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Driving on the German Limes Route

More than 150 scenic driving routes cross-cross the German countryside. They guide visitors to places of interest associated with a diversity of themes. You can drive between historic fortresses on the Castle Road, see vineyards and taste crisp vintages along the German Wine Route, or enjoy the landscapes and places of interest associated with stories collated by the Brothers Grimm on the Fairy Tale Route. The German Limes Route is also an option.

Their roads have been chosen for the picturesque nature of the landscapes, towns and villages through which they skirt rather than because they represent the fastest way between urban centres. If you’re interested in a self-driving holiday in a nation that’s known worldwide for the quality of its motor vehicles and roads then all you need to do is pick a theme, pack your car and set off. Typically German, the routes are efficiently marked. Brown signposts indicate nearby places of cultural interest along the way.

The German Limes Route runs for around 770 kilometres but does not, despite its English name, have anything to do with fruit production. Known in German as the Deutsche Limes-Strasse, it skirts through more than 80 towns and its focus is the former boundary of the Roman Empire in German territory. The Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes runs for 550-kilometres from Bad Hönningen, a spa town in the Rhineland-Palatinate, to Regensburg in Bavaria. Around 900 watch towers, 120 sentry posts plus a series of earthworks and forts once guarded the stone wall and whitewashed palisade that marked the frontier. Troops stationed along the boundary managed the passage of people and goods into and out of the Roman Empire. Archaeologists and historians now believe taxes were collected at gates along the Limes Germanicus, as the barrier was known in Latin. The network did have a defensive function but was built to consolidate the Roman Empire’s boundaries not, as such, to keep invading hordes out.

Fragments recovered from the ground during excavations lead archaeologists to suggest the barrier would have been painted white during in the heyday of its operation, the period from around 85AD to 260AD. Barbarians approaching the periphery of the empire would have seen the Limes Germanicus stretching all the way along the horizon. Dense forest covered much of the German countryside
 

 
in ancient times but trees surrounding the frontier of the empire would have been cleared. Archaeologists hypothesise the gleaming barrier would have made a formidable psychological impression on those nearing it.

In the centuries that followed the collapse of Roman authority in German lands stone was stripped away from the wall and forts. It was used to build houses and churches in nearby settlements. After all, it was easier to remove neatly faced Roman stones that to quarry virgin rock. Over time the trees grew back. Today, in woodland near Rainau, in Baden-Würtemberg, you can see why God-fearing farmers during the Middle Ages knew the remnants of the fortification ‘the Devil’s Wall’. They had no way of knowing it was once part of Europe’s largest man-made object.

Since 2005 the archaeological site has been designated part of the same UNESCO World Heritage Site as Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall in the United Kingdom. The boundaries of the Roman Empire stretched through Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa for more than 5,000 kilometres.

Of course, the full length of the 550-kilometre frontier within Germany does not have to be driven in one go. Breaking up the journey over several days to enjoy spa days, walks and visits to museums is part of the joy of setting your own pace during a driving holiday. At several points along its course the German Limes Route intersects with other marked driving routes, giving you opportunities to follow scenery with a different theme for a while or to change tack entirely. At the attractive small town of Idstein, for example, you can turn onto the German Timber-Frame Road, a route renowned, as its name suggests, for its historic, half-timbered housing.

The German Limes Route cuts through the rolling greenery of the Taunus Mountains, a short drive from Frankfurt. The region is peppered with spa resorts such as the Kneipp-Kurpark at Bad Camberg, the vast Rhein-Main-Therme at Hofheim am Taunus plus the Taunus Therme at Bad Homburg, where geothermally heated mineral water flows. The Taunus became known for its restorative nature and ‘Champagne air’ drawing people to spend time on relaxing Kur breaks featuring therapy and relaxation – a forerunner of modern wellness holidays.

