This week’s journey takes us back to one of our favorite destinations in continental Europe: the impossibly charming German town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. We spent our third wedding anniversary here in 2016, and have returned time and time again to immerse ourselves in its rich history, stunning beauty and old-world delights.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, meaning Red Castle over the Tauber River, is located in the Franconia region of Bavaria. It has a long and storied past. While the city of Rothenburg was officially founded in 1170, the Celts likely settled the area as early as the 1st century AD. Rothenburg was declared a Free Imperial City of the Holy Roman Empire in 1274, and its population began to grow steadily. The establishment of several religious orders further expanded the city, and by the late 14th century, it was among the 20 largest in the empire. The city’s fortunes flagged, however, when Protestant Rothenburg was overtaken by Catholic forces during the Thirty Years War in 1631, and an epidemic of bubonic plague further diminished its population in 1634. Growth was thus arrested, and the city was preserved in its 17th century state.
Rothenburg became a part of Bavaria in 1803. As National Socialists came to power in Germany over a century later, the city took on special significance to the party and its supporters. Throughout the 1930s, Nazi leadership hailed Rothenburg as the epitome of a German “home town”, and its residents as “ideal” German families, featuring the city prominently in its propaganda. Many of Rothenburg’s citizens enthusiastically supported this endeavor, harassing and attacking their Jewish neighbors. By 1933, only a few dozen Jews remained in Rothenburg, and in October 1938, Nazi officials expelled the city’s 17 remaining Jewish residents.
On March 31, 1945, bombs were dropped over Rothenburg by sixteen Allied aircraft, killing 37 and destroying 306 houses, six public buildings, nine watchtowers and over 2,000 feet of the city’s iconic medieval walls. Following the air raid, several members of a U.S. Army division approached the German unit defending the town and delivered the following message: “We are representatives of our division commander. We bring you his offer to spare the city of Rothenburg from shelling and bombing if you agree not to defend it. We have been given three hours to get this message to you. If we haven’t returned to our lines by 1800 hours, the town will be bombed and shelled to the ground.” The unit agreed to these terms in defiance of Hitler’s orders, and surrendered Rothenburg on April 17, 1945.
The city’s residents quickly began the reconstruction and repair of damaged properties, and donations from throughout the world flooded in to assist their efforts. Today, Rothenburg is one of Germany’s most popular tourist attractions. Its lively atmosphere, brightly colored half-timbered houses and intricate maze of cobbled streets and alleyways offer a romantic experience unlike any other in Europe.
We made arrangements months in advance to stay in Rothenburg for our third wedding anniversary in August 2016. Unfortunately, T. badly broke his leg in multiple places in late June, and had major surgery in July. By the time our trip rolled around, he was up and about again on crutches, but still in a lot of pain and unable to walk long distances. Ever the trooper, he insisted that we make the journey to Rothenburg anyway, so off we went!
We arrived in late evening as the city was enveloped in darkness, and checked into the beautiful Romantik Hotel Markusturm. Located directly adjacent to the Markus Tower and Röder Arch – two of the city’s earliest fortifications, both constructed around 1200AD – the hotel stands on the site of a former tollhouse erected in 1264. Travelers have lodged here for over 500 years, and the current hotel has been in the same family for four generations. It was seemingly – like many places in Rothenburg, we found – straight out of a fairy tale. Beautifully furnished and decorated, staffed by the kindest and most welcoming locals, we instantly felt right at home. We slept soundly and comfortably, excited for our journey through the city the next day.
I woke up and dressed early the next morning, hoping to explore the city at first light while T. slept in. Griffey and I emerged from the cozy interior of the hotel into a light summer rain and set out on our way.
Mere steps from the Markusturm, set into an extension of Rödergasse, stands a long rectangular fountain. Beautifully adorned with red and yellow flowers during our visit, the fountain at Rödergasse is festively embellished with over 2,400 (!) decorative eggs over the Easter holiday.
Without a particular sense of where I was headed, and with only a small map of the old town center of Rothenburg in hand, I wandered through the gateway of the Markusturm and headed down a narrow alley immediately to my left (Alter Keller). This route led me alongside a series of small, brightly painted cafes and guesthouses, their window boxes invitingly overflowing with vines and flowers.
After walking for five minutes or so, the alley intersected with a larger thoroughfare (Untere Schmiedgasse), where I found myself just steps away from one of Rothenburg’s most picturesque (and indeed, most-photographed) locations: the Plönlein. The city’s website describes the Plönlein – derived from the Latin word planum, meaning “even square” – as “a slender half-timbered house with a small fountain set in front and nestled among the Kobolzeller Tor and the higher standing Siebersturm … a most attractive ensemble!” Attractive indeed – this little square was absolutely enchanting! Typically swarming with tourists, only a handful of other early birds milled about with me in the morning drizzle.
