Nördlingen's medieval city walls, alleys and well-preserved town houses served as a model for the manga hit "Attack on Titan". However, the region's exciting history goes back 15 million years further. Text: Anja Keul, Photos: Tobias Gerber
Discover and Experience Nördlingen
A melodic male voice sounds across the market square. Passers-by lift their eyes expectantly to the top of the church tower of St. George. "So, Gsell, sooo!" it sounds from above, from a height of almost 90 metres. That's how high the "Daniel" is, Nördlingen's all-dominating landmark from the 15th century.
This call goes back to an episode in 1440. One night, a citizen noticed that the Löpsinger Gate, one of five town gates, was not firmly locked. The watchman, that faithless fellow, had left it open so that the Count of Oettingen could conquer the town. The people of Noerdlingen knew how to prevent this. From then on, the doorman on Daniel made sure by calling out that the guards of the city gates were really at their post at night.
Half-Timbering and Gothic Gables
Today, a completely different story is attracting a surprising number of young visitors to the tower: the Japanese manga series "Attack on Titan". Japanese cartoonist Hajime Isayama used Nördlingen as a model for the fictional city of Shiganshina, where the last humans are hiding from hostile Titans.
Proudly, Türmer Robert Gotthardt shows drawings and entries by manga fans from all over the world in the tower's "summit book", quickly scribbled down with a pen, many of them quite artistic. Then he stands at the window to sound the historic call, as he does every evening at the full and half hour between 10 and midnight.
From the narrow parapet of the "Daniel", one looks down on the city, which in the 13th and 14th centuries experienced its heyday as the most important trading centre in southern Germany.
There is hardly a straight street to be seen, but countless gables criss-crossing each other, and in the middle of it all, finely restored half-timbered houses. Medieval squares such as the Schäfflesmarkt, where carrying vessels were traded, the Brettermarkt or the Tändelmarkt are easy to make out between the houses, some of which are surprisingly high.
Around the Centre
Fortified towers crown all five city gates, no two of which are alike. To this day, they are the only entrances to the 2.7-kilometre-long battlements, on which you can walk around the entire centre of Nördlingen.
And this walk not only takes you back to the Middle Ages, but also deep into the history of the earth. The diameter of the old town within the walls is about as large as the asteroid that created the Nördlinger Ries some 15 million years ago. The celestial body hit the earth here at a speed of around 70,000 kilometres per hour.
The material for the "Daniel" virtually fell from the sky
A primeval event. Unbelievable quantities of rock masses were blasted out, hurled upwards, and mixed together as they came crashing down. This created new "impact rocks" such as suevite, also known as Schwabenstein.
This is what people in the Middle Ages used to build the church tower called "Daniel" because of its all-dominating size. Of course, they didn't know at the time that the material for their church had come directly from heaven ...
Moon Rock in the Museum
What the Ries is all about, this strange, almost circular area with a diameter of 20 to 25 kilometres, was only discovered in the middle of the 20th century. At that time, the US geologist and astronomer Eugene Shoemaker was specifically looking for traces of asteroid impacts on Earth in aerial photographs.
Until then, only the Barringer crater in Arizona was known. After extensive geological investigations, it was clear in 1960 that the Nördlinger Ries had been created by an asteroid and not by a prehistoric volcanic eruption.
The best overview of this unique episode in the history of the Earth can be found in the Ries Crater Museum. It is housed in the cleverly converted 500-year-old Holzhof-Stadel in the centre of Nördlingen. Here, 15 million years of the earth's history unfold interactively in the context of the universe.
Museum director Professor Stefan Hölzl is particularly proud of a piece of moon rock donated to the museum by the Apollo 16 astronauts. To this day, the Ries serves as a training ground for scientific space missions. Information boards provide further details at many places in the Ries, such as the Lindle geotope or the Ofnethöhlen caves.
The mineral-rich loess deposited over millions of years in the flat Ries basin between the Swabian and Franconian Alb made the region a fertile granary. Trees are rather rare, growing only on the few elevations in the Ries. For example, around Alerheim Castle, where Sandra Appl processes the fruits of fruit trees, some of which are 100 years old, into brandies and liqueurs on a sideline and also offers seminars on the subject.
The view from up there reaches as far as Nördlingen, twelve kilometres away. The town lies flat as a pancake. In the middle, Daniel stands out with its stout dome. Apart from the castle tower, where Sandra Appl has set up her small liquor shop, nothing reminds us of the castle complex built during the Hohenstaufen period and destroyed in the Thirty Years' War.
The Ogre's Hole and the Violin of Shame
Quite the opposite of the most impressive castle far and wide. Harburg Castle on the south-eastern edge of the Ries is one of the largest, oldest and best-preserved castles in southern Germany.
Harburg: orgre's hole, violins of shame and more scary things
Its oldest towers date back to the 12th century, and for more than 700 years it was in the family possession of the counts and later princes of Oettingen. Since 2000, the Harburg has been managed by a private cultural foundation, which also offers a variety of thematic and theatrical guided tours.
The gruesome scenes along the covered walkway range from the ogre's hole, where villains were locked up for a night for minor offences, to the dungeon towers and the medieval violin of shame.
On very special occasions, guide Doris Thürheimer slips into historical costumes. But she always brings the centuries-old history of the castle to life.
Fancy a Witch's Bowl?
The town of Harburg, situated deep at the foot of the castle on the gently meandering Wörnitz, is also worth a visit. And the castle tavern with a panoramic view of the imposing castle complex. Young visitors can enjoy the "Squire's Bowl" or the "Witches' Bowl", while for adults there are Swabian specialities such as homemade, melted Maultaschen on the menu.
More refined culinary delights are available at "Meyers Keller" on the outskirts of Nördlingen. In his family's former brewery, Bavaria ambassador Jockl Kaiser established uncomplicated star cuisine, regionally rooted, driven by uncompromising quality standards. His Culatello Riserva ham delights gourmets all over Europe. You can sit comfortably in the spacious parlour, or almost more beautifully on the large terrace under old trees.
Evening Walk on the Wall
Back in the old town of Nördlingen. There is a great atmosphere at the regulars' table of the "Café am Berger Thor" directly on the city wall. Since 1998, Ralf Kluge has been running the daytime café, where the part-time substitute doormen also meet. Kluge himself is the longest-serving of this guild. The café closes at around 8 pm, the last homemade ginger-lime-mint lemonade is drunk, mother's cake is eaten.
Would you like to take a short evening stroll? From the Berger Tor, which sounds like "Börger" in Nördlingen dialect, you can take a walk along the city wall. Day and night. The ancient walls are always open.
At the Löpsinger Tor, a plaque recalls the episode with the faithless journeyman who almost sacrificed the town. It was only because a pig rubbed against that very gate that the brave burgher's wife even noticed the betrayal. Even today, the people of Noerdlingen pay homage to the bristling animal in the form of sculptures and images. Even a cabaret prize is named after the creature: the Sow of Nördlingen.