By Charles Leocha Travel columnist
Special to msnbc.com
updated 4/25/2008 12:59:16 PM ET 2008-04-25T16:59:16

European travelers come in two shapes — those who carefully plan their trips between major cities and those who wake up every morning and search for a new adventure on the way to their next destination. For the first kind, traveling by train may be an option but for the second group, a rental car — even with gasoline at $8 a gallon — is the only answer.

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On a recent trip to Germany, I had three big destinations: Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Stuttgart. I had business in Frankfurt and while I had no need for a car in the city, I decided to rent one for the travels beyond Frankfurt. It was a decision that made all the difference.

Car vs. train
First, the economics. Renting the car from AutoEurope.com (800-223-5555) cost 215.75 euros for five days. (AutoEurope guarantees its prices and exchange rates, so there will be no surprises on the bill.) Gasoline for the duration of the trip cost 134 euros, and parking cost about 40 euros. We took no toll roads. The total cost for the car came to about $624 based on an exchange rate of 1.6 euros to the dollar.

The train would have cost us more. According to RailEurope.com, a five-day rail pass for France and Germany would have cost $406 per person. (Purchasing individual train tickets for the cities we visited would have cost $382 per person for 2nd Class tickets or $553 per person for 1st Class.) Having a car, even paying $8 a gallon for gasoline, saved us about $200 — not to mention time. That savings pays for a lot of meals when a full lunch-of-the-day costs only between 7 euros and 14 euros across Europe. And the freedom a car affords is priceless.

In Frankfurt, local transportation passes made moving around the city simple and affordable. In fact, Frankfurt is quite walkable for the most part. After work, walking along the Main River, strolling down the Hauptwache, and exploring the cobbled streets, cafes and restaurants of Sachsenhausen lent a local flavor to the visit.

Frankfurt to Heidelberg
The real adventure started after picking up the rental car at the main train station in Frankfurt and motoring along the road to Heidelberg. Castles punctuate the ridgeline between Darmstadt and Heidelberg, just begging to be visited. On the train, the fortresses and palaces of Auerbach, Weinheim and Bensheim beckon along the western horizon. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to stop and explore them; luggage and timetables alone are prohibitive, never mind the long hike up the hills. By car, however, every alluring Bergstrasse castle and medieval town can be explored.

What would be about an hour-long train ride between Frankfurt and Heidelberg becomes a half-day adventure down the Bergstrasse (Mountain Road) through towns that are fabled in German history. The view of the Rhine Plain from the tower of the Auerbach Castle is worth the climb. Visitors can walk through a tropical botanical garden in Furstenlager Park, or discover the Lorsch Abbey, founded in 764, where monks created illuminated manuscripts and wielded political power. In the late afternoon a climb up to the reconstructed Wachenburg Castle or Windeck Castle provides beautiful sunset views. Later, sip wine on Marktplatz in Weinheim, which sits beneath these two castles.

A French detour for lunch
Having a car also allowed us to make a last-minute change in plans when the weather turned against us. A glance at a map one evening let us know that the Alsatian city of Strasbourg, France, was close to the road from Heidelberg to Stuttgart. With poor visibility and threatening snow, the city provided a good alternative to winding roads through the hills of the Black Forest. Anyway, I have long wanted to see the half-timbered houses of Strasbourg, so we turned in that direction, headed for lunch in France.

A little more than two hours from Heidelberg’s rambling castle, the towering sandstone spire of Strasbourg Cathedral marked the city center. After parking in the underground parking lot in the heart of the old city center, we headed to the tourist office and picked up a mapped walking tour of the city.

When it was constructed in 1647, Strasbourg Cathedral was the tallest building in the world, surpassing the Great Pyramid in Giza, the previous record holder. The spire, still the fourth-highest among world churches, presides over a warren of streets and canals lined with elegant Renaissance half-timbered houses. The construction of the cathedral is considered a wonder of architecture and according to several historians inspired the founding of the Masonic Order and its various lodges and symbols. Inside the cathedral, a jeweled and gilded mechanical clock depicts astrological symbols, phases of the moon, a calendar, eclipses, the movement of the planets and, at 12:30 every afternoon, a procession of the Apostles.

Every turn in Strasbourg’s old center provides picture-postcard views and more churches. St. Thomas church houses a beautiful organ upon which both Mozart and Albert Schweitzer are said to have played. The picturesque neighborhood of Petite France is built on a series of islands formed where the Ill River split into a group of cascades and canals. After a lunch of duck salad and veal washed down with a local Pinot Noir, we headed to Colmar, a smaller half-timbered city about an hour to the south.

