The quaint town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a beloved destination on Germany’s Romantic Road in the northern Bavarian region of Franconia. Wander down its myriad of cobblestone lanes, and one would half expect to see fleeting images of Brothers Grimm characters darting in and out of half-timbered houses.
Although tourists flock to Rothenburg by the coach-load every year—2.5 million to be exact—it shouldn’t put anyone off from visiting or even staying a couple of nights. Along with admiring Rothenburg’s architectural gems, here are a few tips to find crowd-free oases in this romantic town.
Set in Stone
Perched snug on a hilltop overlooking undulating hills and the Tauber River, which ambles its way through the Tauber Valley, Rothenburg’s stone walls envelope it in a tight, little package.
When eager groups file through the city gate towers mid-morning and begin to scurry from one corner of history to the other, start the day at the Klingenturm, where wooden steps lead from this tower to the narrow, covered parapet that wraps around half of the town.
700 meters (2,296 feet) of the eastern wall, connected by six towers, along with nearly half of the historic center, succumbed to Allied bombings in early 1945. As in the case of many German cities after World War II, municipal councils struggled with the decision either to rebuild what stood before or to build completely anew with the architectural tendencies of the time.
Fortunately, Rothenburg settled on the former and has continued with its strict preservation rules ever since. Along this wall, chiseled squares bear the names of donators from around the world who have helped fund the preservation of this medieval town for more than 40 years.
Further down the way, there is one house in particular that won’t go amiss: the Gerlachschmiede. It’s hard to imagine that this beautiful, half-timbered house was a mere pile of debris at the end of the war. The town restored the former blacksmith’s workshop to its original state in 1951, and it carried on serving as a smithy until 1967. Mounted on its gable is the coat of arms—a green serpent with a golden crown, which the former blacksmith, Georg Gerlach, designed himself.
At the southern tip of the covered parapet, stands the figure-eight shaped Spitalbastei. This is the strongest point in the town’s defensive wall system and is complete with seven gates, a drawbridge and three cannons. The Latin inscription on this bulwark reads: “Pax intrantibus, salus exeuntibus” (peace to those who enter in, good health to those who leave again).
I’ll Drink to That!
Once admiring the craftsmanship of the bastion inside and out, follow the path that skirts around the town’s southwestern wall to the vineyards in an area locally known as the “Rothenburg Riviera.” The small signs in front of the rows of vines here indicate which wines the Weingut Glocke (Glocke Winery) will produce (think: pinot blanc, Bacchus Gewürtztraminer and Goldriesling).
The Franconian region has been producing wines for a thousand years, and legend has it that in 1631, when Catholic General Tilly and his army of 60,000 men took over this former Protestant market town during the Thirty Year’s War, Rothenburg’s town council tried to save their necks by first offering the general a mug of wine. Tilly took a couple of sips and then gave the councilmen a challenge: “If one of you has the courage to step forward and down this mug of wine in one gulp, then I shall spare the town and the lives of the councilmen.” Thanks to the mayor, who accepted the dare and drank the three-quarters of a liter of wine in one go, visitors can appreciate Rothenburg’s beauty today.
Not surprisingly, Rothenburg reenacts this event every Pentecost, and so too do the clock figures on the facade of the town hall in the Marktplatz between 10 am and 10 pm daily on the hour.
To find out what the fuss was all about over 400 years ago, savor the local varietals by either attending the merriment at the town’s wine festival in late summer or dabble in a little wine tasting at the restaurant of the Weingut Glocke (Am Plönlein 1). To take a peek in their cellar, wine enthusiasts need to book an appointment in advance.
Downhill from the vineyard, the 16th-century Kobolzeller Church pokes through the lush greenery in the valley, and the tranquil tempo of the small river that leads to the 14th-century Tauber Bridge—a replica of a Roman viaduct. This „double-bridge,“ with its two rows of arches, once linked the trade route between the cities of Augsburg and Würzburg in the Middle Ages. The town completed its restoration in 1956, after Nazi soldiers had heavily damaged it by blowing much of it up during the war.
The bridge is a splendid spot to appreciate Rothenburg’s medieval skyline of soaring stone towers and church steeples amid the waves of terracotta-colored rooftops.
Tiptoe through the Gardens
When the tourists have boarded their coaches in the late afternoon, take a stroll through the Castle Garden, or Burggarten, which jets out like a finger at the westernmost point of the old town. The Hohenstaufen family had built their castle here in 1142, but an earthquake reduced it to rubble two centuries later. Since stone was a top commodity at that time, the town used the remnants towards the building of its fortified wall.
Since the 17th and 18th centuries, a manicured garden, complete with a percolating fountain, sandstone statues of the four seasons and elements under a canopy of shade trees, offers respite at the end of the day. The panorama of the Tauber Valley and western flank of Rothenburg is breathtaking—a fitting place to watch the sun descend on the horizon.
Rothenburg is undeniably picturesque with its fairy tale spirit and Christmas card backdrop. Yet, despite the multitudes the town attracts each year, small oases of Rothenburg remain for those who’d like to feel as if they have it virtually all to themselves.