Having grown up on musicals and fairy tales I had a picture in my head of what countries like Germany, Austria and Switzerland would look like. There would be cobbled streets, half timbered houses and castles around every corner. My first visit to Hamburg on a school exchange was an eye opener, everything was industrial, families I stayed with lived in tower blocks or houses built in the eighties and contained more Ikea furniture than I’d ever seen outside the shop itself. I was a little disappointed but nothing that two weeks of freedom from my parents couldn’t cure.
Hailing from Cheshire I am used to the quaint black and white half-timbered houses that dot the countryside like Little Morton hall in Congleton or the stunning high street of the City of Chester. I was unprepared for the colour and scale of the half-timbered properties of Southern Germany and that the majority of them are still residences and not museums. I never expected to be living in one. Of course there is Fachwerk (half-timbered) throughout the country but my experience of them is mainly limited to the South
The Deutsche Fachwerkstraße (German Half-timbered Road) is a 3000km tourist route which runs through the country with stops at the various Fachwerkstädte (half-timbered towns) that are splendid enough to be notable. From Stade, Lower Saxony in the North to the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) and Bodensee (Lake Constance) in the south. With around 2.5 million Fachwerkhaüser (half-timbered houses) in Germany, you don’t usually need to look very hard to find one, of the 98 towns on the route some of the best (in my opinion) aren’t on the route.
A few of my personal favourites (so far) include…
Beitigheim-Bissingen – Smaller than Esslingen but just as stunning, located on the Neckar river, the walled Altstadt (old town) contains many Fachwerkhaüser in many different colours. The Stadtsmuseum (Town Museum) housed in the Hornmoldhaus, and the Städtische Galerie (Town Gallery) are great examples of the restoration, renovation and repurposing of Fachwerkhäuser.
Esslingen – The town is famous for the Mittelaltermarkt & Weihnachtsmarkt (Medieval Market & Christmas Market) that are unique owing to the half-timbered architecture that surrounds them. Outside the festive season the town is just as stunning and boasts the oldest row of half-timbered houses in Germany, dating back to the early 14th century.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber – I think this at the top of every ‘visit Germany list’ there is, and I couldn’t agree more. There was one toy my sister and I used to fight over at my grandparents house more than any other. It was a small car containing four removable figures, this was no ordinary car though, this car could fly. If you were as obsessed with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as I was (I can’t be the only one) you will find yourself within the set and you’ll maybe find yourself peering around corners to see if the child catcher is on his way.
Bamberg – As you would expect from a UNESCO World Heritage Site the old town is incredibly well preserved. The Rathaus (Town Hall) adorns many postcards and the home of the Rauchbier (smoked beer) for which Bamberg is famous, comes from the Schlenkerla Brewery, itself a lovely example of the half-timbered style.
Marbach am Neckar – A little shout out to my current town of residence, I may be biased but the fairy-tale like cobbled streets still make me smile, even when I’m running late for my train. Living in a Fachwerkhaus (half-timbered house) can be like living in any older house. There are definitely some quirks though, furniture that just won’t fit, uneven stairs and if your house has a plaque, be prepared for tour groups, and lots of them.
Other favourites include Forchheim, Ebermannstadt, Nürnberg and Heppenheim and I expect many more favourites will be added to the list soon.