Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the “Red Fort on the River Tauber,” a beautiful town along the aptly named Romantic Road, is one of Germany’s treasures. The Romantische Strasse stretches 220 miles south from Würzburg through some of the most scenic countryside in Bavaria, dotted with old castles, picturesque villages, rivers, and lakes along its route. The Romantic Road got its name in 1950 from the tourist industry, which wanted to present a more serene and pastoral view of postwar Germany than was prevalent in that period. Judging from what we saw, they succeeded beyond anything they might have hoped for.
Rothenburg, like many towns in the vicinity, was once a thriving center for trade and commerce. As one of the “free imperial cities” of the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, it was responsible to the Emperor directly and was exempt from the local taxation that hobbled other towns. But when the Empire crumbled and the town no longer enjoyed its former privileged status, Rothenburg found itself unable to compete commercially with larger towns situated along the Main River and thus lacked the money to modernize its medieval buildings. Although the citizens of 16th-century Rothenburg might disagree, what a colossal stroke of good luck that turned out to be. The entire town is a living museum, unspoiled and visually unchanged from medieval times. Half-timbered buildings line Market Square in the center of the town, and ancient houses painted in pastel colors lean companionably against each other along narrow, winding cobblestone streets. The old city wall, largely intact after six centuries, still stands guard around the town, including strategically spaced towers with steep steps leading up to a walkway overlooking the valley through intermittent arrow slits.
The Town Hall on Market Square features two architectural styles: the original portion, with its 200-foot bell tower, is 13th-century Gothic, while the new section in front was built in 16th century Renaissance style. (In Rothenburg, apparently, the 1500’s represent the very latest in modern design.)
Across the square is a restaurant called the Ratstube, housed in a pale yellow building bearing a small sign saying that in February 1474, King Christian I of Denmark stayed there for seven days. Just the idea that anyone would have records of a royal visit from over 600 years ago is mind-boggling. All around the town, you see small family crests and coats of arms over doorways, indicating that the same family has owned and lived in that house for centuries. We heard a saying during this trip that is very revealing, and very true: In America, 200 years is long; in Europe, 200 miles is far.
On the western edge of the town, the beautiful Castle Garden sits on the site of what was the 12th-century Hohenstaufen Castle until it was destroyed by an earthquake 200 years later.
As we entered the garden through a stone archway, the sound of a flute drifted toward us across the grass. Our guide told us the flutist is a Russian musician who plays in the garden every summer, and his music gave a sense of unhurried peace to the day. Behind him was a breathtaking view of the old town and the deep valley below, with an ancient church and a stone bridge set into the green hills.
The true jewel of Rothenburg, though, can be found inside the 14th-century Church of St. James. Tilman Riemanschneider was the finest woodcarver of the Middle Ages, and incredibly, much of his work has survived. His main workshop was in Würzburg, where he employed a large team of assistants, but his most famous works are the altarpieces of a chapel in another small town on the Romantic Road, and of St. James Church in Rothenburg. He always worked alone on the life-size figures that dominate his wood sculptures, and his artistry is nothing short of stunning.
The altarpiece at St. James is of the Last Supper, but instead of showing the figures posed in the usual symmetrical and static fashion, Riemanschneider arranged the characters to emphasize the human drama taking place in the scene. For example, the figure of Judas is front and center, facing Jesus as he speaks imploringly to his master. Jesus’ face shows a sorrowful recognition that Judas has already betrayed him in his heart, while the other disciples seem oblivious to the underlying meaning of the central encounter.
When you look at this magnificent, yet approachable work of art and realize that it was created at the beginning of the 16th century – and that it is carved entirely of wood – you can only gaze at it in wonder.
Sadly, Riemenschneider became involved in local politics in Würzburg and was on the wrong side in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1523, resulting in his arrest and imprisonment and the confiscation of his property. When he was eventually released, he was a broken man who had lost the will to continue working. After his death in 1531, his work was forgotten until his grave was discovered by accident during a construction project in 1822. Rediscovered and finally given the recognition he deserved, this great medieval artist would be proud to see the thousands of people who flock to museums and churches along the Romantic Road to marvel at his brilliance.
Rothenburg is famous for more than its Riemenschneider carvings, though.
This is known worldwide as the Christmas village, where Käthe Wohlfahrt’s German Christmas Museum – and her Christmas shop across the street – bring in hordes of tourists to buy ornaments and nutcrackers and those ubiquitous spinning wooden trees that run on candle-power. (When I was a child in Germany, my mother bought a tree made entirely of brass, with red candles that made the tree spin so that little angels struck tinkling brass bells.) One of our fellow passengers from New Zealand bought four of the wooden trees, and later when I asked her how she was going to get them in her luggage to take home, she confessed that she’d bought another suitcase. The most atmospheric of Rothenburg’s many seasonal festivals is the 500-year-old Reiterlesmarkt, the annual Christmas market, where individually decorated stalls line the streets and sellers of mulled wine (usually made with local Franconian white wine) do a brisk business.
Which brings me to food and drink. Rothenburg’s specialty is the Schneeball, a softball-size dessert of something like shortbread, covered with sugar, cinnamon, chocolate, coconut, or nuts.
One of these calorie and carb-laden monsters is enough for two people to share, but we passed on the opportunity. Instead, for lunch, Gerry and I went to the Gasthof Marktplatz, a restaurant just off the square, which had been recommended by one of our Tauck tour directors. Everything on the menu was tempting – and quite reasonably priced – so it was hard to make a choice. But Gerry decided on liver and onions, while I ordered a dish I’d had once on the ship (and loved so much I asked for the recipe): a bread dumpling in a cream sauce with wild mushrooms. Accompanied by a local red wine (Gerry) and a local beer (me), our meal was absolutely superb.
And after lunch, we threaded our way down a narrow street from the Marktplatz to one of the towers that had steps leading up onto the city wall.
We’d been told that it’s possible to walk all the way around the town on the wall, but the distance was too far for the time we had available, so we opted to walk up via one tower and down by the next. We climbed incredibly steep stone steps worn down in the center by generations of users, and then walked along the inner walkway, peering out of the arrow slits to the countryside below and imagining what life must have been like in the days when these walls were the only defense this prosperous village had against marauders and invaders.
Then down an equally steep set of stairs at the next tower, and we were walking by houses whose windows were punctuated by boxes overflowing with blooming flowers, and where the cars of the inhabitants somehow managed to fit between the buildings that lined the narrow streets. People say Rothenburg looks like a movie set, which is true, in a sense. But without stepping on the toes of the past, real people live and work in this beautiful place where time seems to have stood still centuries ago.
To see more pictures of beautful Rothenburg, please click here.