Thirty years ago, I fell in love with the picturesque village of Rothenburg, in Germany’s Franconian heartland. At that time, the town still fed a few farm animals within its medieval walls. Today its barns are hotels, its livestock are tourists, and Rothenburg is well on its way to becoming a medieval theme park.
But Rothenburg is still Germany’s best-preserved walled town. Countless travelers have searched for the elusive “untouristy Rothenburg.” There are many contenders (such as Michelstadt, Miltenberg, Bamberg, Bad Windsheim, and Dinkelsbühl), but none holds a candle to the king of medieval German cuteness. Even with crowds, overpriced souvenirs, and a nearly inedible pastry specialty (the over-promoted, fried ball of pie crust called a Schneeball), Rothenburg is still the best. Save time and mileage and be satisfied with the winner.
By the way, there are several “Rothenburgs” in Germany. Make sure you are going to Rothenburg ob der Tauber (on the Tauber River); people really do sometimes drive or ride the train to other, nondescript Rothenburgs by accident.
In the Middle Ages, when Berlin and Munich were just wide spots in the road, Rothenburg was Germany’s second-largest city, with a whopping population of 6,000. Today, it’s the country’s most exciting medieval town, enjoying tremendous popularity with tourists without losing its charm. There’s a thousand years of history packed between its cobbles.
To avoid the hordes of day-trippers, I like to spend the night. While 2.5 million people visit each year, a mere 500,000 book into a hotel room. Rothenburg is mine after dark. In the deserted moonlit streets, the sounds of the Thirty Years’ War still echo through turrets and clock towers.
A walking tour helps bring the ramparts alive. For the serious side of Rothenburg’s history, you can take the tour offered by the town’s tourist office. But for a thoroughly fun hour of medieval wonderment, take the Night Watchman’s Tour (www.nightwatchman.de). The watchman jokes like a medieval Jerry Seinfeld as he stokes his lamp and takes tourists on his rounds, all the while telling slice-of-gritty-life tales.
For the best view of the town and surrounding countryside, climb the Town Hall tower. For more views, walk the wall that surrounds the old town. This 1.5-mile stroll atop the wall is at its most medieval before breakfast or at sunset.
Rothenburg’s Medieval Crime Museum, all explained in English, is full of diabolical instruments of punishment and torture. Some visitors react with horror, others wish for a gift shop. For a more kinder-friendly spot, there’s the Doll and Toy Museum, with two floors of historic playthings.