It’s amazing how the most enchanting places in this world tend to show up in your way when you least expect it, as if they’ve been laid there on purpose. And how, sometimes, the recipe for a trip’s success lies in traveling without a map or clear direction. But let’s start with the beginning.
Our trip to Frankenjura, or Franconian Switzerland, was not a carefully planned one. It was an overnight decision, an unexpected adventure with an unexpected outcome. From the airport in Stuttgart, we knew our primary objective was Nuremberg. What could possibly go wrong? Little did we know Frankenjura would be such a huge tangled up web and finding the village we were trying to reach, in our case Obertrubach, would become quite a challenge, because it didn’t even show on our road map. But this story isn’t about Obertrubach, it is about how we set off on the wrong foot, but ended up embarking on one great adventure.
We took the highway, we left the highway, we went north, went back south, we took on another road, still not good, only to realize we were going the wrong way. That’s how we found ourselves at the outskirts of Forchheim, asking for directions in English, and receiving replies in a strange combination of German and sign language that left us even more confused. Not really knowing whether we were on the right track or not, we simply continued along the main road, as if blindfolded. That is, until the landscape changed. Old houses made their appearance, pointed towers arose atop the rust-colored roofs, and all cars seemed to have miraculously vanished. Trying to turn around, we got stuck. This left us with no choice but to step out of the car and find someone who spoke decent English and who could point us in the right direction. Leaving the narrow street we parked on, we turned round the corner and immediately found ourselves entering another world. A large pedestrian street, animated with people, bathed in joy and laughter, welcomed us to Forchheim one Sunday afternoon.
About 37 km from Nuremberg, halfway between the capital of Franconia and Bamberg, Forchheim’s long history can be traced back to the 8th century, when a royal palace was built here. Forchheim is the illustrative small German town. But what can you do here? Visit all the landmarks a medieval town has to offer and admire the impressive concentration of lively-colored traditional half-timbered houses, some of which date back to the 14th century.
Start off from the Town Hall Place, or Rathausplatz, the center of the city center, if I may say so. The large square is dominated by the Town Hall, or Rathaus, the most representative half-timbered building in Forchheim. Dating back from the 14th and 16th centuries, the Town Hall is a striking appearance to say the least, the very symbol of the city and one of its main tourist attractions. It is so-well preserved that its is still home to the mayor’s office and to a tourist information point.
Right behind the Town Hall, hidden yet betrayed by its tall-standing tower, Martinskirche is an imposing cathedral built between the 12th and 15th centuries. Only a few narrow streets away, Marienkapelle is a small chapel built in the 12th century, which proudly stands as proof that modesty and simplicity are the key to elegance and romance.
Just around the corner from this small chapel, Kaiserpfalz is the so-called Imperial Palace in Forchheim. Although it did host many of Germany’s emperors and kings, it is not an imperial palace in the true sense of the word, but rather an imperial residence. Built in the 14th century, it is currently home to the Pfalz Museum, showcasing mural paintings, traditional costumes, valuable documents and evidence regarding the town’s past, as well as the history of Franconia itself.
Following the half-timbered houses, passing bridges, exploring narrow streets in a twisted labyrinth, you will ultimately reach Festungsmauer, the city’s old fortification walls, impressive in size and quite well-preserved, enclosing the picturesque insides. And last, but not least, stroll down Hauptstrasse, the main pedestrian street, with its small brook running in the middle, and its countless cafes, restaurants, and beer gardens that will take you to a different time and place.
You can’t truly say you’ve visited a German town without paying a visit to one of its beer gardens, Biergarten in German, and tasting their house specialties. Forchheim makes no exception. But I must say that a huge cone of ice-cream is equally welcome on a hot summer day.
If I were to describe Forchheim in two words, those would be picture perfect. It seems ripped from the pages of some fairy tale, where all colors blend in perfectlyand all the half-timbered houses remind of the Brothers Grimm and their enchanting folk stories. But what surprised me most was that nearly half of Forchheim’s visitors were bikers passing through on their way to Frankenjura. And most of them in their golden years. That’s Germany for you.
What lies beyond this medieval town? Forchheim is the gateway to Frankenjura, it is the starting point for a winding road that cuts the woods of Franconian Switzerland in half, passing by castles, gently flowing rivers, half-timbered houses, and many funny-looking limestone formations, the signature mark of Frankenjura. A road that takes you to the very heart of Germany’s most cherished rock climbing area and into the depths of enchanting realms with a striking resemblance to Robin Hood’s forests themselves. Makes me wonder whether it was in fact Frankenjura’s woods that fueled these legends…