Twenty-five years ago, I fell in love with a Rothenburg (ROE-ten-burg) in the rough. At that time, the town still fed a few farm animals within its medieval walls. Today its barns are hotels, its livestock are tourists, and Rothenburg is well on its way to becoming a medieval theme park.
But Rothenburg is still Germany's best-preserved walled town. Countless travelers have searched for the elusive "untouristy Rothenburg." There are many contenders (such as Michelstadt, Miltenberg, Bamberg, Bad Windsheim, and Dinkelsbühl), but none holds a candle to the king of medieval German cuteness. Even with crowds, overpriced souvenirs, a Japanese-speaking night watchman, and, yes, even with Schneeballs, Rothenburg is best.
In the Middle Ages, when Frankfurt and Munich were just wide spots in the road, Rothenburg was Germany's second-largest city, with a whopping population of 6,000. Today it's Europe's most exciting medieval town, enjoying tremendous tourist popularity.
To avoid the hordes of day-trippers, spend the night. In the deserted moonlit streets, you'll risk hearing the sounds of the Thirty Years' War still echoing through turrets and clock towers.
A walking tour helps bring the ramparts alive. The tourist information office on the Market Square offers tours led by a local historian — usually an intriguing character. After dark, there's another, very entertaining walking tour led by Rothenburg's medieval "Night Watchman." A thousand years of history is packed between the cobbles. The two tours are completely different and both are well worthwhile.
For the best view of the town and surrounding countryside, climb the Town Hall tower. For more views, walk the wall that surrounds the old town. This 1.5-mile walk atop the wall is at its most medieval before breakfast or at sunset.
Rothenburg's fascinating Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum, all unusually well-explained in English, is full of legal bits and diabolical pieces, instruments of punishment and torture, and even an iron cage — complete with a metal nag gag. Some react with horror, others wish for a gift shop.
St. Jacob's church contains the one must-see art treasure in Rothenburg: a glorious 500-year-old Riemenschneider altarpiece, by the Michelangelo of German woodcarvers. Pick up the brochure that explains the church's art treasures and climb the stairs behind the organ for Germany's greatest piece of woodcarving.
To hear the birds and smell the cows, take a walk through the Tauber Valley. The trail leads downhill from Rothenburg's idyllic castle gardens to the cute, skinny, 600-year-old Toppler Castle, the summer home of the town's mayor in the 15th-century. While called a castle, the floor plan is more like a fortified tree house. It's intimately furnished and well worth a look. On the top floor, notice the 1945 photo of a bombed-out Rothenburg. From here, walk past the covered bridge and trout-filled Tauber to the sleepy village of Detwang, which is actually older than Rothenburg and has a church with another impressive Riemenschneider altarpiece.
Warning: Rothenburg is one of Germany's best shopping towns. Do it here, mail it home, and be done with it. Lovely prints, carvings, wine glasses, Christmas-tree ornaments, and beer steins are popular.
The Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas trinkets phenomenon is spreading across the half-timbered reaches of Europe. In Rothenburg, tourists flock to two Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas Villages (just off Market Square). These Santa wonderlands are filled with enough twinkling lights to require a special electric hookup, instant Christmas mood music (best appreciated on a hot day in July), and American and Japanese tourists hungrily filling little woven shopping baskets with goodies to hang on their trees. (OK, I admit it, my Christmas tree sports a few KW ornaments.) Prices have tour-guide kickbacks built into them.
I prefer the friendlier Friese shop (just off Market Square, west of the tourist office), which offers cheaper prices, less glitter, and more variety. One day, Anneliese, who runs the shop, invites me to join her at the English Conversation Club. This is where locals like Anneliese enjoy a weekly excuse to get together, drink, and practice their fanciest English on one another and on visiting tourists. This evening I meander into the pub through candlelit clouds of smoke and squeeze a three-legged stool up to a table already crowded with Anneliese and her family from the Friese shop.
Anneliese pours me a glass of wine, then pulls a Schneeball (the local powdered-doughnut-like "snowball") from a bag. Raising a cloud of powdered sugar as she pokes at the name on the now empty bag, she says, "Friedel is the bakery I explained you about. They make the best Schneeball. I like it better than your American doughnut. Every day I eat one. But only at this bakery."
Shoving a big doughy ball my way, she says, "You like to eat this?"
I break off a little chunk, saying, "Only a teeny-weeny bisschen."
For years, Anneliese has playfully tried to get me to write good things about Schneeballs. I put Schneeballs (which originated in a hungrier age as a way to get more mileage out of leftover dough) in that category of penitential foods — like lutefisk — whose only purpose is to help younger people remember the suffering of their parents. Nowadays these historic pastries are pitched to the tourists in caramel, chocolate, and flavors unknown in feudal times.
As Annaliese finishes the Schneeball, we share our favorite slang and tongue twisters. But medieval Rothenburg is waiting. I drain my glass of wine and bid everyone a cheery, "Tschüss!"
In the night, I find myself alone with Rothenburg. The winds of history polish half-timbered gables. Following the grooves of centuries of horse carts, I head down to the castle garden. From a distance, the roars of laughter tumbling like waves out of Biergartens and over the ramparts sound as medieval as they do modern.
Sitting in a mossy niche in the town wall, I finger the medieval stonework. Nocking my imaginary crossbow, I aim an arrow into the dark forest that surrounds the city. Even now, it feels good to be within these protective walls.
On the ramparts after dark, I look over a choppy sea of red-tiled roofs to the murky and mysterious moat beyond the wall. The cannons are loaded. Torches illuminate the gory heads of bad guys on pikes that greet visitors at the city gates. With a dash of moonlight and a splash of wine, Rothenburg once again is a crossroads where modern-day travelers meet medieval wayfarers.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
© 2010 Rick Steves