If you, like me, prefer to get off the beaten track, you probably haven’t planned a trip to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a medieval city on the Romantic Road in Germany’s Franconia, anytime soon.
Rothenburg, founded in 1170 on the ancestral home of the extinct Comburg-Rothenburg dynasty, and apparently built entirely from gingerbread, or Lebkuchen as they call it here, overlooks the meandering river Tauber. It epitomises the picture postcard Germany so beloved of that other much beloved stereotype, the intrepid Japanese tourist, its principle inhabitant in the summer months. Its cobbled streets, its sloped market square and its intact city walls invoke the folk tale, and a certain irreality that might have been authored by the Brothers Grimm. In this day and age the city might seem eery, therefore, if it weren’t for the hustle and throng of the above mentioned tourists, thousands daily in the high season, rendering, at times, a theme park feel to the visually intact town. It’s quite something to see those coach tours navigate the narrow streets, but they do, and the city isn’t really made out of gingerbread: it just seems that way.
Traffic is limited, not banned, within the city walls so you can get to your hotel. Arriving at the Reichsküchenmeister in a cloud of wild map-related bickering, as is customary for us, we are early for our room. Our bags are taken in, our car parked with help from the staff, and we stroll with the intention of acquiring some first impressions and some lunch.
From word go, and perhaps more than any other place I’ve been, Rothenburg insistently raises the question of authenticity. Understand this – there is none of that old/new juxtaposition you get in comparable locations, an ancient chapel with a shiny chrome-and-glass bus stop in front of it for example. There is only old, or apparently old; Rothenburg’s physical form has endured, unchanged, for centuries.
Not its function, though. A Free Imperial City by the 14th century, its wealth was built not only on that privilege, but also on its location at the cross roads of major north-south and east-west European trade routes. This would have been a decidedly “happening” place, and an economic powerhouse. As they do today, people and their money poured into Rothenburg, and its streets and taverns then as now would have echoed with many languages.
Of course, those visitors were here on business. These days the streets are tramped by the offloaded contents of tour coaches, in sensible shoes, munching on Schneeballen, the local pastry. Enough of them forget the part about sensible shoes to have made it worthwhile for one enterprising Rothenburger to open up a Birkenstock franchise on one of its main thoroughfares, the Schmiedgasse. Here, no two adjacent shopfronts are the same colour, their doorways overhung by proprietors’ names in intricate, gilded ironwork; like the other streets it’s cobbled, and it’s at a particularly steep incline so the outlet is always busy, K herself needing to pop in after an hour or so to choose a pair of non-lethal sandals while I bide my time by the (tiny) men’s rack.
Schneeballen: the Schneeball, unique to Rothenburg, is a very long strip of pastry squished into a spherical implement resembling more than anything else an instrument of torture, and immersed in hot butter. After that it is covered in, say, vanilla cream, or cinnamon, or chocolate. Little globes of confection or, more usually large globes, much is promised by the sugar coated exterior, but little delivered; you don’t get the anticipated riches of a soft and surprising centre, just fold after fold after fold of the brittle, deep fried pastry ribbon. Fur coat and no knickers then, and it’s a charge that has been leveled at Rothenburg itself, with its painstakingly restored gables and coloured facades.
Although more fortunate than many other towns, Rothenburg was not left unscathed by the second world war. Aerial bombardment destroyed up to forty percent of the walled city so the preservation ordinances here, Germany’s strictest, apply in many cases to buildings put up in the 50’s, and I don’t mean the 1350’s. Reconstruction itself was guided more by consistency with Rothenburg’s historical image than by historical accuracy.
That said, this town really is a sumptuous treat for the eyes. The stately patrician homes around the main square give way towards the city walls to more humble but equally charming houses, all of them lovingly maintained. Window boxes burst with colour and business proprietors signal their trade in beautiful calligraphy on immaculately painted walls.
