After visiting Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Neuschwanstein, it only made sense that our next stop would be Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the medieval town that inspired Disney’s Pinocchio. Like Amsterdam and Santorini, I came for the photos but ended up appreciating its beauty much more after learning about the town’s tumultuous history.
The name of the town means “red fortress above the Tauber,” because it’s located on a plateau overlooking the Tauber River. In the Middle Ages, Rothenburg was a free imperial city, which meant that it was self-ruling and enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy. It was also a strategic stop on trade routes throughout Europe. With a population of 6,000, this thriving town was one of Germany’s largest. However, Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s fortunes tumbled suddenly due to occupation and ransacking during the Thirty Years’ War and a plague that followed. The town never fully recovered, which is why it became (and still is) Germany’s best preserved medieval town — which is fortunate for tourists like us!
But this picturesque town is more than just a pretty face. Rothenburg ob der Tauber has been admired by many, including Nazis. For them, Rothenburg was the quintessential German town and was even hailed by Hitler as “the most German of German towns”. The Nazis used to organize regular day trips to Rothenburg from all across the Reich. And unfortunately, the town was not an innocent bystander. If you recall from my Munich post, the region of Bavaria had been a hotbed of conservatism. Rothenburg’s townspeople were sympathetic to National Socialism and expelled its Jewish citizens in 1938.
During World War II, bombs were dropped over the German town, killing 37 people and destroying hundreds of buildings. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy was familiar with the Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s historic importance and beauty, so he ordered his army not to use artillery against it. Instead, his army negotiated the surrender of the town. The local military commander surrendered, ignoring Hitler’s orders, saving Rothenburg ob der Tauber from total destruction. After the war, donations for rebuilding were received from all over the world.
Since the town has been preserved in its medieval state, it’s easy to appreciate how self-sufficient it used to be. In the main square, there’s a large 17th-century fountain with long metal gutters that slide to deposit water into villagers’ buckets. The town had an ingenious water system that serviced a series of fountains to provide drinking water, store fish for market days, and fight fires. Because of its plentiful water supply, the town never burned entirely, as so many neighboring villages did. Meanwhile, many of the town’s half-timbered homes were filled with a year’s supply of grain so they could survive sieges.
For better or for worse, Rothenburg ob der Tauber has been frozen in time. It’s a fantastic way for visitors to explore a snippet of medieval life. It’s easy to see why Hitler was charmed by this town. It’s also easy to see why, despite Rothenburg’s awful anti-Semitism and support of Nazism, an American decided that this place was still worth saving.
Tips for future travelers:
Go on the Night Watchman’s Tour. This was our favorite part of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. A man named Hans Georg Baumgartner has been leading this one-hour historical tour for years, dressed up like a night watchman and telling gritty tales of the medieval town. No need to make reservations; just find the large group of tourists congregating at the main square at 8 pm every night.
Climb up Rathausturm (the spire of Town Hall) for the best view of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. It takes 214 steps and is comically narrow and steep at the top. In fact, some of the staircases are so narrow that a traffic stoplight will let you know when there’s enough room for you to proceed to the next staircase. (German efficiency!)
Check out the Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum (Medieval Criminal Museum), one of the quirkiest museums I’ve ever visited. Torture was common in the Middle Ages — not necessarily to punish but to extract confessions. Just the sight of these tools was often enough to make an innocent person confess. The museum has painful-looking artifacts like spiked chairs and thumbscrews, but my favorites were the shame masks. Shame masks were intricately decorated to indicate the crime — chicken feathers indicate promiscuity, a snout indicates piggish behavior, and a giant tongue indicates a tendency to gossip. Those convicted of immoral behaviors were forced to wear these masks while being chained in public places for all to see and humiliate.
Eat a meal at Zum Pulverer, a traditional Weinstube (restaurant specializing in wine). Weinstuben are mainly found in the wine-growing regions of southern Germany. Zum Pulverer has a cozy interior with wooden chairs carved into the shapes of past senators of Rothenburg. Like beer, wine in Germany is better than any wine I’ve ever had in the U.S.
Stay at Hotel-Gasthof Goldener Griefen, which was once the home of Mayor Toppler. This 650-year-old hotel has a pleasant garden and is located just off the main square. It will make you feel like you’re a prosperous person living in the Middle Ages.
Go shopping. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is unabashedly touristy, and many of its tourists are actually Germans from other parts of the country. Its streets are filled with quirky shops such as the German Christmas Museum, Waffenkammer (the “weapons chamber,” where tourists can try on armor and pose with medieval weapons for photo ops), and pastry shops selling Schneeballen (leftover flour strips rolled into a ball and covered in icing).
Most tourists come only on day trips. Don’t be one of those. Rothenburg ob der Tauber deserves a little more of your time. Around dusk, the obnoxious tour groups vacate, and the cobblestone roads glimmer with romance. At night, it gets even better, and early in the morning you can take all the photos you want without other tourists in your way.