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Sorrounded by powerful stone walls, parapets and elevated towers, with fortified gates and massive doors showing a pronounced contrast with the cobblestone streets, half-timbered houses, and elaborated public buildings, this is Germany’s best-preserved walled town.
The most popular stop along the Romantische Straße -the Romantic Road, a 350 kilometers long fairytale, back-in-time path sorrounded by stunning rural scenery, magnific castles, abbeys, and fascinating small towns- Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one of those oustanding towns reminding us the feudal times in a unique assemblage with the Renaissance and Baroque eras.
My first advises
While more than 2 million people visit the city each year, only half a million spend the night there. So after dark, the lonely streets and lanes are a quiet world to enjoy.
I suggest you to take the hour-long medieval entertainment with Hans Baumgartner, who operates the Night-watchman’s Tour. This friendly and funny guy carries one of the most popular tours in town, in the evenings from March to Christmas, with German and English versions. Wearing a black costume impersonating the original night-watchmen, he offers a unique version of the darkling town while driving you to the Middle Ages with his tales.
Another good option is to take Georg Lehle’s guided rickshaw tour around the town, with an emphasis in the executioner tower and the stories and uses behind it and the death penalty. His English tour takes place before the English version of the “Night-watchman’s Tour” listed above, so it is possible to combine both.
Now let me start with the places you must see
1. Marktplatz (Market Square)
The heart of the town, as in any medieval village.
This is the scenario in which the Master Draught legend was originated.
The legend says that in 1631, during the Thirty Years’ War, Rothenburg was captured by Imperial General Tilly, who commanded the Catholic forces.
As a desperate sign of goodwill, the councilors offered him wine in a huge flagon that could easily hold more than three litres.
Tilly initially intended to burn down the town, but decided to show clemency saying that he would spare Rothenburg only if anyone could empty the vessel in one steady chug.
The former Mayor Nunsch came forward and met the challenge, drinking about 3 ¼ liters of Franconian wine in a single gulp.
The Count of Tilly was suitably impressed and let the town stand.
Whether this is true nobody really knows, but it’s undoubtedly a great story, which also gave rise to the anual Meistertrunk festival, a historical and entertaining spectacle.
2. Rothenburg Ratthaus (Town Hall)
Local master-builder Leonhard Weidmann designed and built this imposing example of Renaissance architecture between 1572 and 1578, but the baroque-style arcade wasn’t added until 1681.
3. Ratstrinkstube (Councilor’s Tavern)
The main feature is the clock on the facade, dating back to 1683, illustrating the Master Draught. The doors of the clock open on the hour between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Up at the gable you can also see a sun dial from 1768 and the famous city coat of arms.
Today the building houses the Rothenburg Tourismus Service.
4. Fleisch- und Tanzhaus (Meat and Dance House) and Marienapotheke (St. Mary’s Pharmacy)
Behind the St. George Fountain we will see the two half-timbered gables
In the old days, the vaulted rooms on the top floor of the Fleisch- und Tanzhaus were a place for dancing and celebrations, while butchers sold their wares down below.
To its right is the Marienapotheke building, a genuine apothecary’s shop, which started to attend the needs of the inhabitants back in 1812.
The real name of the building is the “Jagstheimerhaus”, since the Mayor Jagstheimer commanded the building of the houseuilt in 1448. The legendary Major Nunsch lived here.
5. Feuerleinserker (Feuerleins Oriel)
A picturesque oriel on the corner of Klingengasse, one of the main favorites for photographers.
6. Main spots of the fortified Wall
– Galgentor (Gallow’s Gate)
– Klingentor (Klingen Gate)
– Kobolzeller Tor (Kobolzell Gate)
– Markusturm (Marcus Tower) and Röderbogen (Röder Arch)
– Rödertor (Röder Gate)
– Spitaltor (Hospital’s Gate)
– Burgtor (Castle’s Gate)
7. Burggarten (Castle Gardens)
The correct name should be “the gardens in the castle’s site”, since the castle did not have a garden at all, and they just occupy the site where the Hohenstaufen family established the imperial castle in 1142.
After entering the gardens, the visitor will be immediately attracted to his left by the wonderful view of the southern part of the town and the Tauber Valley as well as the Double Bridge and the Kobolzeller Church.
8. Baumeisterhaus (Master-Builder’s House)
Back to the town center, located close to the Marktplatz, this is where the master-builder Leonard Weidmann lived and worked.