Emblematic of Rothenburg’s visual impact, and perhaps the most photographed intersection in the world, is Plönlein, which we wander onto where the Schmiedgasse ends. Plönlein begins as the street forks, downwards to the right and upwards to the left, creating the perfect Christmas card /biscuit tin tableau, and given symmetry by two of the city’s towering gates, the Sieberstor and the Kobolzellertor. There isn’t a straight line to be seen. If you were a theme park designer and you came up with this, you’d be fired. Way over the top, they would tell you sympathetically, as they handed you your coat. But it’s real and here it is, perfectly preserved for the photographer, painter, gawper.
Hunger has lowered our blood sugar levels to the point where we tire of searching for any more of the restaurants I had earmarked before coming. We’ve tried a couple and although they look the part, all Frankish wood panel and cosy corner, they don’t open till the evening. We trudge back up the cobbled hill to the Reichsküchenmeister and retrieve our luggage.
Our room is spacious and charming with traditional Bavarian décor, a small but adequate en suite concealing itself behind a wallpapered doorway. Our window, at the back of the hotel, actually overlooks the hotel’s terrace, where we’ve decided to eat, the terrace itself overlooking the incongruously large St. Jakobskirche, Rothenburg’s most impressive church, so the location is idyllic, or would be were the church not undergoing restoration work and hidden behind a mess of scaffolding.
We’re shown to our table by a waiter who congratulates me on my German (I bet he says that to all the boys) when I order a Dunkel, a dark malty beer, and K has a Spezi, a blend of fizzy orange and cola, popular in these parts. You couldn’t possibly argue that it has ever been necessary to blend fizzy orange with cola, but the Bavarians have done it anyway. German engineering I suppose, and to be fair, it’s refreshing.
To eat, K chooses Käsespätzle, a Swabian speciality but available throughout this region too; cheesy noodles to you and me, and delicious. I order a Schäufele and lean back in my seat, enjoying the peaceful surroundings; the terrace itself, shaded by a beautiful, mature chestnut tree, and the cathedral square, oddly deserted.
Schäufele: it’s the simple things that make Franconian food special. When I was a boy and roast shoulder of pork was on the menu, it would be placed at the head of the table and ceremoniously carved, often very slowly, before each of us got our sliver. What an indulgence then, to have one all to oneself, complete with a strip of crackling! Today’s isn’t quite as mouthwateringly tender as it should be; the meat should fall from the bone. Nevertheless it’s very good, served with a potato dumpling and buttery sauerkraut on the side, and just as today’s lunch slightly misses the mark, Rothenburg isn’t quite as untouched by the passage of time or the requirements of tourism as one would like it to be. As preserved medieval cities go, however, it’s about as good as it gets. Sitting on this terrace, away from the Schmiedgasse and the hordes, there is an unassuming beauty and a degree of unforced integrity to the vista that surrounds us, and it isn’t the only quiet spot – as we wander through the remainder of our afternoon we are again and again surprised when, on rounding a corner, we find ourselves on deserted streets, less colourful perhaps then the main drags, but no less gorgeous for it.
We divide the next few hours between a circuit of the city walls (a good after-lunch workout and roofscapes you won’t believe, especially from the top of the Rodertor) and numerous dinky little shops. Shopping in Rothenburg falls mainly into two categories; souvenirs and Christmas goods. It’s a Christmas town in the minds of many Germans and much visited in December for its Christkindlmarkt and its famous Weihnachtsdorf, a Christmas village. Being here in August is no obstacle to acquiring the nutcracker or music box you will need for the festive season, but if forward planning isn’t your thing you can pick up anything from fine art prints to suits of armour. Though tempted, I pass on the opportunity to buy a decommissioned AK-47.
Any day spent in Rothenburg should be rounded off with its much vaunted (and heavily marketed) Nightwatchman tour. At 8pm sharp the Watchman, in full costume, appears in the market square and draws a small crowd, leading us through the streets and gardens of the ancient city and regaling us as he goes with anecdote and historical factoid. Georg is his name, and while it isn’t easy to describe his laconic delivery, if you enjoyed Borat, you are going to love Georg.
