I’ve got another treat to share with you guys – this time, the picturesque riverside town of Miltenberg in Lower Franconia (“Unterfranken”) in northwest Bavaria.
Miltenberg lies right between the Spessart and the Odenwald – two hilly areas on the border of Hesse and Bavaria. The Bavarian side juts out to the West like a hook from the rest of the state and is home to quite a few quaint villages, many of which are nestled right along the Main and surrounded by vineyards and forest ridges. Miltenberg, of course, is one of those villages.
If it weren’t for my friend Andreas who originally comes from the region, I probably would’ve never made it to Miltenberg. Heck, I had never even heard of the place until two weeks ago, when Andreas and I took a day trip there.
“We’ll save the best for last,” Andreas said, referring to Miltenberg as we drove on the Autobahn past bold yellow fields of rapeseed on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We were visiting a few towns in the Main River Valley south of Aschaffenburg, places like Klingenberg and the Franciscan monastery of Engelberg.
“I think you’ll like Miltenberg,” Andreas added. “There’s a castle, tons of half-timbered houses, and even the oldest tavern in all of Germany!”
I nodded inquisitively, yet I still wasn’t convinced. I’d been to places like Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Heidelberg, and Cochem before. But Miltenberg? Come on. I had never even seen the place listed in a guidebook. Plus, every German thinks their own “Heimat”, or the place they grew up in, is the best in the country. Miltenberg couldn’t be that out of the ordinary, could it?
Whatever the case, the sun was shining after what had been quite a chilly (and even snowy!) April, so I was happy enough just to be outdoors, soaking up some vitamin D and finally being able to shed my winter coat.
The “Torhaus”, or gatehouse, on the far end of the bridge into Miltenberg’s old town caught my attention first. With its red bricks and orange shingles, it vaguely reminded me of the “Holstentor” in Lübeck, albeit a much smaller version.
“There used to be city walls on both sides of the gatehouse,” Andreas noted, putting his insider knowledge to good use. “Today, though, there’s not much left to them. But right below us, right under this bridge, there’s a parking lot where the Michaelismesse, the biggest folk festival of the year, takes place.”
I imagined the parking lot full of ferris wheels, food stands, and, of course, beer tents (as are a must at any folk festival in Germany, especially those in Bavaria).
“Not too shabby,” I thought to myself.
We parked the car up on a ledge overlooking the old town and zigzagged past crooked half-timbered houses down to the main pedestrian thoroughfare.
After hearing about the oldest tavern in Germany earlier in the car, a place by the name of “Zum Riesen”, there was no doubt in my mind – this simply had to be first up on our list of things to do in Miltenberg.
Now, I realize German food doesn’t always have the best of reputations (I’d say some mildly repulsive concoctions such as this and this are to blame). And trust me, when I see a boar’s head in a marketplace or think about what goes into oxtail soup, I pretty much want to be vegetarian for life.
But a good “Currywurst” (aka Bratwurst doused in a curry-ketchup sauce) with home fries and salad along with a nice jug of Bavarian beer to down it all with? Now that I can go for. And I did.
Besides, the interior of “Zum Riesen” had that sort of rustic and enchanting feel that just makes you want to find a cozy corner, order a pint or two, and think about all the history that’s been worn into the woodwork.
Since it was April 30 and the locals were out putting up their annual maypole (the First of May is a federal holiday here in Germany), Andreas and I were lucky enough to be serenaded by a group of folk musicians passing through the streets.
Okay, so “serenaded” isn’t really the right word, especially since the heavy downbeats of oompah music are more likely to wake you up rather than put you to sleep. But I have to give it to the inhabitants of Miltenberg – they were certainly trying their best to put on a good show (plus, I really liked the feathers that the men had on their hats).
The one downside to the festivities? An incredibly long line at the local ice cream parlor (although I credit this in part to the sun that finally decided to come out for a day and then vanished again for two weeks).
“I’ve never walked up to the castle,” Andreas said as we stood on the town square finishing our ice cream. “But I bet the view is worth it.”
I turned my head to the left, ice cream cone in one hand and camera in the other, and peered down a row of houses that came to a stop at the base of a hill. My gaze rested on the outline of the town’s white stone castle, aptly named Mildenburg Castle, and even though the sun was blinding and made it hard to see, I didn’t need any convincing.
“I’m in!” I responded gleefully, not sure whether this sudden burst of excitement was from the castle or the ice cream, or both.
As is so often the case, it wasn’t until I was higher up that I could truly put things into perspective – the Main softly curving its way through fields and pastures, the hills and forests rolling gently on the horizon, the Jacobskirche with its picturesque bell towers looking over the old town.
“We really did save the best for last,” I thought to myself as I looked down onto Miltenberg.
Sure, other places might have more glamour and grandeur. But Miltenberg was charming in its own way. It was authentic, not ostentatious. It was a place that felt homey and welcoming.
Most of all, Miltenberg was a pleasant surprise hidden in the peaceful countryside between the Spessart and the Odenwald. Or, as its inhabitants like to call it, “the Pearl of the Main.”