The main appeal of the house is the renaissance facade, with the depiction of the seven virtues and the seven deadly sins -their originals can be seen in the Imperial Town Museum-. This is now used as a café and restaurant.
9. Plönlein (“Little Square”)
One of the most famous postcard images from Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
A narrow and colorful half-timbered building with a small fountain in front, framed by the Kobolzeller tower and the higher Siebers Tower.
If you have enough time and are in the mood to deepen in history, Rothenburg ob der Tauber also houses a number of interesting and one-of-a-kind museums and churches.
The ones I really find worth a visit if you are on a limited schedule :
To see : the historical living quarters, in particular the well-preserved 13th century convent kitchen -the oldest of its kind known today-, and the renowned Baumann Foundation. Its colection lets visitors trace the history of European weaponry from the Stone Age to the 19th Century.
Also noteworthy is the Judaica Department, showing the waves of dispossession and expulsion of the jews that began in the 13th century.
It’s the only museum of law and criminology history in Europe.
The impressive exhibits, detailed commentary, plenty of terrible instruments of torture, offer a -not so easy to forget- insight into the complexities of the appliances of law at those times.
There is also a whole department dedicated to witchcraft and witch-hunting in Bavaria.
Some visitors may react with horror and apprehension, but others will surely wish it had a gift shop.
Located inside the Weihnachtsdorfes –Käthe Wohlfhart Christmas’ shop, like the one we talk about in Heidelberg-, the doors of the museum are open all year round.
Another back-in-time place, where we can find the spirit and the atmosphere of Christmas just as our grandparents and their grandparents enjoyed it.
Or experience how Christmas decorations have evolved over time, while enjoying the ambiance, amid countless tree decorations, cribs, candleholders, figurines and more.
Here you can dive back in time to the days when the Thirty Years’ War involved Rothenburg. Life-size figures are used to illustrate scenes as they might have happened at the time.
In the antique vaults, the 16th and 17th century exhibits are an impressive reminder of those dark times, containing various recreations such as a medieval writing room and a guard room from 1631.
A narrow staircase leads to the old jail, which was also used as a torture chamber.
Rothenburg’s most famous mayor, Heinrich Toppler, was once imprisoned here.
This is the most important church in Rothenburg, and still dominates the town’s skyline to this day.
Completed in 1485, its main treasure -and German’s greatest piece of woodcarving- is the Altar of the Holy Blood crafted between 1499 and 1505 in representation of the Last Supper, and regarded as one of the finest works of Tilman Riemenschneider, considered by many the greatest German wooden carver. To have a closer view you may climb the stairs behind the organ.
Also to be seen: the Twelve Apostles Altar (Main Altar) by Friedrich Herlin -depicting the oldest surviving representation of the town- and the stained glass in the East Choir.
When it comes to eat and drink
Due to its geographic location, Rothenburg straddles the similar, yet opposing tastes of Franconia and Bavaria.
Franconia is one of Germany’s emerging major wine district. It even has a tourist route specifically dedicated to Frankenwein: the “Bocksbeutel Strasse”, the ideal place to taste Riesling, Sylvaner, Bacchus, Mueller-Thurgau and Pinot Blanc on the whites’ side, or the Pinot Noir/Spaetburgunder, Domina and Dornfelder if you prefer the reds. Now forgive me, but I refuse to talk about Rosées…
On the other hand, Bavaria will offer the great local beers, Swabian spaetzle (noodles) and large dumplings, trouts and other freshwater fishes, swayed by venison and other local game, or Grandmother’s style cooking full of formidable soups, meaty sausages and roasts of pork, veal and beef seasoned with thick, succulent gravies.
We can also find international cuisine and even the well known hamburguers’-chain stores, but why on Earth were you going to drive to Franconia to eat those stuff you may find elsewhere?
Time for a food-related advise: you’ll read or hear about a pastry specialty, a fried ball of pie crust called Schneeball.
They may be famous -over promoted I’ll say-, but for me you can calmly avoid them, without a hitch. For me they are nearly inedible.
They have almost no taste, unless you choose the small sized ones, which benefitiate better of the frosting or flavouring which topped them.
Again, this is just my own humble opinion, take it as it is.
A final history reference: in 1986, argentine priest Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who will become Pope Franciscus in 2013, spent a time in Rothenburg ob der Tauber to learn German.