It’s Georg who clarifies for me the secret of Rothenburg’s preservation; poverty. By the time it lost its independence and was returned to Bavaria on the demise of the Holy Roman Empire, this was a poor city and in decline. Its inhabitants simply could not afford to modernise, or refurbish. The shifting trade routes of the 17th century had left them behind, and Rothenburg was never to regain its economic preeminence. The city then is a concoction of these two ingredients – wealth, and the lack of it. It was tourism, that of the 19th century German romantics, that gave it a new life, one that remains viable to this day.
And it is Georg who, as his tour draws to a close, leaves us in the vicinity of Zur Höll, a wine tavern whose 9th century foundations he dismisses as “nothing special”. This is one of those places we’d tried earlier, and we have another go. Sure enough it’s full, but a tiny table is set up for us in a cranny occupied by the disused medieval oven. To one side of us the front parlour, to the other a subterranean chamber large enough to accommodate twelve or so. K orders a Bacchus, the fruitiest of Franconia’s white wines and I have a Landwehrbräu, the local beer. While we wait for our food, a simple cheese platter and some obatzda, I exit through the rear courtyard to use the facilities. It’s dark now, and as I return to the tavern, Georg makes his last appearance in my evening, a striking impression it has to be said, sitting on a stoop in the gloom of the yard, hatted and caped, stroking a jet black cat…
Obatzda: is for the Biergarten, or for Brotzeit, thoroughly Bavarian, one of its main ingredients being camembert, an appropriate reminder that tradition is never quite as… traditional as we like to think. The camembert is mashed with browned butter, beer and hot paprika, and eaten with bread or pretzels, and of course more beer. There are probably as many variations in the recipe as there are breweries in nearby Bamberg (that’s a lot), but cheese spread with a hit of spice and alcohol about covers it. Like all Bavarian food it sounds so simple but its flavour is unique, more than the sum of its parts. Sitting here in the dim, candlelit tavern it’s impossible to dismiss Rothenburg as a tourist trap, notwithstanding its unabashed devotion to hospitality. The place has had time to weave disparate threads of meaning for diverse types of visitor. Across from us a mother and daughter, Canadian by the sound of it, sit at a similarly tiny table. The daughter indicates a wooden beam embedded in the wall behind them. “So, do you think this is 9th century?” Always the preoccupation with authenticity, everyone determined not to be duped. It probably isn’t, since only the foundations of Zur Höll date back that far. The beam in question is likely to be a 13th century upstart, but who am I to spoil the illusion? I bite my tongue…
Something to remember about Rothenburg, if you find the idea of the tour groups offputting, is that they are generally organized day-trips. The population decreases dramatically at around five in the evening each day, so staying for at least one night is by far the best way to experience it. As we take an after dinner walk in the general direction of the hotel, the town exudes a quieter charm. Perhaps because the darkness diminishes colour, the shape and architecture of the market square’s hall and houses come to the fore, the narrower walkways thrown into shadow except where streetlamps are reflected in their cobbles. The square, packed earlier, is criss-crossed by just a few evening strollers, the hubbub of the afternoon gone entirely. Yes, the light in the windows is electric, and the visitors are foreign, but it doesn’t take much as night falls on the small city to imagine yourself in an earlier time.
The following morning I return to Plönlein at the break of dawn, to get a shot of it without all the schneeball munchers, and the streets are emptier again. In the general melee of yesterday afternoon I hadn’t fully appreciated just how pristine the old town is. As I walk back up the Schmiedegasse towards the square it strikes me that the artificiality I had perceived at times yesterday was caused not so much by the visitor numbers as by the perfection of the buildings themselves. It just isn’t that often we get the opportunity to immerse ourselves completely in the urban landscape of the middle ages. Rothenburg offers this in buckets. It doesn’t have to compete for your attention in high-brow terms, so it doesn’t. Its intactness is reason enough for seeing this place, it’s thoroughly romantic eateries and taverns reason enough to linger.