A combination of leafy parkland, a long history and a broad range of shopping opportunities makes the city of Bad Homburg an attractive place to pause. The Spielbank Bad Homburg (spielbankbad-homburg.de), the city’s casino, has been drawing noble visitors since 1841. It stands a short stroll from the Kur-Royal Day Spa (kur-royal.de), where you can relax at the hands of masseurs in a grand building that once regularly hosted members of Europe’s ruling families. The Steinberger Bad Homburg (steinberger.com) is a refined, five-star hotel with 169 rooms that’s well-placed for walking to points of interest around the city. To dine in style, reserve a table at Schellers (Philosophenweg 31), a modern, Michelinstarred restaurant serving delectable creations. If you want to taste traditional German cuisine, including a selection of game-based dishes, head to the Hirschgarten (Elisabethenschneise), a restaurant set within a garden in which deer roam.

From there it’s just a 15-minute drive to the Roman fortress at Saalburg, which was rebuilt under the patronage of the German emperor Wilhelm II at the beginning of the last century. Saalburg hosts a programme of history-related events throughout the year. You might chance upon recitals of Latin poetry, see musicians playing faithfully reconstructed instruments from the ancient world or catch gladiators clashing by the main gate of the landmark. Marked trails allow you to explore the surrounding countryside and get a feel for the dense woodland that surrounded the Limes Germanicus. The café within the fort serves dishes documented in Roman times by Apicius. Mulsum – a herby, semi-sweet wine-based drink – and moretum – goat’s cheese laced with herbs – are two of the items on the menu that many visitors enjoy tasting.

Driving south will take you into Baden-Württemberg, a region that prides itself on its wine production and hearty cuisine. Modern day Aalen was once the location of the largest cavalry fortress north of the Alps. You can see the layout of the excavated fort after visiting the Limes Museum. Exhibits and artefacts convey how life was along the Limes Germanicus while maps put the frontier into the context of the European landmass.

At nearby Rainau-Dalkingen you can see the remnants of a triumphal arch erected to commemorate a military campaign of 213 AD led by the Roman Emperor Caracalla. The ancient monument contrasts with the contemporary glass structure that now protects it and is itself a landmark worthy of a visit. At Rainau-Schwabsberg one of the lookout towers that once provided sentries with elevated views over the surrounding countryside has been reconstructed from stone topped with wood. It stands open on weekends and gives you opportunities to learn how the troops signalled between watchtowers – using flags, fire and trumpets – depending on the visibility at the time of threats.

One of the joys of following Germany’s scenic driving routes is that they introduce you to towns you wouldn’t otherwise visit. Ellwangen an der Jagst lies close to the German Limes Route. At its heart stands the stately Basilica of St Vitus, surrounded by pastelpainted townhouses. Like many of the country’s urban centres, Ellwangen has its own breweries. The Brauereigasthof Roter Ochsen (roter-ochsen-ellwangen.de) provides accommodation as well as serving freshly brewed ales and traditional Swabian cuisine, including Maultaschen, parcels of meat wrapped in pasta. Staying in the town centre allows you to pick up supplies for a picnic en route, perhaps after enjoying one of the many circular walks marked near sites of interest along the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Romans enjoyed a bathing and sauna culture as part of their lifestyle and constructed buildings with underfloor
 

 
Over in Bavaria, at Bad Gögging’s Römisches Museum für Kurund Badewesen, you can learn how the Romans enjoyed a bathing and sauna culture as part of their lifestyle and constructed buildings with underfloor heating. In fact the term ‘spa’ is derived from the initial letters of the Latin phrase ‘sanus per aquam’ meaning ‘health through water’. They discovered that the region’s sulphur-rich water had properties that relieve the symptoms of ailments such as arthritis and gout. Armed with that knowledge you can then unwind during the afternoon in one of the town’s spas. The smart Limes-Therme Bad-Gögging (limes-therme.de) offers a wellness treatment plus a number of in- and outdoor pools. The Marc Aurel Golf and Spa Resort (marcaurel.de) hosts wellness facilities, a 50 metre swimming pool and a nine-hole golf course plus modern guestrooms, some of which overlook the lush fairways.

You don’t need to be a history enthusiast to enjoy driving on the German Limes Route as signs and museums along the way provide plenty of info. Where could be more appropriate than a heated room within a spa to consider that classic question – what have the Romans ever done us? Limes Road (limesstrasse.de)

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