Rothenburg ob der Tauber and the art of walking around in a storybook
First thing about Rothenburg. When you type “Rot” on Google maps, it’s likely to accost you with options that will take you to some other place altogether. It could take you to Rottenburg am Neckar or Rottenburg an der Laaber or Rotenburg or Rothenburg, Oberlausitz or Rothenburg, Saxony-Anhalt or Rothenburg (Thüringen) or Rothenburg ob der Tauber - which is the cute medieval, Romantic Road superstar town that you probably are planning to head to.
Rothenburg is a romantic tale that goes back to 970 when an Eastern Fraconian nobleman took a fancy to the lush rich Tauber Valley and established the parish of Detwang. The resulting 10th century church (Church of St. Peter and Paul, Entrance 1.50 Euros) still stands in the village of Detwang, which outdates Rothenburg and offers an off-the-beaten path version of what can prove to be a very pretty but heavily touristy experience of medieval Germany. But this post is about touristy but all the more delightful, Rothenburg. By 1020 the Count of Komburg-Rothenburg built the castle of Rothenburg on the hill that overlooked the Tauber River. Eventually the Komburg dynasty would die out resulting in Heinrich V appointing his nephew as successor to Rothenburg. As the appointed king of a town that was destined for greater things, it was only natural that the ruler would share a similar fate - the nephew Konrad von Hohenstaufen would later become Konrad III, the first king of the Hohenstaufen Dynasty. The city grew under his watch and the red fortress or the Rote Burg that lorded over the Tauber valley gave this place its name which translates into Red Fortress above the Tauber. Pretty efficient and “quite-German” nomenclature method I should think.
We parked outside the city and walked to the old town. The tall imposing Röder city gates - real fortified gates with a moat and all - is a time portal. That is if you chose to ignore the cars and the tourists. To call Rothenburg picturesque is to do it the disservice of understatement. It’s a fairytale, a historical romance, a gothic dream, an elf town, a magical spell all rolled in one. The cream-frosting coloured buildings with their gingerbread roofs beckon you over as shops of tempting fare. Cute bookstores, darling ancient arts and crafts, ice-cream windows - so much to discover. We entered an inviting ceramic store where I adopted a tiny dragon. A Dannie must have her dragons, right?! If you’re not careful, you’re going to give your heart and your wallet away to this town. Everything is adorable. Every shop window is unique. Every charlatan-pretty souvenir promises to be a relic of history. A little further down was a window filled with sugar-dusted balls of dough that beckoned so hard that we couldn't resist by any means. Let me introduce to the first Rothenburg must-do on this list
1. Schneeballen. Do not leave Rothenburg without trying one. Sure you’ll end up looking like a snow troll once you’re done with it with all the sugar on your face. But you simply have to get through this rite of sugary initiation. The schneeballen pastry finds its origins right here in Rothenburg and goes back to the Medieval days.
2. Markustower. Straight down the Röder gate is the next arch and tower called the Markustrum. It was one of the town’s original gates and boast walls that are two metre wide. Look out for the nest on top of the tower that looks like it could home dragon hatchlings - in reality it’s a home for storks.
Now that we’d had a scheeballen and were suitably flummoxed by it, we were prepped enough for this unrealistically pretty town. If you feel a sense of having been here before, it’s partly your childhood reminisces fairy towns and partly because of Hollywood. Pinnochio’s village in the Disney film was inspired by Rothenburg. Harry Potter and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang also starred this pretty town. There is something about edible looking houses and turrets that makes you permanently hungry. Whatever money you don’t spend on cute souvenirs, you will eat away in the form of sugar-dusted tasties and custard-hearted lovelies and succulent meaties. We snuck into various cafes for snacks quite often. Our first stop Brothaus had some great baked delicacies with a portion of German brusque from the staff. Whatever personality failing the staff had, the food compensated in garrulous and talkative flavours. So yeah, so what if the boy/girl behind the counter didn’t smile! Also their outdoor seating is one of the choicest corners to watch the world go by.
