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Pilgrimage and walking tours on the Romantic Road

“I’m off then”: the title of Hape Kerkeling’s 2006 bestseller about his pilgrimage along the Way of St. James of Compostella is a happy choice of words.

“Pilgrimages” are anything but old-fashioned – and the “Via Romea” along the Romantic Road is a hitherto well-kept secret. Parts of the historic pilgrimage route to Rome, which Abbot Albert von Stade took in 1236 and later described in his writings, follow the long-distance walking trail, inaugurated in 2006 and which forms part of Germany’s favourite holiday and adventure trail.

All roads lead to Rome. And through Franconia, too, through Bavarian Swabia, the Allgäu and to everything that makes the 413-kilometre-long Romantic Road, with its various alternatives for long-distance walking and cycling, so unique: historic Imperial Cities and pretty villages, baroque pilgrimage churches and splendid abbeys, world heritage sites and hidden jewels, varied landscapes and magnificent natural settings, not forgetting all the delicious discoveries of the culinary variety. Even in the early days of the Middle Ages, the “Eternal City” was already the main destination for pilgrims from all corners of Europe. The major pilgrimage routes mostly followed ancient trading and transport routes; like the “Via Francigena” from northern and central Europe through France, or the “Via Romea”. This “path to Rome” was the one taken by Abbot von Stade of the Marienkloster (Abbey of the Virgin Mary) and described in detail in his world chronicle, the “Annales Stadenses”. Stade’s itinerary is one of the oldest and most comprehensive “travel guides” for pilgrims travelling to Rome.

The Echelsbach bridge – a place of pilgrimage for technology fans

Whilst the journey out took him through France and the Piemont, for the return journey, Albert chose the eastern route via Brenner, Innsbruck and Garmisch to the Ammer. After crossing the river with some difficulty near Rottenbuch, he joined what is, today, known as the Romantic Road. Now, the Echelsbach bridge across the Ammer valley – the longest span melan arch bridge in the world – which was formally opened in 1930, has long been a place of pilgrimage for engineering enthusiasts. The Abbot continued northwards and homewards through the Pfaffenwinkel area and stopped at places that are today some of the jewels of the Romantic Road: Augsburg, Donauwörth, Nördlingen, Dinkelsbühl, Feuchtwangen, Rothenburg and Würzburg. As he went from Rottenbuch to Donauwörth, he was following the route of the Roman Via Claudia Augusta, which, some 2000 years ago, had already linked the Danube and the Adriatic and, today, follows a course that is in part identical with the Romantic Road. 800 years ago it was an arduous and, at 20 kilometres a day, a tedious journey: nor was it one that was entirely without danger, because of footpads and highwaymen. But on today’s walking tours and pilgrimage routes, on the other hand, the journey is an end in itself – just as Goethe pointed out: “Travelling is not about arriving, but about making the journey….” It has long been possible, on the Romantic Road section of the “Via Romea”, to enjoy freely and in plentiful helpings the harmonious combination of culture, art, culinary delights and nature. It matters little whether you travel from north to south or south to north, on foot, by bicycle or by car along lanes that are set away from the fast major roads. Or maybe “just” for relaxation, spiritual edification or curiosity about great, famous and less well-known “spiritual locations”, that spread out here, one after the other, like a string of pearls, jewels that were already enticing pilgrims centuries ago.

Instead of rest and accommodation in dingy hostels and bare monastic cells, modern pilgrims can expect a wide and varied range of guest houses, country inns, B&Bs and hotels. Be it immediately beside the road, cycle path or walking trail of the Romantic Road, or set a little way away – many of the “spiritual locations” are indeed outstanding attractions. Others reward a quick visit, even though they have long since lost their erstwhile reputation as pilgrimage destinations. The classic tourist town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber was a premier place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages; somehow a perfect example with no less than four pilgrimage churches, the Heilig-Blut-Kapelle (Chapel of the Holy Blood), the Marienkirche (Church of Our Lady) in Kobolzell, the Wolfgangkirche (Church of St. Wolfgang) and the Kapelle zur Reinen Maria (Chapel of the Virgin Mary) which was erected in a synagogue in 1520.

