Strangers like to celebrate the charm of the past in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The locals, on the other hand, are constantly coming up with new ideas to keep their medieval town alive. We have taken a look around. Text and photos: Angelika Jakob
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
In view of the house façades that surround Rothenburg’s market square, it can happen that, for a few moments, visitors can imagine themselves in a film. The question is though, which one? Is it set in the late Middle Ages, when Rothenburg was truly in full bloom, or in the Renaissance, when the town hall was built, or in Spitzweg’s “Biedermeier” style?
From the “Burggarten”, you truly have the best view of the city. The reddish evening light falls on part of the surrounding city wall with its 42 towers. Nowhere else in Germany has such a treasure of medieval urban architecture been so perfectly preserved.
Half-timbered gables tower over the wall, against which a vineyard nestles. You can’t help but think of the scenery in a toy train world. However, this is not a film set, but rather a small town where just over 11,300 “normal” people and three stork families live.
Fear of Fires
Suddenly a figue in a wide, black tippet, with tricorn, horn, halberd and lantern appears in front of us. It’s Hans Georg Baumgartner, dressed as a night watchman. He entertains his followers with anecdotes from the city’s history. “Never would the 100,000 litres in the fire water reservoir have been enough if a fire had broken out,” he announces, shaking his silver curls.
There is a theatrical pause, then he continues: “Night watchmen have prevented such tragedies in the past. There were also severe punishments for drunkards; they had to march across the market square in a huge wine barrel without a bottom. Citizens were afraid of drunkards and their behaviour, because they could fall asleep over the open fire and cause a fire.”
Night Watchman As Chief Diplomat
Hans Georg Baumgartner is Germany’s most famous night watchman: from “Merian” to Rick Steves' American TV channel “Europe” he is celebrated for his performance. The citizens of Rothenburg jokingly call him their chief diplomat. In the “Höll”, a former drinking bar, he takes a break between two tours, his old wristwatch next to the beer glass always in view.
“As a child, I hid under the table when visitors came,” he admits, “nowadays, as a night watchman, I simply slip into a role, I can’t afford to be shy.” During the day, he meets few people around his home, just four sheep, three dwarf goats, five chickens and eight cats. Just like that, he hurriedly collects his halberd and lantern, as a new group is already waiting for his performance on the market square.
A Mayor Who Can Hold His Drink
In the twelfth year of the Thirty Years’ War, according to the story of the “Meistertrunk” (Master Draught), Rothenburg was saved from destruction in a curious way. Every Whitsun, an amateur stage company performs the drama. Günter Wasilewski, nicknamed “Otto”, has been there for forty years. Complete with leather apron, white full beard, belly and proud posture, he plays the cellar master, while in real life, he works as a town hall clerk.
The "Master Draught" saved the town from destruction
What is it all about? “Tilly, commander of the imperial army, stands as a conqueror in front of the town hall and wants to pillage. Maybe the Catholic will let us live if we greet him with a proper tankard of wine?”, he describes the scene as it is played out today. “Then I’ll be sure to bring the giant jug. Tilly is smart and chooses not to drink. He wants to trick us, one of the men are expected to drink the wine – down in one! Over three litres! That would be it.”
The mayor then comes forward and gulps and gulps and gulps. He saves the town. To celebrate the involuntary intoxication, two windows open in the gable of the town hall every hour: one shows the astonished Tilly, the other the mayor who can really hold his drink.
Poverty as salvation
Otto keeps the key to the lift that takes you to the top of the town hall tower. Guests of honour are allowed to ride, while everyone else has to take up the challenge of the 220 steps. But the effort is well worth it: the view over the shingle roofs, towers and façades shows how this little town has been preserved in strict adherence to its traditional appearance.
And not only thanks to the “Meistertrunk”, but also to poverty. Poverty, simply because no one could afford to disfigure the city with a series of badly executed renovations. When money flowed for its reconstruction after the destruction in the Second World War, monument protection was already in place.
The first wave of foreigners brought cosmopolitanism to the town, attracted by paintings and early travel reports. Today, more people are attracted by Instagram, films and computer games. Until the outbreak of the Coronavirus, over two million visitors came every year. Travellers from all over the world want to revel in the past, but without the uncomfortable drawbacks of life back then.
In the Middle Ages, so-called “snowballs” were invented, a simple shortbread pastry in the shape – including in terms of consistency, if you’re unlucky – of spiked maces. Monks used to bake the nutritious balls and knead rum into the dough to prevent bad moods during fasting.
Snowballs should be eaten while still warm
Every Rothenburg confectioner piles up the speciality in the shop window, and one of them is master baker, Friedl. “We distinguish ourselves from industrial suppliers by our good ingredients, fresh eggs and high-quality fat for baking, for example,” he says, sifting icing sugar onto a load of balls.
The smell of the freshly baked pastry wafts out of the bakery and onto the street, the snowball in the paper bag has to be “torn up” quickly and the debris eaten while still warm. Long-lasting pastries – not a chance!
Oh Käthe, Oh Christmas Tree!
At Käthe Wohlfahrt, time has stood still forever on Christmas Eve. You should definitely take time to meander through and enjoy the “Bescherung” – present-giving – in the Christmas department stores situated on Herrngasse, and head to the museum on the first floor. There, you can learn all about the development of the mostly humble and hand-crafted Christmas tree ornaments.
And if you feel like experiencing real art after all this, why not take a walk to the “Jakobskirche” church, where Tilman Riemenschneider’s “Altar of the Holy Blood” stands. The gifted artist, who could “let wood speak”, created one of the most impressive works of Gothic carving with the Last Supper.
"Spitzweg" or Selfie
No one leaves town without a selfie. The hotspot is the “Plönlein”, one of the most beautiful medieval town scenes in Germany. The small triangular square with fountain served as a model for the home village in the Disney classic “Pinocchio”.
Where Carl Spitzweg painted a tired night watchman, slumped on a wall, four Chinese women pose full of exhilaration in front of the tower, the gates and the gabled witch’s cottage. The fishmongers who used to stack their goods here would have been lost for words.