Rothenburg: The Best of Medieval Germany

In the country’s best-preserved walled city, tourists get a taste of medieval history and some of the best modern shopping

Rothenburg is still Germany's best-preserved walled town. In the Middle Ages, Rothenburg was Germany's second-largest city with a population of 6,000. (Rolf Richardson / Alamy)

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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.

About Rick Steves
Rick Steves

Rick Steves is a travel writer and television personality. He coordinated with Smithsonian magazine to produce a special travel issue Travels with Rick Steves.

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