Where has all the romance gone? To southern Germany

Forget the Autobahn; take the road that's guaranteed to induce a state of bliss. Mark Rowe is transported

Stereotypes are unforgiving and the world is an unfair place, so it is Germany's destiny rarely to be mentioned in the same breath as the word "romantic". It even occurred to me, upon first hearing of the Romantic Road, that here was an attempt by the German nation to show it does have a sense of irony – a romantic road in a country where BMWs imitate Formula One cars along the speed limit-free autobahns.

Stereotypes are unforgiving and the world is an unfair place, so it is Germany's destiny rarely to be mentioned in the same breath as the word "romantic". It even occurred to me, upon first hearing of the Romantic Road, that here was an attempt by the German nation to show it does have a sense of irony – a romantic road in a country where BMWs imitate Formula One cars along the speed limit-free autobahns.

But the Romantic Road is a name well chosen, for there can be no better way to describe the journey through the southern hinterland of the country, with fairytale castles, rolling hills and medieval walled towns. It is a romantic journey in the poetic sense, offering solitude, nature and mountains, with the occasional Gothic touch. Our journey started in the stately town of Wurzburg and its surrounding river valleys, before winding its way down lesser-used roads to the foothills of the Alps and the Austrian border. It finished in Fussen beneath the magnificent castle of Neuschwanstein, the ancestral home of the tortured soul of King Ludwig of Bavaria.

There are 210 miles between Wurzburg and Ludwig. The autobahn would take perhaps two and a half hours, the Romantic Road at least five days. It is worth spending a day or more in Wurzburg, home to the spectacular Residenz. Here, seemingly three-dimensional frescoes of the four continents, representing arguably the finest hour of the Venetian artist Tiepolo, gaze down on great opulence. Here in Wurzburg, too, are Weinstuben, or wine halls. Whites are the pick of the bunch here, particularly the dry Riesling. Some Weinstuben, such as the Burgerspital, are charitable institutions and the occupants of adjacent almshouses receive a quarter of a litre of wine each day.

There are 27 towns along the route and many more villages, nearly all with a pretty church, inviting pubs and cobbled square, where old men snore peacefully and you catch the smell of baking bread. Some have particularly satisfying Germanic names, such as Tauberbischofsheim and Feuchtwangen. All seem to possess a civic pride and a measured prosperity. Stately homes and palaces are almost commonplace. In Weikersheim lies perhaps the grandest of all these homes, with immaculate lawns.

We quickly grew accustomed to the slow pace of the Romantic Road. Above the village of Creglingen we followed signs for Herrgottskirche, and came across, almost incidentally, one of the world's great wood carvings. Inside an old church stands a lime wood carving, 30 feet high, of the Assumption made in 1520 by the master craftsman Tilman Riemenschneider. You could gaze at it for hours and pick out new features, from the expressions on the faces of the 12 disciples, to the detail of their long fingers and veins and the folds of their clothes.

Close by is Rothenburg ob der Tauber, perhaps the most photographed of all the road's picture-postcard towns. Almost immaculately preserved since the Middle Ages, Rothenburg owes its present wealth to having endured centuries of poverty, which meant that no invading army thought it worth destroying or capturing by force. Today the invaders are armadas of tourist buses. They tend not to be around in the mornings and evenings, however, so spending the night here offers good opportunities to explore without the crowds.

Rothenburg, like many neighbouring towns, still employs a nightwatchman. Originally they locked the town gates at night to keep enemies and ne'er-do-wells at bay. Nowadays they lead tours around the walls for visitors. The night watchman in Nördlingen seemed the most authentic, making sure he got his free drink at the central pubs before giving a tour of the covered sentry walk. In return for performing his duties he is given free accommodation – in quarters at the top of the town church, a hike of 300 steps and 90 metres. The view from the top is astonishing. Nordlingen was laid out below entirely enclosed by its walls in a neatly crinkled circle. Beyond, the horizon in all directions was signed off by a rising slope, the legacy of a meteor impact 15 million years ago which created the crater in which the town lies.

After Nordlingen, rolling hills grew into small mountains and soon the Alps appeared in the background. Distances are not huge and we quickly came to Fussen, the end of the road, which is marked, oddly, by a small commemorative painting above the private entrance to a potter's workroom in a cul-de-sac.

Above Fussen stands the most spectacular of all the Romantic Road's castles, Neuschwanstein, home to the kings of Bavaria and recognisable to Walt Disney fans as the Sleeping Beauty castle and backdrop for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Neuschwanstein is austere but has a tremendous presence, its battlements and rocket-like granite turrets creating a mock-medievalism above a vertigo-inducing gorge. But the other royal home, Hohenschwangau Castle, lower down the hill and by the lakes, is warmer and easier to love.

It was here that King Ludwig II – one in a long line of mentally challenged central European princes – would spend his days, preferring to build castles than to build armies for war. He remains well regarded and a musical of his life and times recently opened by the town's lake. "You MUST see the Ludwig musical," we were told, endlessly, tirelessly. To miss the Ludwig Musical, it seemed, would be to visit Egypt and skip the Pyramids.

We went to watch it and it was magnificent. It was at once lavish and over-the-top yet witty and subtle. Ludwig, a lover of poetry and friend of Wagner, was portrayed as a reluctant dreamer-king. It was not the done thing for a monarch to eschew the dirty work of creating alliances and back-stabbing. Inevitably, the hapless Ludwig was thoroughly stitched up like the proverbial kipper by his scheming courtiers. He was found drowned in a lake near Berg, south of Munich in 1886 and it remains uncertain whether he took his life or was brutally done in. He comes out of it all an unexpectedly likeable, nice-but-dim figure.

Despite the 1.2m visitors to Neuschwanstein each year, the surrounding countryside retains a graceful pathos. Early one morning we saw a lone swan gliding over a stretch of water as mountain tops peeked through the mist. It would not have been out of keeping for a Romantic poet in an oversized white shirt to appear, striding along the lake side, declaiming a verse or two. Romantic? Indeed it was.

The Facts

Getting there

Mark Rowe travelled to Würzburg by train, booking tickets through Rail Europe (08705 848 848; www.raileurope.co.uk). Fares from London Waterloo to Würzburg and Munich start from £145 for a return if booked two weeks in advance.

Go (0870 607 6543; www.go-fly.com) flies to Munich from £131 return in August. Buzz (0870 240 7070; www.buzzaway.com) flies to Frankfurt from £93 return.

Car hire with Budget (01442 280181; www.budget.com) costs from €244 (£350) for a week. Or take a two-day coach tour along the route with Deutsche Touring (00 49 69 7903 261; www.touring-germany.com) from €150 per person, based on two sharing, including overnight accommodation.

Being there

In Würzburg Mark Rowe stayed at the Walfisch hotel, Am Pleidenturm 5 (00 49 931 3520 500; www.hotel-walfisch-com). In Rothenburg he stayed at the Hotel Schranne, Schrannenplatz 6 (00 49 09861 95500; www.schranne.rothenburg.de).

Further information

For information about the Romantic Road visit www.romantischestrasse.de. German tourist board (020-7317 0908; www.germany-tourism.de).