The drive traced a path through vineyards of pruned and tied grapes destined for bottles of Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Colmar, with its half-dozen churches, pastel timbered houses, and “Little Venice” neighborhood, is as pretty a town as can be found in Europe. We spent the late afternoon wandering through the pedestrian streets that lace the old town and along the canals of Little Venice. A stop in the tourist office yielded a town map, and a sidewalk stand selling Grand Marnier-soaked crépes suzette provided the perfect dessert.

From Colmar the drive back along the edge of the Black Forest to Stuttgart took about two-and-a-half hours by highway and autobahn. Navigating Stuttgart’s tunnels and streets at night would have been torturous, but my Garmin Nuvi 660 GPS system guided us right to the Hotel Ketterer.

A day in the Swabish Alb
To be honest, Stuttgart on Good Friday is closed. After wandering down the Koenigstrasse, the main shopping street, past scores of tightly shuttered stores and making a quick stop at the Altes Schloss, which has a museum, we decided to drive out to Hohenzollern Castle, located about 50 kilometers south of town. Again, we were grateful to have the car. Otherwise, it would have been a long day in closed Stuttgart.

The first stop was Tübingen, a colorful, half-timbered university city just south of Stuttgart. It’s worth a stop here to see St. George church, the old castle and the views along the river. After wandering through the medieval streets, we headed for the countryside to find a spot for lunch, for it seems even the restaurants close for Good Friday in downtown Stuttgart and Tübingen.

We found the Landgasthaus Ochsen in Oferdingen, just south of Tübingen, and were cheered by the sight of a packed parking lot and dining room filled with three family groups gathered at long tables. After a meal of jaegerschnitzel and veal cordon bleu with generous portions of salad and Black Forest spaetzle, all washed down with local beer, we were back on the road on the way to the see the spires and crenellated walls of Hohenzollern Castle. This is the kind of legendary castle that might serve as the setting for “Beauty and the Beast.” I’m sure it inspired the castle at Disneyland. Among the artifacts found here are the original letters between George Washington and the Prussian general Von Stuben, who came to the American colonies to train the Continental Army.

The drive back to Stuttgart twisted through the Schwabian Alb past towns that each deserved its own time of discovery, but all were passed as daylight faded.

Wandering in walled Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast in Stuttgart, it was back in the car for the drive to the walled city of Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber, only two-and-a-half hours north of the big city. This city is a step back in time, except for the cars that have found their way into even the narrowest lanes between the medieval buildings. Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber has enough medieval buildings, walls, gardens and churches to keep any tourist or historian busy for most of a day.

After a wonderful apfelstrudel at Friedel Cafe Konditorei, Markt 8, we began the trip back to Heidelberg that we had planned the previous night after poring over our maps and guidebooks. The path took us back to the autobahn past Heilbronn to the walled city of Bad Wimpfen overlooking the Neckar River. After a walk through the city and along the town walls, we continued down the river back to Heidelberg, reaching the university town in time for dinner with friends at Trattoria Toscana across from the church at Marktplatz 1.

The next morning, it was an easy hour’s drive to the Frankfurt Airport, where the rental car check-in was only a short walk from the terminals (about the same as from the airport train station). A separate Lufthansa Business Class area at the airport made check-in a breeze and home in Boston was only eight nonstop hours away.

Notes:
Car rental was through AutoEurope.com with pickup and drop-off in Germany.
Lodging in Frankfurt was at the Steigenberger Airport Hotel and, downtown, at Villa Kennedy, which was recently voted Best Business Hotel in Europe by CNBC European Business magazine.
Lodging in Heidelberg was with Best Western Alt Heidelberg. Lodging in Stuttgart was with Best Western Hotel Ketterer.

Note on costs: Rental car costs are detailed above. Before renting, check prices for pick-up in town vs. picking up your car at the airport or main train station; often the difference (airport and train stations cost more), especially in Germany is major — on our trip it would have made more than an $80 difference.

Meals during this trip cost about the same as in any big city in the U.S. A three-course menu-of-the-day can be found at almost every restaurant for between 7 euros and 14 euros ($12 and $24). Moderate entrees cost around 12 euros ($20) and pizza will cost between 7 euros and 10 euros ($12 to $16). Good drinkable wine in supermarkets costs about 7 euros to 10 euros ($12 to $16). Expect to pay between $125 and $175 for a moderate tourist hotel room per night with breakfast. Parking is extra.

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