After exploring the Plönlein for half an hour, I retraced my steps back to the Markusturm to look in on T. We shared a lovely breakfast in the hotel, but T. admitted his leg was hurting too much to venture outside its confines to wander through the city. Always gracious and wanting me to enjoy our journey to the fullest, he urged me to spend as much time as I wanted exploring on my own. Encouraged by his happy discovery of several German football matches on our hotel room’s TV, I was confident he would be comfortable for several hours there. Griffey and I thus headed back out for more exploration, this time walking along Hafengasse toward the Marktplatz under partly cloudy skies.
On the southern end of the market square stands two of Rothenberg’s most iconic structures: the Butcher’s and Dance Hall (Fleisch und Tanzhaus, in red) and St. Mary’s Pharmacy (Marienapotheke, in black). The former was constructed in 1270 over the foundations of the old town hall after a fire ravaged the original structure thirty years earlier. The latter, officially known as Jagstheimer Haus, was built by a mayor of the same name in 1488. It has haused the Marienapotheke since 1812.
The Marktplatz fountain, also known as the Fountain of St. George, stands directly before the Butcher’s and Dance Hall. The fountain was erected in 1446 over an 8-meter-deep well holding over 26,000 gallons of water. A decorative Renaissance-style pillar was added in 1608, featuring an armored St. George on horseback, famously slaying the dragon. While it was in the state photographed below during our summer visit, in winter journeys to Rothenburg, we’ve found the pillar encased in glass to protect it from the cold.
After the old town hall burnt to the ground in 1240, construction of a new – and significantly larger – Rathaus began in 1250. The Gothic structure – extending the full western expanse of the Marktplatz – included two parallel grand halls, a 170-foot-tall watchtower, and market stalls facing the square. This town hall had its own brush with fire in 1501, when the front section of the building was destroyed. Reconstruction efforts lasted for decades, eventually complete in 1572. The Baroque-style arcade and full-length porch were added in 1681.
After leaving the Marktplatz, I wandered (again, in no particular direction) through various streets in the old town, admiring the city’s unique architecture, pretty gardens and quirky design details.
A Dominican convent complex – including a church, dormitories and garden – was built on the site below in 1258. While the convent was dissolved in 1544 and the other structures torn down in 1813, a charming garden remains on the grounds today. It is, in fact, Germany’s oldest medieval kitchen garden, dating back to the late 12th century. Although it isn’t a stop on many tourists’ itineraries, it is free to visit and a quiet corner of the walled city to explore in relative solitude.
I eventually found my way back to one of Rothenburg’s most prestigious and well-known streets: Herrngasse. Also known as Lords Alley, this stretch of road between the market square and the former site of the city’s Imperial castle is named for the rich merchants (herrn) that once lived in fine patrician homes here. At the foot of Herrngasse stands the massive Burgtor, the town’s largest watchtower, and a lovely city park located on the site of the former Hohenstaufen fortress.
The garden at the center of the castle grounds is from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century and features eight sandstone statues that represent the four seasons and four elements.
No journey to Rothenburg would be complete without a climb atop the Turmweg, the old town’s famed medieval walls (unless, of course, you were on crutches, in which case this would not be a recommended attraction). The ramparts, which are 20 feet tall and stretch over 2.5 miles of Rothenburg’s perimeter, also include 70 watchtowers. They are a superb vantage point from which to admire the city’s famed red tiled roofs and gables. Walking atop the narrow walls is truly a unique and exciting experience – I’m convinced even Griffey enjoyed himself!
One of Rothenburg’s most unusual structures – the Gerlachschmeide, or Old Forge – can best be viewed from the ramparts. While the original structure was destroyed during the Allied air raid in 1945, the replacement has all the quirky features – including a steeply gabled roof and striking coiled snake atop a coat of arms – of the original forge.
As Griffey and I exited the ramparts, I turned my attention away from the medieval city for several minutes to admire the lovely expanse of vineyards stretching into the Tauber Valley below. Rothenburg lies at the southernmost point of the Franconian wine region, and the vines below the city wall specifically belong to the An der Eich winery. Owned by the Thürauf family, the winery cultivates more than 150 historical grape varieties on these fertile verdant slopes. Griffey and I enjoyed a quiet hike on a series of interconnecting trails here, eventually walking along the western expanse of the burggarten on a roundabout trek back to the Markusturm and our hotel.
The remainder of our time on this visit to Rothenburg consisted of quiet candlelit meals, delicious Franconian wine and beer, and as little extraneous walking as possible! We have since visited this enigmatic city on multiple occasions, in better health, and continue to find it one of our favorite places in Germany.
Thank you for joining us on this journey! – B. & T. June