Rothenburg ob der Tauber, usually referred to just as Rothenburg (but not to be confused with actual Rothenberg, which is an entirely different city in Germany that I accidentally bought train tickets to), is famous for being arguably the cutest city in Germany. Once a prosperous transit hub, many impressive houses were built in the town before the roads changed, and thus its income and development slowed. This is why it has maintained its old-fashioned style.
Then in WWII, the Nazis declared it “the most German of German towns” and made it their favourite day trip destination. While part of Rothenburg was bombed, most of its historical centre was saved by its beauty. You see, the general of the US army that was meant to destroy Rothenburg had heard about its charms from his mother, who had visited once. So he offered to leave the city standing if it was peacefully surrendered. The local military commander agreed (against Hitler’s orders to fight till the death), and thus the city was saved. Afterwards, people from all over the world donated money to the restoration of the bits of the city that had been damaged, and in return had their names engraved on the city walls.
Anyways, one of the cool parts of Rothenburg was that the building our hotel was in was about 800 years old. The key to our room was a huge skeleton-type key that went into a giant keyhole, the kind that’s so big you can look through. So hopefully there were no creepers at the hotel.
Streets and Schneeballen
We spent our first day in Rothenburg wandering around looking at all the cute houses. The walled, historic part of Rothenburg where we and all the other tourists were staying is quite small, with only like, two main streets. You can basically walk everywhere in a single day. We took our time though, looking at all the colourful houses.
As the city is on a bit of a hill, you can get some great views from certain areas, like the park at the south end of town.
The trademark snack of Rothenburg is this amazing pastry called a Schneeballen, which means snowball. It’s basically a bunch of fried shortbread smushed into a ball shape and covered in toppings. The traditional topping is icing sugar, but they also have them in all sorts of other chocolatey and nutty flavours. We would eat quite a few during our stay in town, and my favourite would be the sugar cinnamon.
Like many other parts of Germany, Rothenburg is really big into cuckoo clocks. One of Chris and I’s favourite activities when it was chilly outside was to go into the clock stores and wait for them to hit the hour and play their little song. The German cuckoo clocks are quite fancy, and usually also have some sort of little animated diorama, with people doing things like chopping wood and drinking beer.
The City Walls
The next morning we decided to take a walk on the city walls. You can walk pretty much all the way around the town this way, and there are little plaques along the way to tell you about the different towers and such. Apparently the only time the town’s walls have been breached was when a not-so-smart citizen accidentally blew up the gunpowder storage tower by going in there with a torch.
Along the way you can see the engraved names of everyone who donated to the reconstruction of the walls after the war. The more you donated, the more meters of wall have your name on them. You can also get to nice views of the different houses and surrounding countryside from the top of the walls.
The Christmas Museum
Besides being very cute, the other main thing that Rothenburg is known for is Christmas. That’s because Rothenburg is the headquarters of Käthe Wohlfahrt, an amazing Christmas decoration store.
Since this is the flagship location, the store is huge and has a Christmas museum and Christmas village inside. The museum tells you all about the history of different Christmas decorations, and the village has about a billion ornaments for sale and things like giant trees and nutcrackers.
Traditional German Christmas decorations include some things I’ve never seen before, such as Schwibbogen (elaborate candle holders), pyramids (candle-powered pyramidal merry-go-round type things, if that makes any sense), and incense smokers (usually little people that you put incense in so it looks like they’re smoking). Chris loved everything because it was all made via woodworking, his favourite theoretical hobby.
The Imperial Town Museum
The next day was our museum day. We first hit up the Imperial Town Museum, which is housed in a old convent. This museum had a whole bunch of stuff about the history of both Rothenburg and Europe in general. The weaponry section in particular was really huge, and included Marie Antoinette’s hunting guns, as well as some Viking swords that were about a billion years old and made Chris really excited.
The Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum
Our afternoon took a bit of a darker turn, as we headed over to the The Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum, which is exactly what it sounds like. It was pretty morbid, but also super interesting. We ended up spending a lot longer there than we though we would, looking at different types of pillories, shame masks, executioners swords, and other sorts of torture/execution devices. There was also a big special exhibit on witchcraft at the end.
Toppler Castle and Detwang
On our last day, we decided to take a bit of a hike around town. Rothenburg is surrounded by lots of nice walking trails, so we took one down the hillside and along the river. I believe it’s called the mill walk because it goes by a bunch of houses that used to be old water mills. We also saw some very cute donkeys.
Down in the valley there is also a miniscule “castle” called Toppler Castle. It’s the most hilarious castle I’ve ever seen, basically just a tiny house on top of a short stone column with a pond around it. Apparently it was once the home of mayor Heinrich Toppler, who felt he needed a bit of extra security I guess. We heard if you rooted around you may be able to find someone to let you in, but we decided it probably wasn’t worth the effort.
We continued our walk to the teeny but pretty town of Detwang, before heading back up to Rothenburg. There were about 20 buildings in Detwang, one of which was a cute church.
Back in town we headed to the main square just in time to see the clock chime. The clock is famous because on the hour its windows open to show a drinking man. This is apparently an ode to the “Master Draught”, an incident when the mayor had to drink 3 litres of wine in a single gulp, in order to prevent the town from destruction during the Thirty Years War.
Also in the main square is the Town Hall, which has a big tower you can climb up. We made it up the very skinny stairs, and were rewarded with some nice panoramas of the town.
The Night Watchman
Since it was our last night, we decided to go on the much touted Night Watchman tour. It was a huge tour (like 100+ people probably) but fortunately the night watchman is a pro at his job. (Though surely he’s just a very enthusiastic actor/tour guide right? The night watchman must have become obsolete a hundred years ago.)
Anyways the night watchmen led everyone around town in the dark, telling us various stories about the history of Rothenburg and such, most of which I’ve already recounted here. The job of the night watchman was to light the torches each night and watch out for fires. Because times were dangerous back then, the town had a curfew and if you didn’t get back within the walls in time you would be locked out. That’s why town gates usually have a tiny door within the huge main door, so that stragglers could be safely let in. If the night watchman rang the fire bell during the night, all the townspeople had to run out with buckets of water to help put it out, since fire was the biggest danger to the town. Apparently if you didn’t come you were fined. Times were much stricter then.
After a good night’s sleep in Rothenburg, it was on to Paris!