I decided to skip the most famous town on the Romantic Road, Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Last time I was there, dragging the boy scouts through Europe, I ended up in a shouting match with a giant tour bus. Well, the bus mostly just shouted, “BEEP!” It was one of those double-high jobbers where the passengers sit way up, leaning against tinted windows, their feet dangling well above the heads of people trying to walk around the thing on the ground. I wasn’t trying to walk around it. I had planted myself firmly in front of it, and was yelling at it.

While it kept repeating “BEEP!” I gave a long and, I thought, very cogent series of arguments regarding the definition of “pedestrians only,” what this particular brand of mass tourism has wrought upon the beautiful places in the world, and how driving such a monstrosity right into the postcard-quaint cobbled town square lined with its half-timbered buildings spoils the very postcard view the people on board came to see.

The bus just kept shouting, “BEEP!”

Its driver was adding something of his own, and though I couldn’t hear him through the soundproofed glass, his vast vocabulary of hand gestures got the point across. Some of the tourists on board apparently decided I must be part of the “local color” and took pictures of me. A few of my boy scouts thoughtfully dragged me away before I could get arrested, and to this day, every once in a while, one of them will say “Hey, remember that time Reid got in a fight with a German bus?”

So I skipped Rothenburg.

Instead, I pushed on west and north toward the Neckar Valley and my final castle, the Hirschhorn. The swift Neckar River winds through the southern reaches of the Odenwald Forest. It is lined with half-timbered villages and castles like a mini-Rhine, but suffers a mere fraction of the tourists, and along much of the river the trees still march right down to the water’s edge. However, the forests blanketing the hills did look a bit odd. Generations of systematic logging have left it to grow back in overlapping, mismatched, rectilinear patches, not always aligned, so the greensward is covered in a network of subtle seams and slight color variations like a much-patched road.

Still, only modest swatches of the Odenwald had been permanently shaved away to make room for villages and small farms along the riverside. As I approached the Neckar and began twisting along its length toward the castle, I even saw grape vines strung up on one hillside. “Oh, no!” I said to myself. “Not again!” Sure enough, my guidebook described this as a “…small, but high-quality, wine-producing area.”

And on my last night in Germany, too.

The thirteenth-century Schloss Hirschhorn overlooks a bend in the Neckar where a little waterfall dam provides a pleasant white noise background of rushing water to the chirping of sparrow hawks wheeling below the high walls of the castle and the tolling of bells in the little steepled and red-roofed hamlet by the riverside. I spent the afternoon on the castle’s popular terrace, set like the prow of a ship at a panoramic point with sweeping views down the valley, and whiled away the time contentedly arranging my notes and working on my hotel reviews while nursing a few chilled beers.

As the afternoon light turned pale orange, I realized dinnertime had arrived and that the folks sitting around me were clinking forks to plates. I raised the dregs of my last beer, silently toasted the view, and drained the glass. I called for a menu and ordered the set-price feast. It opened with melon and ham, followed by beef strips, then a platter crowded with a tiny steak, a pork chop, and a medallion of, well, a different cut of pork. All of it drenched in sauce. Oh, and potatoes. Mustn’t forget the potatoes. Ah, well. It’s not like I came here for pizza. Suggested to accompany the menu was (yep) a local dry white wine. Well, when in Germany…

I ordered the full bottle.

Just before 9pm, the hotel manager came out and sat at the table nearest the back of the terrace but still against the cliff wall so she could see the panorama. I nodded to her in greeting and went back to reading my book. The waitress brought out a tall mug beer for her boss, and the manager just sit there, along with the middle-aged American couple and the middle-aged German couple, and me, enjoying the sunset, which was reflecting rather spectacularly off the clouds on the other side of the river.

After a while, she was joined by her husband, the chef, who stripped off his apron and poured himself a glass of red wine. She clinked it with her beer stein, staring him in the eyes with a smile in silent toast. They sat for a while, talking in low voices, drinking their beer and their wine, until the sunset faded from the clouds and the sky darkened to navy, then indigo.

I decided to retire early—I had a flight out of Frankfurt in the morning, and still needed to finish packing. I worked a crick out of my neck, marked my spot in the book, and headed back to my room. Before I set about packing, I took a minute to gaze out the window, because, for the first time this trip, my room had a view.

I saw a grassy lawn spilling steeply below the stone of the high castle walls. Sparrow hawks wheeled on the thermals beneath my window and keened to one another as they hunted in the dusk. The grassy slope was bordered by crumbling castle walls that stretched right down to mingle with the red-roofed village below. Beyond, past the vineyards, the Neckar curved silver into the forests of the night-dark hills.