Franconia, Germany: Bavaria's sophisticated other half

Famous Franconians "spread all over the world like a disease," says our Rothenburg tour guide Tobias. Think Wolf Blass, Levi Strauss, Henry Kissinger and Dr Alzheimer.

It appears we have scored a wag, who is about to give us a tongue-in-cheek cultural lesson on the "barbarian Bavarian", who apparently should never be confused with the more civilised, wine-loving Franconian.

Franconia is part of Bavaria but Franconians resist this general classification and they especially resist the Bavarian stereotype that has morphed into the German stereotype – tall, blond people, beer quaffed from steins, beer bellies, lederhosen, sausages, sauerkraut and cuckoo clocks.

Tobias elaborates, his social commentary enriching a walking tour of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the town on the 350-kilometre "Romantic Road" in southern Germany between Wurzburg and Fussen. Picturesque hamlets like Rothenburg dot the route like tasty buttons on a gingerbread man.

For whistle-stop visitors, it is sometimes tempting to focus solely on the physical attributes of these strikingly preserved medieval German towns at the expense of the complex society that has shaped them.

In the case of Rothenburg, population 11,000, 3000 within the walls, it would be easy to simply snap our photos of the medieval walls, timber-framed houses and Franconian bottles that resemble, offers Tobias, "a billy goat's scrotum" and then move on.

Tobias is in fact encouraging us to think about identity as we meander through medieval Rothenburg. Not just sights but insights. Some are hilarious, many trivial but all indicative of, if not culture, then character, for people must matter as much as pretty places.

The town's name, incidentally, means "red fortress above the Tauber". This refers to the red roofs of houses that overlook the river but may also refer to the process of retting flax for linen (rotten in German).

Being Franconian is a state of mind, it seems, going back to 1806 when Napoleon defeated the Holy Roman Empire. Bavaria became a kingdom and in 1815, Franconia was ceded to Bavaria. Franconians cast their history back to the 8th century and the Franks, a conquering Germanic tribe. The Franconia dialect, locally referred to as frankisch, is different from the Austro-Bavarian dialect.

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In short, Franconians cling to their separate identity (even while, it must be said, happily enjoying sauerkraut, sausages and cuckoo clocks and beer – upper Franconia boasts the world's highest number of breweries per capita).

The unofficial red-and-white Franconian flag flies everywhere and if not the flag, red-and-white geraniums will do, thanks very much. But Tobias (pronounced "two beers) is on a roll. "I don't wear leather trousers – it's a Bavarian thing, he says. "We don't eat sausages and sauerkraut all day long. I don't have a cuckoo clock and I don't know anyone who has. They do my nerves in. And here we prefer our wine. And schnapps.

"Schnapps is not an alcoholic beverage; it's a remedy. Schnapps is acceptable any time. There is no such thing as being too healthy." Franconians don't smile either. We could, but why should we? People only smile if they're drunk, or find someone weird. So please don't smile at Franconians; it confuses them.

"Don't try to be funny either. People will think you're incompetent.

"Nor do we say positive things. We don't say, that food was delicious. We say it was edible."

As for the proliferation of vines that adorn Franconia's rolling hills, Tobias explains that the fertile soil would be wasted on pasture, which means livestock live close to home. In olden days, this meant a peasant's status symbol was his dung heap.

"I looked for the biggest dung heap and found your mum," is Tobias' take on a Franconian farm worker's family tree.

Tobias is also keen to share a particular law of the autobahn.

"Your car is your home," he says. "It is legal to drive your car completely naked. You're simply not allowed to alight, when parked. Germans are naked more often than they should be."

All this while meandering from one architectural beauty to the next – including the 13th-century town hall or Rathaus in Marktplatz, with its 16th-century, 50-metre tower for a fine, Old Town view, the 15th-century St Jacob's Church, one of the best examples in Germany, Plonlein (Little Square) with its half-timbered houses and towers, the walkable Old Town walls and the scenic Burggarten (castle gardens).

Tobias has a final warning about the visually appealing schneeballen (snowballs) that adorn many Rothenburg patisserie windows: "They taste of nothing and grease. Not even the pigeons touch them."

Having met Tobias, it is apparent that the world needs more Franconians and, yes, Bavarians too.

TRIP NOTES

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Singapore Airlines flies daily to Budapest and Amsterdam from Sydney and Melbourne. See singaporeair.com/

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APT's Magnificent Europe 15-day River Cruise Amsterdam-Budapest and reverse costs $6995 per person with a Fly Free deal or Fly Business Class deal for $2995. Tours operate from March to December. See aptouring.com.au or call 1300 196 420.

Alison Stewart was a guest of APT.

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