elsewhere.

After dinner, Otto Berger, whose wife, Marianne, is the Markusturm's fifth-generation innkeeper, told us how for centuries the Tauber River Valley and surrounding farmlands were isolated from Germany's commercial life. ``People preserved because they could not afford to buy new,'' he explained. When Carl Spitzweg, the celebrated German artist, came to Rothenburg in 1858 and painted scenes from its daily life, he put the ancient walled city on the map and made preservation more lucrative than new construction. Thus, one of the Markusturm's original walls of 1264 still stands.

Among the town's most interesting sights are the criminal museum (seven centuries of dispensing punishment) and the town's ramparts and red-tiled roofs as seen from the tower of the Rathaus. The view from the 60-meter tower is worth the precarious climb. After a long climb, visitors wait for a green light on the tower's ``stop light,'' which monitors the number of sightseers allowed on top.

For me the highlight was Tilman Riemenschneider's woodcarving masterpiece of ``The Last Supper'' in St. Jakobskirche, a 14th-century church.

From Rothenburg we battled heavy traffic around Frankfurt to reach the banks of the Rhine and our next small family hotel, the Schwann at Oestrich/Winkel. Although the food was not exceptional, the view of the Rhine from our lovely room was. In the morning we hurried to nearby R"udesheim, where we boarded a Rhine cruise for our longest and most rewarding day. It began with a review of hundreds of years of Western civilization. Ancient castles, cathedrals, and ruins appeared one after another on the bluffs of the Rhine. Interspersed through this historical picture book were stepped vineyards of the lovely Rhine wine country and the narrows of the legendary Lorelei rock. Three hours up the river we deboarded at Braubach for a fascinating tour through the Rhine's only undestroyed castle, Marksburg. Headquarters of the German Castle Association and keeper of its archives, Marksburg still stands as it was built in 1200.

After a train ride back to R"udesheim along the banks of the Rhine and a quick trip down the Autobahn, we spent the night in Heidelberg at the Zum Ritter Hotel. With its 1592 Renaissance fa,cade, and its 58 beds in traditional and modern rooms, this is one of the stars of the Romantic Hotel Association.

Across the main street from Heiliggeistkirche, a 15th-century church, the hotel gives easy access to the city's shops and countless cafes.

Crowded with tourists and students much of the year, this university-resort town is a European mix of Vail, Colo., and Palo Alto, Calif. It's the perfect place to eat ice cream at a tree-shaded table in Universitats-Platz and listen to minstrels -- from students to visiting mariachis. In July there's a jazz festival, and in August there's the summer theater festival at the 600-year-old castle on a hill above the city. English minstrels entertained here before 1600, but last summer you could hear ``The Student Prince'' in the very locale where it was set. You'll need to reserve seats as early as possible.

Our fourth night was spent in one of this region's popular castle hotels, Burg Hirschhorn, a short drive up the Neckar River. Built by the Knights of Hirschhorn around 1200, this was their castle for 400 years. We dined on a terrace and watched the sun set on the Neckar far below, then retired to a canopied bedroom. The next morning a dense fog on the moors hundreds of feet below our window added to the Gothic atmosphere.

Our fifth and sixth nights were spent at the small but elegant Alte Post in the preserved village of Wangen near the Bodensee, a long day's drive south through the farmlands of the Alg"au region. This is a land of ornate, rococo churches suddenly rising out of meadows, of the famed L"uftmalerei, or fresco wall murals that include simulated woodwork and have decorated houses in this region for centuries. We took an extra day here to listen to the endless church bells, explore a palace, eat regional dishes like Maultaschen and Felchen, and rest up from the week's earlier fast pace. Completing the circle back to Munich on our seventh day, we stopped to see Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, two fantasy castles of King Ludwig II. The latter is one of Bavaria's greatest tourist attractions and is the model for the familiar castles of Disneyland and Disney World.

In Munich, the royal summer residence of Schloss Nymphenburg boasts four satellite chateaux and vast grounds. It is one of Europe's largest and most architecturally unified palace complexes.

Rates at the hotels mentioned range from around $63 to $104 for a double room with private bath and breakfast (based on 2.31 deutsche marks to the dollar). The Hirschhorn castle hotel is a bit less expensive than the more luxurious Romantic hotels. But while the prices are anywhere from 24 to 37 percent higher than they were last year, when the dollar was very strong, they are not out of line with comparable accommodations in the US.

On another trip, I think I would cover a little less ground and take it more leisurely. But with a little help from our friends, this was a marvelous introduction to ``Romantic Germany.''

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