So how is that a once Imperial Town that had such an early start in history somehow fold itself into a safe medieval-rut in time? Right from the 10th century to the 17th, Rothenburg enjoyed the patronage of royals, religion and commerce. This meant a very prominent place on the map - despite its controversial affiliations to the Lutheran Protestant Reformation. But the 30 Years War and further blows by a harsh winter and a bubonic plague left the town with no resources to grow. So there it stood, stunted in its quaintness to remain the pretty old town it is. Legend has it that when the Count of Tilly in all his conqueror-glory toyed with the idea of burning the town to the ground, it was saved by some really good wine and the mayor Georg Nusch. This story couldn’t get more German. The Protestant councilmen tried to dissuade the Catholic Count from carrying out his destructive plan with a large drink of three and quarter litre of exceptionally good wine. That must have been some really good wine (that probably went straight to his head), for it swayed him enough for some drinking games. He promised that if anyone could polish off the drink in one go, he would spare the city. The old mayor rose to the occasion and bottoms-upped that tankard. Don’t forget to “prost” a glass in his honour when you’re there. Incidentally you can even stay at the birthplace of this patron tippler at Roten Hahn which is now a hotel. The Ratstrinktube clock tower in the Marketsquare also has an enactment of this scene. But here in 2018, the Marketplatz was buzzing with tourists of great global representation. And many a German in the traditional Bavarian attire - women in their dainty aproned dirndls and men in their leather breeches or lederhosen. Around the Marktplazis so many things that you won’t know where to look and which direction you have to go.
3. Medieval stores. Rotherburg really unsheathes its medieval status for all its worth. The Medieval stores are filled with swords, armours, wands, helmets and Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones memorabilia. They kick every other kind of souvenir’s pansy medieval ass, I assure you.
Rothenburg is touristy and there is no denying it. The postcard perfectness around you, the cute shop window with the teddy bear that blows bubbles, the amazing store banners with griffins, lions, bears are all great. But real people - that’s the spice and stories of a place. I will remember Rothenburg as the place where we met the one of the most interesting chocolate makers. His store was so vintage-looking that we couldn't resist walking in. He looked uncertain - like a little boy who still couldn’t get his head around people actually coming to his store. He asked us where we were from and we got talking. Like a good host he kept feeding us samples - like he didn’t really care if you bought chocolate or not as long as you tasted his creations and appreciated it. A sort of true artist. We asked him if this was his family business. He shrugged his enormous shoulders and almost apologetically explained that it used to be a cheese business that goes back many decades. “But I wanted to make chocolate.” And so he did. The chocolate was really good stuff and yeah, more money was spent. It would have been such a pity if he’d chosen to be a mediocre cheesemaker just because it was handed to him. Alex Allegra Schokolade is everything you’d want your taste of Rothenburg to be. Good quality and delicious. No run of the mill stuff here.
4. Altes Rathaus. The town hall lords over the square in no unclear terms. You’ll find the tourist information office near by and the Ratstrinktube clock that enacts the legend of the Master Draughtsman. Climb up the 220 steps of town hall tower and you’re rewarded with a view of Rothenburg and the surrounding Tauber valley in all their magnificence.
5. Marienapotheke (St. Mary's Pharmacy) This beautiful half-timbered mansion has not only been taking care of the residents of Rothenburg since 1812, but was also the home of Mayor Nusch. It has also hosted Emperor Maximilian I along with other prominent historically significant characters. Today you can pick up some good quality German skincare as souvenirs, perhaps?
6. Rothenburg Town History Museum. Get to know the events that shaped Rothenburg including the Thirty Years War. Visit the dungeons and the torture chamber to get an understanding of how cruel the times were. The Whitsun Festival hosted by the museum and the town sees history come alive with all vigour and juice. Pageants, markets, plays, costumes, storytellers, revelry, parades all come together on the weekend of the Pentecost to challenge the misconception that history is boring.
