Michelstadt is a small town in the Odenwald in Hessen, Central Germany, between Darmstadt and Heidelberg, pop.: ~16,000. It was first mentioned in documents in 741. Its Altstadt (Old Town) features many timber-framed houses, there’s an old town wall, a gothic church, and a few castles around.

The natural regions of Germany (5): The Southern German Scarplands

The scarplands extend on both sides of the Rhine valley. The part west of the Rhine valley is quite small and encompasses the mountain ranges lining the rivers Saar and Mosel and the Palatinate Forest, the northern spur of the Vosges in France. The Nahe valley is a wine growing region producing some of the finest Riesling wines in Germany. The Saar valley was one of the centers of German coal mining and steel production. The steel works in Völklingen were closed in 1986 and are now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.

The scarplands east of the Rhine valley extend over a vast area, covering most of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria and extending into Southern Hesse.

The red sandstone hills of the Odenwald, Spessart and Southern Rhön are mainly forested land, dotted with small towns and villages enclosed in fields in the valleys. They are lined with picturesque historic towns and cities, such as Heidelberg, Freudenberg am Main, Wertheim am Main, Zwingenberg am Neckar, Neckarsteinach, Erbach, Amorbach, Miltenberg, Michelstadt, Beerfelden, and Buchen.

They are followed by the Gäulands, lower lands intensely used for agriculture. In the recent decades, they have become Germany’s economic powerhouse. The south-western region encompassing Stuttgart and Heilbronn in the Neckar valley is particularly strong. It is not only home to big companies like Daimer (Mercedes-Benz cars), Porsche (sports cars), Bosch (mixed technologies), but also to thousands of small and medium-sized businesses, which are highly specialized and often world market leaders in their field. A magnet for tourists is the historic town or Rothenburg ob der Tauber with its nearly undisturbed medieval city center.

The north-eastern parts are more rural with smaller and medium-sized cities located in the river valleys. Notable here is the city of Würzburg, former residence of a Prince-Bishop and home of a traditional university. It was here that Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered the X-rays.

Another important metropolitan area is centered around the old trade city of Nuremberg. Nürnberg as it is spelled in German was the home of renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer. Severely destroyed in world war II, it was rebuilt along the historical layout but with modern facades. Its museums, the imperial castle, and the famous Christmas Market, the oldest one of its kind, are major tourist attractions. In the early 20th century, Nuremberg was a center of National Socialism in Germany, evidenced by the unfinished but still gigantic Nazi Party rally grounds. After the end of the ‘Third Reich’, the principal leaders of the Nazi party and the persons mainly responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity had to stand trial here.

The historic old town of Bamberg is a UNESCO world cultural heritage and popular with tourists from abroad. Its town hall, built within the river Regnitz to represent the two halves of the city, the civil and the episcopal half, is one of its landmarks, alongside with the cathedral and the palace.

The Black Forest is Germany’s highest and biggest upland and a major tourist destination. The specific architecture adds to the picturesque landscape to please the eye of hiking holiday makers looking for rest and relaxation. For centuries, its main product was wood, which was shipped down the river Rhine to the Netherlands to build the fleet that warranted the Dutch strong stance in worldwide trade. Precision engineering is another traditional business branch. Some well-known watchmakers and entertainment electronics businesses were located here, but most of them were unable to compete with the Asian competitors and went bankrupt or have changed their field of operation.

The Keuper-Lias-lands and the Swabian and Franconian Alb are limestone plateaus interrupted by deep valleys. There are some interesting karst formations, including deep and dangerous caves. New caves are discovered almost every year. The Nördlinger Ries is an almost perfectly circular valley and one of the biggest impact craters of the world. The upper reaches of the river Danube are in the process of becoming a tributary of the river Rhine. The waters disappear through cracks in the riverbed and make their way dozens of kilometers through underground cavities until they reappear in a karstic spring that drains to the river Rhine. The riverbed of the Danube below these sinkholes is meanwhile dry for 155 days per year, when it loses all its water to the Rhine. One of the most beautiful karstic springs is the Blautopf.

Hohenzollern Castle at the northern edge of the Swabian Alb is the origin of the House Hohenzollern, which has ruled Prussia for centuries.

A geographical oddity is the town of Büsingen am Hochrhein, which is a German municipality completely surrounded by the Swiss canton of Schaffhausen. It belongs to the Swiss customs area and is thus not part of the customs area of the European Union. Swiss laws are also in place. A set of complicated rules regulate the judicial status of the exclave. Swiss police may arrest people, but the number of Swiss police is restricted to 10 at any given time and must only act on issues that concern the Swiss laws that are in place in the exclave. German police forces must not exceed three police officials per 100 residents and must only act on issues concerning German law. There are strict transit restrictions for German police officers through Swiss territory. Most people of Büsingen earn their money in Swiss Francs, and many transactions are done in Swiss Francs although the official currency is the Euro. Pensions, however, are paid in Euro. The steep rise of the value of the Swiss Franc made the economic situation of the residents of Büsingen difficult. As a result, many German pensioneers have left Büsingen, while Swiss pensioneers have moved there. The town has two zip codes, a Swiss and a German one. Letters sent from there to Switzerland may be franked with either Swiss or German stamps; the latter option is cheaper. Büsingen has a German prefix number, but many residents have also a Swiss phone connection. In front of the post office, there are a Swiss and a German public phone. Both Swiss and German mobile phone networks work at the respective domestic tariffs. In the summer of 1980, Büsingen was in a different tine zone than the rest of Germany because Switzerland had not yet introduced the daylight saving time and Swiss time laws apply in Büsingen. The local football (soccer) club is part of the Swiss Football Association.