The Fairy Tale Town of Rothenburg

Upon deciding we would journey to Kupferzell this past Wednesday, SG promptly planned a second ‘surprise’ element to the day. We would drive to another place after Kupferzell, one I would love and one that was going to remain a secret right up until the moment we arrived. I was forbidden from Googling, poring over maps to see what important cities lay between Weiden and Kupferzell, lest I ruin the surprise. I am not a good person to surprise and impatient to a fault, so I peppered SG with questions (can I eat it? Is it something I love? Does it involve a person? Is it in Germany? Is it to do with history? Wine? Do I know it?) all the way up until I spotted an increasing number of signs for Rothenburg ob der Tauber and then one, indeed, announcing we were entering Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

Prone to confusing taube and traube (pigeon and grape respectively) and similarly prone to getting my plurals wrong all the time, I briefly wondered aloud if Rothenburg was famous for its pigeons (or indeed grapes … wine …) until I was informed the Tauber is the name of the river Rothenburg sits upon. Nothing to do with pigeons. Or grapes. Or wine.

‘Do you know Rothenburg?’

‘It rings vague bells.’ I flicked furiously through my German historical town knowledge, waiting for louder bells, annoyed they weren’t coming. I hate not knowing towns of significance.

‘Rothenburg,’ SG said, turning into a carpark that appeared to be just outside a big, old, fortifying town wall, ‘is probably one of the most famous Medieval towns in Europe.’

Really?’ Few things put a spring in my step like well preserved Medieval towns or ancient ruins do; I nearly died of pleasure overload when I made it to the Acropolis and I love a cobbled lane.

‘Really.’

And he was right. (I Googled it over my schnitzel for lunch.)

Rothenburg ob der Tauber dates back to 950AD, when work on the castle’s garden began and just over one hundred years later, the castle itself. It was one hundred years after that, in 1170, that the city of Rothenburg was founded, upon commencement of building the Staufer castle. The walls went up in the 13th century, fortifying the town and in the century to follow the famous St James Church, St Jakob in German, would be built and the town would prosper as a free Imperial City (Freie Reichsstadt). An earthquake in 1356 destroyed the Staufer castle, but seemingly undeterred, the citizens thereafter decided to keep working on St Jakob (the church would not be fully completed until 1485) and make it the official ‘city church’ – Stadtkirche – and, at the same time, begin work on the city hall. Rothenburg was rolling headfirst towards being one of Germany’s most populous and prosperous towns of the Middle Ages.

The Thirty Years War halted progress considerably. Defeated by the Count of Tilly in Ocotber of 1631 when attempting to close the city to his 40,000 troops, Rothenburg was plundered and left with very little when the winter was over. Only a few years later, the town would lose even more of its population to the Black Death. The following two hundred years were defined by border changes, Bavaria’s imperial debt, the foundation of the German Empire in 1871, industrialisation and access to the train system. Courtesy of the latter three Rothenburg’s economy began to slowly improve and its population expand.

Interestingly, Rothenburg avoided total destruction in WWII because of its reputation as a town of great historical importance and beauty. Rothenburg was bombed in 1945 by Americans, but when it came to taking the town, within which German soldiers were stationed to defend it, The US Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy ordered US Army General Jacob L. Devers not to use heavy artillery. Aware of Rothenburg’s significance, McCloy was reportedly anxious to avoid destruction beyond what had already occurred due to the bombing. Although Hitler had ordered German troops to fight to the end, Major Thömmes, stationed in Rothenburg, defied these orders and gave up the town. His actions, along with McCloy’s, saved Rothenburg  ob der Tauber from ruin.

Today Rothenburg is one of Germany’s most well preserved Medieval towns and a hub of tourist activity. Its fairy tale houses and picture-book lanes contained within 13th century walls, all sitting high above a grassy gully and the Tauber itself, draw millions of visitors a year. But it is worth joining the tour groups and students clutching worksheets to step back in time, to a Germany of centuries ago.  There are schneeballe to eat, a sort-of-creepy-sort-of-cute Christmas shop that has all the traditional (and rather expensive) decorations you could wish for, the Criminal Museum which showcases a torturous past, the gothic Rathaus, the Tauber valley and the magnificent Stadtkirche St Jakob. And beyond all the things to see, as listed on the tourist map, there is a beautiful, old, magical town to wander through, a slice of genuine Germanic history.

And just to make it that little bit cooler, Rothenburg was used to film scenes in the final two installments of the Harry Potter films. So, really, what’s not to love?