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THE FRANCONIAN SWITZERLAND
Die Fränkische Schweiz, or the Franconian Switzerland, was given its name by Romantic artists and poets who were captivated by its charm. The entire region is a nature park and over 4,000km of marked footpaths lead through a land of contrasts.
Landscape and nature
The gently rolling hills that characterise the region are scored with deep gorges, punctuated by craggy dolomitic outcrops and have been embellished through the ages by human activity. The dramatic cliffs were used during the Middle Ages as perches for fortified strongholds. Castles and ruins, rising above calm green valleys and orchards, tell of a turbulent past, while homely mills in the valleys capture the power of the rivers. Open farmland is complemented by traditional half-timbered houses.
Numerous marked nature trails and guided walks provide information on the botany, geology and ecology of Franconian Switzerland. The plants found in the region have names almost as beautiful as themselves. The rare Türkenbund (turk’s cap lily) and Frauenschuh (lady’s-slipper, an orchid) are two of the hidden wonders. Red and fallow deer, hogs, squirrels and hawks can be glimpsed in the woods, while eagle owls may be heard if not seen. The caves, too, offer much-needed protection for bats.
The summer should bring plenty of sunshine, but spring and autumn show off the area’s nature walks in their best colours. Winter may provide a break from walking to join in southern Germany’s Christmas celebrations, such as the Christkindlesmarkt, an Advent market in nearby Nürnberg. At Easter the village wells are a sight for sore eyes, each one being extravagantly decorated with brightly-coloured Easter eggs.
The heart of Franconia
The local walking club, the Fränkische-Schweiz-Verein, has worked out a series of adaptable five to seven day walking routes. With such a wealth of footpaths to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start, but one of the suggested walks captures much of Franconia’s essence.
Starting and ending in Ebermannstadt, a small town whose treasures include a Baroque lady chapel and a waterwheel dating from 1606, the seven day walk goes through some of the prettiest valleys and towns in Franconian Switzerland. Gö»einstein, Pottenstein and Egloffstein all have a castle to visit, while Gö»einstein also has a beautiful Baroque basilica. In the countryside, the route follows in part the main rivers, the Wiesent, Ailsbach, Püttlach and Trubach, with deviations above the valley to ruins and castles.
About 170 castles were once strewn across the countryside, although all that remains of many are a few scattered stones. Both the Neideck tower, ancestral home of the mighty Schlüsselberg family, and Streitberg castle on the opposite side of the valley, were destroyed by war during the 16th century. All that is left of the two castles are lonely ruins offering picturesque views of the Wiesent valley below.
From being a semi-ruin in the 1970s, Burg Rabenstein in the Ailsbach valley has been refurbished to become Europe’s centre for the Middle Ages. The complex, which includes an art gallery and museum, hosts spectacular falconry events and jousting contests, with knights in shining armour recreating a chivalric atmosphere.
Over 1,000 small and large caves lurk beneath the pleasant green surface of the land, waiting to entice passers-by into a realm of mystery. The three best known caves, the Binghöhle, the Sophienhöhle and the Teufelshöhle (Devil’s Cave), display amazing stalactitic rock formations. These intricate pagoda-like pillars show nature’s craftsmanship at its finest, and the mixing of minerals, soot and clay with the limestone rock has created wonderful colour variations ranging from black to white.
If long hikes begin to pall, the Franconian Switzerland has one more trick up its sleeve. No fewer than seventy two small breweries exist in the area, each producing its own distinctive beer. Special planned walks from brewery to brewery combine attractive landscapes with a chance to taste delicious local drinks. And if beer even loses its pull, there is always the local schnapps. As the biggest sweet cherry-producing area of the EU, and home to apple, pear and plum orchards, virtually every household makes its own schnapps. What better way to keep off the cold in the winter, or perk up the spirits after a long walk?
© Walk Europe
Walk Europe is a guidebook which provides holiday ideas for single travellers, couples, families and groups of all ages and abilities.