In the summer of 2003, driving through the Odenwald in southern Hessen was very pleasant and soothing. I passed by miles upon miles of rolling hills and dense forests, occasionally interrupted by a stretch of open river valley or farmland with a castle ruin or manor house perched on high ground. Most of the towns and villages were super tiny, barely worth dots on the map. There were also lots of cars parked at the entrances to marked forest trails, meaning people were coming from all over to enjoy a nice Sunday's walk through the forest.
The first large town I encountered was Erbach, and I knew I had reached it as outside my driver's window I spied the huge palace dominating the downtown -- especially with its distinctive tall brick tower. Like other palace towns in the region (Schwetzingen, for example), Erbach's palace (or Schloss) was the center of attention, and the markets and local government buildings built up in a concentration around it, all decorated lavishly with flowers and gardens.
The palace was typically Baroque, primarily red sandstone and decorated with gilded figurines. The front facade, shown in the first photo, was painted yellow, a color used in other palaces built around the same time frame. The reverse side of the palace was more gilded than the front, suggesting the palace was renovated fairly recently. The crest over the doorway was marked in honor of one George Wilhelm, who commissioned the palace construction.
The second photograph shows a concentration of official buildings and churches near the palace. The two triangular buildings just left of the tree line were the town hall and regional tourism bureau. The arches at the base of the buildings were actually passageways to the interior of the town, and the backside of the passageway was marked with a simple sandstone arch. In the opposite direction of this shot was the new market street that hosted the most popular cafés, clearly designed to welcome palace visitors. The largest was built inside an old mill house, and the old waterwheel in the back still operated (for decoration purposes only, of course).
I walked around the market streets nearby and behind the palace through the old residential districts. The dominant architecture there was half-timber, particularly white with brown wood, but there were lots of color combinations (various yellows on reds seemed popular). There was an old market square (Alt Marktplatz) near the church with several half-timbered buildings of historical significance. The guesthouses there were colorfully decorated (one of them, called the Wappenstube, had a number of figures and shields painted on the front, presumably representing other nearby towns.
Wrapping around the downtown was the beautifully decorated sandstone canal, shown in the fourth photograph. As the canal wrapped around the downtown to the left, one could visualize the true shape of the old town based on the way the structures hugged the canal like it was an old moat.
Just off the fourth photo to the right was The Galerie and Lustgarten, shown in the third photograph. About the size of a soccer field, the Lustgarten was a popular spot with several cafés and places to sit and enjoy the sunshine. Also present was a large Orangerie built similarly to the Galerie, and tall hedges surrounded the rest of the garten, secluding it peacefully from the bustle of people outside. As the photograph shows, the flowers in the Lustgarten were in full bloom, like those on the canal. Very pleasant.
We returned to Erbach in the summer of 2005, on a very sunny day (during what was a rather wet and dreary summer). We happened to stumble upon a classic old German car rally, a scene of which is in the fifth photo. The event was staged as a regional rally, originating in a town further north of Erbach known as Bad Koenig. Some two hundred vintage vehicles -- busses, cars, vans, others -- participated. Each vehicle driver was given a map and scoresheet, and had to drive to the five or six towns on the list. For Erbach, their checkpoint was the palace yard, where the crowd gathered to watch and listen to an announcer give information about the car. We watched the procession for some twenty minutes until a thunderstorm chased us inside, which was fine since it was time for lunch, and Erbach had all those great restaurants right there next to the palace.
We gathered that Erbach was a fairly nice place to live, as well. The hills immediately surrounding the old town were mostly residential, as were the hills leading out of town in both directions. Although tucked away in the north side of the Odenwald, Erbach and nearby Michelstadt are not far from Frankfurt (Main) and their own industrial base appeared new and modern. The influx of tourists that both towns got certainly helped.
Erbach and Michelstadt were probably best done together as a full day trip to the Odenwald, each were unique enough that neither should be skipped. The drive through the Odenwald was certainly enjoyable enough, and both old towns could be visited at one's leisure. Both have nice cafés and restaurants immediately available. We were not able to take Erbach's palace tour, as it operated limited hours, so you ought to check the schedule on-line and plan accordingly if you want to see the inside.
Trips taken 6 July 2003 and 11 July 2005 -- Page last updated 24 October 2006 -- (C) 2004 Tom Galvin