7. Käthe Wohlfahrt Christkindlmarkt. It’s always Christmas in here. And maybe a tad bit expensive. Käthe Wohlfahrt is an institution with traditions that can probably make Santa Claus look like a Johnny come lately. Hummels, cuckoo clocks, beer steins, cute Nutcrackers in the Erzgebirge tradition share space with incredibly beautiful Christmas ornaments
8. Kriminalmuseum or the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum. A rather sobering reminder that such ugliness could co-exist with such sophisticated art and beauty. The Kriminal Museum as entertaining as it might be, is a terrifying echo how power is held onto so tenaciously that they could deem such punishments for what was and could be perceived as crime. Entrance is 7 Euros.
9. St. Jakobskirche. Or St. James Church was built between 1311-1484 and boasts many relics of importance like Tilman Riemenschneider’s Holy Blood altarpiece, the Twelve Apostles Altar and the Rieger Organ. This historic lutheran church is a major pilgrimage destination as it features on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Rothenburg only ceased to be that backwater forgotten by everyone including time, when a stream of artists, architects, writers and academics started taking interest in its well-preserved “Old Germany Urban Scape” in the 19th century. In a dark turn of irony, Rothenburg regained more of its superstar status in the 1930s with Nazi Party upholding it as the “Most German of German Towns”. But Rothenburg is old and old towns have an interesting way of remembering its past. I truly believe this town has irony down to a fine art. On one side there is evidence of Jewish members of Rothenburg being well-placed in society - some were even nobility and members of the Von Rothberg dynasty. Many centuries down, it becomes a favourite among the Nazis and Hitler proclaimed it the epitome of “Germanness”. And today, it has all these tourists from all over the world - so much that there are signboards in different languages. And though tours can be quite run-of-the-mill and nondescript, Rothenburg clearly doesn’t subscribe to that ideology. The tour guides are something of a novelty here. We came across one tour led by a guide whose fashion god had to be Steven Tyler and then of course, there is Rothenburg’s most famous one -
10. The Nightwatchman’s Tour. If there’s one tour you should do, it’s the Nightwatchman’s Tour. All the drama and all the history delivered in an unforgettable way. Stories told from the perspective of the plebeian - which are often unheard or glossed over. The evening walks takes you down history’s cobbled paths with chilling stories that might make you stumble - the middle ages weren’t called the dark ages for nothing. And this sentinel of Rothenburg remembers things too well.
11. Reichsstadtmuseum. Real medieval life too real for you? The Imperial Town Museum is where you get to know Rothenburg’s impressive side of history. The former Dominican convent which was converted into a museum in 1936 has well-preserved 13th century living quarters and kitchens, history of European weaponry right from the Stone Ages to 19th century (including hunting guns used by Marie Antoinette and Fredrick the Great). The museum also opens a world into its Jewish part without glossing over the anti-semitic parts. it might be ugly, but Rothenburg takes the trouble to give history its due.
12. Old Rothenburg Craftsman's House. The craftsman’s house is so quaint that you expect to see a couple of elves working industriously away to help the poor craftsman in question. This 13th century workspace has hosted many types of business across the centuries. But its last known tenant was apparently averse to “new-fangled ideas” and “technological progress” and so the house escaped the general sweep of time and the evolution it brings in its wake.
13. Plönlein. Translating into the little square, this little setting defines the typical Rothenburg imagery and will make up most of your Rothenburg Pinterest searches and the postcards in the souvenir shops. The tower behind the yellow half-timbered house is the entrance from the Tauber Valley and must have been heavily fortified back in the day.
14. Rossmühle (Horse Mill). Rothenburg was extremely serious when it came to keeping itself safe under siege. This building that appears to have many eyes was vital and symbolic of a town that slept with one eye open. The mill ensured that the town was always open for business even in times of emergency. 16 horses operated the mill and kept the town well-fed. Today it’s been converted into a youth hostel - thus keeping up with its history with hospitality.
