/Journey’s end: Germany summer tour ends in Franconian Switzerland

Journey’s end: Germany summer tour ends in Franconian Switzerland

Shortly after picking up our campervan, I am in a roadside cafe when someone asks where we are heading. “North,” I say, “the Fränkische Schweiz – Franconian Switzerland.” It is due north of Nuremberg, roughly between the towns of Bamberg and Bayreuth (of Wagnerian opera fame). The Czech border is not far away.

Schwarzer Füße,” they laugh. Apparently, this nickname references the inhabitants’ supposedly bare, dirty feet. I sense I am going to like it.

Germany map

Very soon the countryside starts to fold in on itself. Forests appear on hills then march down towards meadow-filled valleys where animals graze. Village houses huddle, forcing the road to wiggle between their stout, half-timbered walls. On some, in fading gothic lettering, is written Brauerei – in fact, almost every village seems to have its own brewery. Famously one village, Aufseß, has four: one for about every 400 inhabitants. Many also have a castle, usually perched on a crag. It feels like this last stage of my summer odyssey is taking us deep into an ancient Germany, one infused with fairytales and feudal loyalties – plus some modern ones: election posters are everywhere.

Maddy at campervan

The Rushbys are new to German-style campervanning

We are new to campervanning German-style and the rental office, despite being helpful, has not clarified everything. Should we book ahead? “You might try.” Could we just pull up in a lay-by? “That is a grey area.”

That night, we pull into the last free pitch on an unmanned site in the village of Pottenstein. Within minutes, our vanning neighbours have plugged us into power, explained payment (€8 a night via an envelope drop box), and sketched out the area’s attractions. One of these is the neighbouring village, Gößweinstein, where next day we visit the unmissable baroque basilica, externally a sober pile of tawny stone but internally a crazy meringue dotted with cherubs.

Holy Trinity basilica in Goßweinstein

Holy Trinity basilica in Goßweinstein

Maddy, my 14-year-old daughter, is even more impressed by the open-air swimming pool, a gorgeous little sun trap on a belvedere overlooking the village. It is free and has a cafe serving currywürst, a fatally addictive sausage.

That evening we enter the grey area, nosing the van up a forest track for the night. In the morning, we emerge to find a passing group of climbers who, far from telling us off, adopt us, taking Maddy and me to tackle some crags. The forests here are filled with karstic limestone towers, most around 20 metres tall. If you hear a non-German accent in these parts, it will probably be that of a rock climber.

Maddy tackling the crags near Allersdorf.

Maddy, Kevin’s daughter, tackling the crags near Allersdorf

It’s hard to leave Gößweinstein, but we decide to do a huge circular loop through the area. Our first stop is the idyllic Kormershof farm campsite: where goats and chickens wander the camping meadow, red squirrels forage in the trees, there are some lovely walks, and the amiable proprietors sell fresh bread every morning.

From there we head west, stopping to stroll around villages or rest in forest car parks. We visit Bamberg, spending a day admiring medieval architecture and searching for public toilets. (The Germans tend to plonk portaloos everywhere, although we were often unsure if they were for public use.) My partner Sophie finds one and, while inside, sings its praises to us. Except Maddy and I are not there. We have retreated behind some trees and she is actually talking to an elderly couple who look very puzzled: “It’s so clean in here. Come and see!” North of the town, we pick our way east back into the hills. “What I want,” I announce, “is a place to camp and a beer garden.” Almost immediately, in the spa town of Heiligenstadt, such a place appears: a car park by a huge meadow with a stream and a path leading into a village with a Brauerei und Biergarten.

Bamberg - the 14th century town hall “Rathaus”

Bamberg’s 14th-century town hall or Rathaus

My German vocabulary has certainly increased over a month, but I’ve learned obscure words that Germans don’t know in English: hence “from the barrel”, “cinnamon”, lots of fish names plus a few tree species and so on. It feels like I’m learning the language backwards, but the approach pays off at odd moments. Next day, on a German-speaking tour of the fascinating Greifenstein Castle, I suddenly recognise one word. Maddy and I exchange a knowing glance: all this woodwork is beech.

My month here has certainly warmed me to both language and people. Germans may only possess primitive queueing skills, but they are very friendly and helpful. It has been a pleasure to wander through a nation that appears to value its citizens and work for their general well-being. There is a gentleness, too, except perhaps on the autobahn. Not that everything was rosy: I heard one shocking racist diatribe, for example, and Maddy was shouted at for leaning on the Brandenburg Gate, but these incidents were vastly outweighed by the positives.

Beer from Heiligenstadt’s Drei Kronen Aichinger brewery

Beer from Heiligenstadt’s Drei Kronen Aichinger brewery

And the biggest surprise is how inexpensive things are. Food and drink in supermarkets is affordable. There are free swimming pools. Take a bike and save on transport. Some museums don’t charge for the last hour of the day.

There’s even money back on bottles and cans via the Pfand machines in supermarkets. Regrets? Yes, I wish I hadn’t taken my rucksack and laptop to the Englischer Garten, Munich’s vast central park. Without them I could have stripped off and floated down the Eisbach stream under the linden trees, all the way to the beer garden. Next time, and there will be a next time, I’ll use the lockers at the railway station.
The trip was provided by the Franconian tourist board. Campervan hire was provided by McRent, which has a four-berth van for €927 a week in late September – more in high summer. Accommodation in Nuremberg was provided by the Park Plaza Hotel (doubles from £87)