The Romanesque cloisters of the Abbey Church in Feuchtwangen, which was turned into a monastery in 1197, are now a famous open-air theatre. To the south of Dinkelsbühl, pilgrims on their way to Nördlingen would stay to rest, inter alia, in the pilgrimage church of St. Ulrich, the former Abbey Church of St. Peter and St. Paul and the Abbey Church of the Maria Immaculata in Maihingen.

Where the ways of Rome and St. James meet

Once a Carmelite pilgrimage and abbey church, the gothic Church of St. Salvador lies in Nördlingen in the Ries, where the “Via Romea” meets a section of the Way of St. James and where once the Franciscans also had an abbey. Iconic emblem and superb vantage point, with a magnificent view of the Ries Geopark, is the 90-metre-high tower of the Stadtkirche St. Georg (Municipal Church of St. George) one of the largest, late gothic hall churches in Germany. Donauwörth, too, was an important stop for pilgrims on their way to Rome as the point where their path crossed that of the “Swabian Way of St. James”. Places to stop included the former Benedictine Abbey with the pilgrimage church “Hl. Kreuz” (Church of the Holy Cross) and the Pilgerhaus (Pilgrims’ Hostel) of the Teutonic Order. A hitherto well-kept secret on the way to Biberach, on the 15th leg of the Romantic Road long-distance walking trail, is Holzen Abbey, a former Benedictine monastery. This is a place of pilgrimage which has remained popular to this day and offers accommodation in the Klosterhotel.

See more pictures of Donauworth here

A much-frequented meeting point for pilgrims on their way to Rome and for those travelling along the Way of St. James was Augsburg and, in particular, the Jakobskirche (Church of St. James) in the “Jakobsvorstadt” (St. James’ Suburb). Important sacred buildings from the Middle Ages and emblem of the capital of Swabia are the “Hohe Domkirche Unsrer Lieben Frau” (High Cathedral Church of Our Dear Lady) and the Pontifical Basilica of St. Ulrich and Afra of the erstwhile Benedictine monastery, with funerary chapels containing the remains of the patron saints Afra and Ulrich. The region’s great importance as a tourist and pilgrimage destination is, above all, evidenced in the idyllic Pfaffenwinkel area, the southern part of the “Via Romea”, that is so rich in churches and abbeys. One of the real gems is, for example, the monastery church in Rottenbuch. Both the Way of St. James and the “Prälatenweg” (Path of the Prelates) led through here and through Wildsteig, and it is here that the well-attended Leonardiritte (St. Leonard’s Rides) of the Pfaffenwinkel take place. Another stage on the pilgrims’ route was the Kirche St. Johann Baptist (Church of St. John the Baptist), consecrated in 1176 and known as the “Welfenmünster” (Cathedral of the Guelf family). It once belonged to the former Premonstratensian Abbey in Steingaden and has Romanesque cloisters and a ceiling fresco that crowns the baroque interior. The absolute highlight is, however, the Rococo masterpiece and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the pilgrimage church dedicated to the “Scourged Saviour in the Meadow”. The Wieskirche (Church of Wies, also referred to as the ‘Church in the Meadow’), near to Wildsteig, built between 1746 and 1754 by the brothers Dominikus and Johann Baptist Zimmermann as a “vaulting oval”, has since become a place of pilgrimage for people from all over Europe – a pilgrim’s mass is celebrated every Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday at 10 o’clock. Well worth the effort, too, although it takes you a bit away from the route to Rome, is a detour to the St. Colomans-Kapelle (Chapel of St. Coloman) in Schwangau. This baroque little church in the shadow of the world-famous royal castles was constructed on a spot where, according to legend, St. Coloman is supposed to have rested around the turn of the first millennium on his pilgrimage from Ireland to Jerusalem. Every year, at the beginning of October the Irish monk is commemorated at the Festival of St. Coloman. The high point of this long-standing traditional church festival is the “Blessing of the Horses” with 200 riders and animals, all decorated in resplendent colours.

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