The square is not quite deserted. A Japanese model stands in the middle, the ornate town hall forming her backdrop, while a photographer snaps away. She’s wearing a wedding dress and looks, I’m sorry to say, like a cake. Something about a bride without a groom. Stand-in grooms should be de rigeur for all wedding dress shoots, I decide.
While the town that would welcome you today seems utterly divorced from its original incarnation as a royal seat, it has much to recommend it. This is a popular and much visited attraction but as I take in the rather bizarre scene in the square this early morning, I know I’m a long way off any track that I have beaten, personally. Any attempt to get a grip on an “authentic” Rothenburg ob der Tauber seems futile, especially when you factor in the Japanese photo shoot in front of me, or the leather clad punk band I watched doing a piece to camera in this same spot yesterday. A historical symbol of Germanness to some, an optical treat to others, a salutary reminder at any rate that authenticity itself may not be so much a function of the place visited as it is a quality to be found, or not, in visitors themselves.
Where to eat and sleep
Zur Höll, more a tavern than a restaurant, but it stays open late which is precious in Rothenburg and there are excellent nibbles to go with your Frankish wine, nothing is more expensive than €14, and most dishes are between €4 and €6. A step back in time.
AltFränkische Weinstube, guess what, another step back in time but with more substantial meals and not much pricier. Gorgeous building, and rooms also available from €60 for a double.
Spätzle-Schwob, Spätzle, obviously, a speciality, prices very reasonable and rooms available from €59 for a double.
For its terrace alone, the Reichsküchenmeister, overlooking the St Jakobskirche square. Enjoy a glass of wine in the shade of a chestnut tree and stay till late. Idyllic. Doubles from €75.
Where else to stay
If none of the guesthouses above appeal, try Villa Mittermeier, offering a little style just outside the city gates with doubles from €88 and an award winning restaurant as well as a more down to earth Italian in the basement.
Hotel Gotisches Haus, not the cheapest in town with doubles starting at €90, but a beautifully refurbished period property. No restaurant but breakfast is included.
Go the whole romantic hog with Romantik Hotel Markusturm, but bring someone special because doubles start at €125. In the restaurant, mains for between €13 and €21 which is pricy for Rothenburg. The hotel and rooms though are edibly pretty and the location is the stuff of fairytale.
Where to shop
The Käthe Wolfahrt Christmas Village, perfectly sensible, of course, to find yourself here in December but for an utterly bizarre experience, visit in June, or January…
Ernst Geissendörfer on the market square for fine art prints of Rothenburg and elsewhere.
Die Waffenkammer, You haven’t been in a shop quite like this. Seriously. For all your warmongering needs, everything from swiss army knives to decommissioned semi automatics. If you were wondering, the average price for a suit of armour is around €1500.
What to do
Walk the walls; walking the city walls is free and following the post war reconstruction they are intact, so you get a good orientation of the city, some probably much needed exercise, and the best rooftop views of a medieval town you’ll ever see. For less than two euros you can see Rothenburg from the top of the Rodertor, one of the towering gates along the walls. Be warned, the stairs are creaky. K opted out.
The Medieval Crime Museum, As if some very old and scary things that were used to hurt bad people wasn’t enough, the museum houses an important collection on the history of European rights and law. Adults pay €3.80, children €2.20 and children under 6 get in for free.
The Nightwatchman Tour, That’s right, there’s a website. You can also pick up a commemorative DVD, but most of all you should just pitch up in the main square for 8pm, for the english version, and Georg will take you around town and explain a thing or two. It may sound gimmicky but you have to do this if in Rothenburg. He’s a funny guy, and the walk terminates at a pub, which speaks volumes for him. Adults pay €6 and children under 12 can come along for free.
Copyright Robin Graham 2009