We were so fascinated by the aforementioned 80’s rockstar tour guide that we sort of followed him and his gang into a sort of alley. At the end of the alley was a set of stairs that led up to the city walls. There are many such entries that you can just climb up and take in Rothenburg and all her surrounding beauty as her protectors saw them. The pathway is really narrow and even though the passage isn’t that high, it can give you a bit of vertigo. The entire 46-tower, 4 kilometre circuit runs for a couple of hours worth of walking and leads to the various gate entries that had their own significance back in the day. As we walked the city wall passage, we saw many bricks with names. Lots of Japanese names stood in stark contrast against the European and American names.
History repeated itself when U.S. Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy on account of Rothenburg’s historic importance cautioned against outright devastation and ordered against the use of artillery. Battalion commander Frank Burke had six soldiers march into the city and negotiate the terms of surrender. Obviously no fun drinking games took place this time around. The soldiers laid down the terms of surrender in no unclear terms “We bring you his offer to spare the city of Rothenburg from shelling and bombing if you agree not to defend it. We have been given three hours to get this message to you. If we haven’t returned to our lines by 1800 hours, the town will be bombed and shelled to the ground.” The local military commander Major Thömmes defied the Führer’s order (that must have made him hopping führious) to fight to the very end, put his town first and surrendered. Though care was taken not to destroy Rothenburg on account of its heritage status, the walls were heavily damaged from air raids. But help came in from across the world as the names on the bricks prove and the locals quickly set their beautiful town right. Like I mentioned earlier, Rothenburg has an interesting way of waxing reminiscent. It doesn’t shy away from the ugliness nor does it forget its glory. Much of this character comes out in its vibrant cultural scene.
15. Special events. September - Imperial City Festival. Go back to the Middle Ages with the Rotenburg townsfolk as the whole place turns back a page in time. Knights, bards, soldiers, innkeepers, meisters, druids, noblemen, horsemen, and maybe witches and wizards come out to play in carefully put together medieval fairs.
Taubertal-Openair-Festival. This idyllic medieval town hosts one of Germany’s best rock festivals. Coming to think of it, the Middle Ages with its tortures and knights and perpetual warring was pretty “metal”. So I guess this twenty year old tradition is only fitting.
Toppler Theatre. Mid-summer is when Rothenburg’s vibrant theatre scene comes out for some time in the sun. The 126-seat open air theatre in the Imperial Museum Courtyard hosts the town’s vibrant theatric scene that’s spearheaded by the ninety year old Hans Sachs Guild
Whitsun Festival. The legend of the Master Draught comes alive in June. All the elements of the Thirty Years War are reenacted in the streets with much attention to historic detail. The Dark Ages might have been rough, but there is no denying the evident romance of Medieval times. And there’s perhaps no better place to experience that part of history.
Shepherds’ Dance Guild. A tradition that dates back to the 16th century, the shepherd’s dance is a celebration that includes the whole town courtesy the Guild of Shepherds. The Market Square comes alive with traditional costumes and traditional dancing.
Reiterlesmarkt 30.11.-23.12.2018. The Christmas market of a place that boasts a Christmas Museum must be bucket list worthy. It has a legacy that’s over 500 years old and some fables to go with it. The market gets it name from a legendary creature the Rothenburger Reiterle - formerly a freaky creature from the otherworld that floated with the ghosts of people that winter claimed - but made friendly and familiar with the evolution of time and legend.
Rothenburg is a great day trip destination. But it has so much more to offer if you are willing to take the time to sit down and listen to its stories. Sure, Rothenburg’s festivals are a must-do in themselves. But they’re also reminders of a city that has seen much and gone through more. This walled fortress town has fought evil from the outside and within, and is still standing to tell its tale. A pretty-pastel example of how we can be if we stand together as a human race and not be divided by religion or race.