Friday, November 1, 2013

Chapter 35: Storybook Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Deutsche Bahn, the German train system, offers website specials for some trips, and last week one of the specials was to Rothenburg, a relatively unspoiled storybook village along the Bavarian "Romantic Road" between medieval Wurzburg and King Ludwig II's famous Neuschwanstein castle. It is particularly popular in December for its colorful Christmas market.  I booked tickets for it and Lawna and I took off from Landstuhl early Saturday morning for a four hour stop and start rail journey to the popular historic tourist town. We sped alongside the Neckar River past Heidelberg and several hilly resort towns, still brightly arrayed with fall leaves. After several transfers, we finally boarded a rural regional train that took us to Rothenburg's tiny brown brick station.

on board the train

Rothenburg moat

After taking a few minutes to get our bearings, we walked toward the old walled town, crossed the moat and walked through the medieval tower gate into picturesque Rothenburg. The city was founded in 950 by the Count of Comburg-Rothenburg and, of course, has a long history through the middle ages and modern times that I won't attempt to chronicle here. In most recent times, it was highly valued by the German Romantics and marked for preservation, and it also became an important symbol for the Nazis, representing the perfect German home town. Its preservation from allied destruction is a fascinating story itself. The US Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy knew of the town's historic significance and ordered that it not be attacked by artillery. It did suffer bombing, but was not extensively destroyed. The German military commander, despite Hitler's order to fight to the end, surrendered the city to avoid its wholesale destruction. Much of the outer wall was destroyed, but has since been restored with donations from all over the world, especially Japan. If you walk along the ramparts, as we did, you will see a continuous line of commemorative stones identifying the sources of donations.


tower gate

The town is so well restored and historic that it almost looks like a display from Epcot Center, but it is the real thing. Restorations are continually being made, as you'll see from the pictures of the Town Hall. Alongside ancient towers are modern construction cranes and metal scaffolding as walls are cleaned, restored and paint retouched. Germany takes good care of its historic sites, and there are many of them.

walled city

picturesque Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Apart from the many touristy shops and restaurants, Rothenburg features some interesting museums. Probably the most popular is the Criminal Museum which features historic condemnation documents and plenty of instruments of punishment and torture. Apart from its obvious ghoulish attraction, the museum is really quite a fascinating glimpse into the justice systems of the past. It also corrects some common misconceptions. For instance, the infamous Iron Maiden did not really contain spikes, and it wasn't really used for torture. Women were placed inside of it in the public square for humiliation. The spikes were a nineteenth century addition in Romantic Gothic fiction.  If the Criminal Museum creeps you out, you can visit the nearby Toy Museum which features toys, dolls, puppets, etc. throughout mostly European history. You will see plenty of beautiful doll houses, elaborate puppets theaters and a great operational train set.

Criminal Museum

Toy Museum

The town square is dominated by the great town hall, which was under extensive restoration when we visited. We did climb up the old tower to get a bird's eye view of the town. The stairs are narrow and steep, I guess for small people with long strides. I had a camera bag on my back and had some trouble getting through a few tiny trap doorways, but we eventually huffed our way to the top. The final tiny entry to the lookout platform is like passing through a birth canal, but once you are up there, the view is pretty spectacular. If you feel uneasy with heights, you're kind of stuck until the other tourists finish gawking and taking pictures, because there really is no room to edge past them. I'm not terrified of heights, but have a healthy respect and was quite satisfied to re-enter the tower after the line had made its way around the bell. The walk down the steep stairs is even more fun because you can see just how far you will fall if you slip!

Town Hall with lookout tower to the left

Rothenburg from above

tower bell up close and personal

restoration crane

We stayed for a mediocre meal at a picturesque cobblestone sidewalk restaurant. The rule of thumb when traveling is that the prettiest restaurants usually serve the most expensive and most forgettable food (or memorable for all the wrong reasons). It's not a natural law, but it tends to be true. However, sometimes the ambiance is too much to pass up. It's a trade off.

ubiquitous German flower boxes

Days are growing shorter in Germany. We spent the dusk hours strolling the walls surrounding the city, stopped for some drinks and then returned to the train station. The weather had been beautiful throughout, but we reached Landstuhl about five hours later in a rainstorm. We'd been lucky.

waiting for a train

Quick, silent video of our trip to Rothenburg ob der Tauber

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