Bus Tour Skims Germany's Castle Route

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HEIDELBERG, Germany -- With some 60 designated villages, towns and cities along its 600 miles, Germany's Castle Route offers multiple somethings for everyone.

Clients can visit 70 castles, fortresses and stately homes as well as 100 museums as they drive through valleys, forests, mountains, vineyards and beer-brewing regions.

A three-day trip allowed but a glimpse of the seemingly inexhaustible pleasures awaiting travelers along this route, which runs from Mannheim in the west to Prague, Czech Republic, in the east.

The first day, we covered 63 miles by comfortable motorcoach. Along this stretch, we visited three important centers, leaving my group exhilarated but frustrated since most stops deserved more time.

Starting in Heidelberg, we soon understood why this city, described as baroque with a medieval layout, attracts more than 3 million visitors annually. The arched bridge spanning the Neckar River was once the only entrance to the city. Today, tourists follow a suggested walking tour past the university, churches, remains of the town wall and centuries-old palaces and residences.

A good number of Heidelberg's 30,000 students can be found discussing matters intellectual (presumably) over coffee or beer at the Old Town's many cafes.

Then, there is the castle, properly situated on a hill overlooking the city. In a country known for castles, Heidelberg's is special. Perhaps the most pleasant approach is by cable car. The medieval fortress, constructed of red sandstone, was begun in 1300. Its look was "softened," as a guide put it, to make it more pleasing to Frederick V's English princess.

Bypassing any number of tempting villages, we continued to Bad Wimpfen and immediately fell in love with its romantic ambience, created by half-timbered houses lining hilly, narrow streets, castle ruins dating to Barbarosa and costumed guides assuming such roles as the tragic princess, Margaret of Austria.

This spa town, population 6,600, is a good place to rejuvenate stressed psyches and aching bodies.

After a too-brief stroll, we headed for Heilbronn for an overnight at the attractive and pleasant Insel Hotel fax:(011) 49-7131-626060. The property is situated on a boat-shaped island in the Neckar River.

Called the City of Kate and Wine after the heroine of an 19th century play and the area's numerous vineyards, Heilbronn's attractions include an imposing astronomical clock on the exterior of the town hall, and St. Killian's church, which features a gargoyle-studded, 210-foot tower.

Ever onward, day two's first stop was Schwabisch Hall, which, in spite of its name, is a wonderfully picturesque town, not an estate. In fact, hall means "salt," from which the town became rich in the Middle Ages. The restored old section invites leisurely strolls and heavy use of film. Each June to August, the 54 wide steps leading to St. Michael's church are the scene of an open-air theatrical festival.

Located four miles from Schwabisch Hall, the Hohenloher Freiland open-air museum is a worthwhile stop. Clients can wander through 44 buildings, brought here from various regions and reassembled piece by piece. A sort of German Williamsburg, Hohenloher offers an in-depth understanding of village life in times past.

After lunch at Schwabisch Hall's historical Hotel Der Adelshof, we drove to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, familiar to clients who have traveled the popular Romantic Road.

Having visited in both summer and spring, I suspect Rothenburg is equally enchanting viewed through winter's snows or autumn's falling leaves. Suffice it to say that Rothenburg's cobbled streets, intact 13th century town wall, colorful houses and good shopping will charm any client who is not put off by hordes of tourists.

Accommodations include Hotel Reichs-Kuchenmeister (011) 49-9861-8-69-65, part of which dates to the 11th century and the upscale Eisenhut (011) 49-9861-7-05-45, one of Germany's most famous inns.

Our final night along the Castle Route found us in Nuremberg at the Grand Hotel (011) 49-911-23-22-444, an elegant 19th century property well situated near both railroad station and market square.

Walls 23 feet thick still surround Nuremberg's old section. Other attractions include a hilltop castle founded in 1050; St. Lorenz Church, known for its artistic treasures; the Golden Fountain, a 30-foot-high spire-shaped structure adorned with 30 painted figures and the Justice Palace, site of the War Crimes Tribunal following World War II.

Nuremberg is known for its toys and gingerbread; the latter is described as 90% spices, 10% flour.

At the airport the following morning, with no lovely, picturesque, charming, unique sights to distract me, I decided the Castle Route is a road for all clients. Those who prefer a slow pace could spend days in towns like Rothenburg and Schwabisch Hall, while clients who aim for as many sights as possible can see a lot without long hauls between points.

A winning situation, either way.

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