Postcard-worthy towns and villages are high on my list when visiting Europe and Rothenburg ob der Tauber currently tops my list as a charming fairytale town. Completely surrounded by a wall with archways and fortified gates, and containing pastel coloured, half-timbered buildings, the Old Town has serious charm and medieval German cuteness that will astound you.
In the Middle Ages, Rothenburg was Germany’s second-largest city, Today, it’s the country’s most exciting medieval town, enjoying tremendous popularity with tourists. There’s a thousand years of history packed within the walls that completely surround the Old Town. This is the area that you won’t want to leave.
The ancient town of turreted fortifications and winding cobblestone streets in some ways feels more like something out of a Disney film. It’s touristy, but if you want it to, it somehow manages to remain genuine.
A walking tour helps bring the Old Town alive. To learn something of Rothenburg’s history, I suggest you take the tour offered by the town’s tourist office in Market Square. Then for a thoroughly fun hour, take the Night Watchman’s Tour and follow his black cape and broad-brimmed hat as he points out places of interest and explains their place in Rothenburg’s history in a unique entertaining style.
Walking the streets of the town without a plan is my favourite thing to do here and I could spend hours just doing this but there are a few specific attractions to see. For views and a great medieval feeling, walk the top of the wall that surrounds the Old Town. This is at its most attractive before breakfast or at sunset when it is almost deserted. You can walk most of the 1.5 kilometres but this would have taken me days because I found every metre so fascinating.
St. Jakob’s Church, with its twin towers rising above most of the town, contains a must-see art treasure: a glorious 500-year-old wooden altarpiece depicting the Biblical scenes of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, and the Mount of Olives. Also here is the Twelve Apostles Altar, and some lovely stained-glass windows.
Rising above the market square and the town hall stands the bell tower, the tallest building in Rothenburg. It offers a panoramic view of the entire town and the surrounding Tauber Valley. We climbed countless steps and then found the area at the top to be very confined for the 20 or so people allowed up there at the one time.
The Puppen & Spielzeug Museum has the largest doll and toy collection in Germany, model trains, stuffed animals, and other toys from the past 200 years. The most popular museum is the Kriminalmuseum. Here we found 10,000 grisly devices include iron maidens, a spike-covered chair, and much more over three floors.
History is on display everywhere in the half-timbered gables and the grooves of centuries of horse carts in the old cobbled streets. This gradually seeps into your being as you enjoy the Old Town. It is difficult to describe but easily felt.
The classic image which appears in countless promotion items for Rothenberg, is of the distinctive yellow half-timbered house sitting between the Siebers Tower and the Kobolzeller Gate. With its shutters, colourful flower boxes, and a small fountain at the front, it is picture-perfect. My wife waited until the crowds had gone then snapped away until after the sun went down.
Käthe Wohlfahrt, the world-famous Christmas store, is the home of the German Christmas Museum. It houses a permanent collection of ornaments, decorations, toys and artefacts. We learned about German Christmas traditions and history, including the fact that Germany invented the Christmas tree, prior to making our way through several rooms of exhibits.
Just outside town is an historic medieval double road bridge that spans the Tauber Valley. the structure was blown up by German troops in World War II but it was rebuilt and reopened in 1956.
When to visit
Rotherburg is great to visit anytime but there are a few special occasions. Every June at Pentecost, the city becomes a stage reflecting the events of the devastating 30 Years War (1618 -1648) between Catholic and Reformation Protestant forces which ravaged central Europe. The 400-year anniversary of the outbreak of war was celebrated last year.
Then there is the Imperial City Festival from September 6th to September 8th 2019, when historical groups perform music, there is a knights’ encampment in front of the town’s gates, and you will be able to see the royal court in their colourful attire. The impressive program also includes two evenings of fireworks and public theatrical productions on Market Square.
Rothenburg hosts one of the most popular Christmas markets in Germany from the end of November to Christmas. This is the busiest time of year for this little town.
Is Rothenburg real?
I have no doubt that Rothenburg has gone to great lengths to maintain a certain vibe and match tourist expectations. It is certainly effective in attracting hordes of tourists. This could be off-putting if you are looking for a quaint village away from the crowds, but you should still go. Instead of visiting during the middle of the day when the crowds are heavy, go in the late afternoon and evening and stay for the night. By 7 p.m. the streets are virtually empty. Even with crowds, overpriced souvenirs, and a rather ordinary, highly-promoted pastry specialty called Schneeball, Rothenburg is still an absolute treasure. This was my third visit but I will certainly go back again.
Images: Phensri Rutledge