Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a small town of 12,000 inhabitants, in the region of Franconia in Bavaria. It lies on an outcrop 180 feet above a bend in the river Tauber, a tributary of the Main.
Rothenburg's identity is purely touristic. It receives one million visitors per year. It is not just a place of exquisite charm and quaintness. What is unique about the town is that to set foot inside its walls is to walk into a medieval time warp. It is a perfect record of a rich, aristocratic and powerful city from the sixteenth century. The last major construction to be completed inside the ramparts was the arcade of the Town Hall finished just under 300 years ago. Apart from that there is nothing later than 1595.
Some History Essentially Rothenburg began in the C10 as a castle on the Burggarten spur. 200 years later the growing town was incorporated into the lands of the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1274 under the Hapsburgs it received the title of Free Imperial City, which meant effectively a city with privileged tax and trading status. It boomed from then on. The subsequent history of Rothenburg is more or less one of increasing wealth, expansion and embellishment. And then everything changed in 1618. This was the beginning of the wars of religion that devastated Central Europe, the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). Rothenburg took a leading position among the Protestant powers of southern Germany. The city was attacked and taken three times by the Catholics, in 1631, 34 and 35. The fabric of Rothenburg was left intact but the power and wealth of the place was totally destroyed.
After the Thirty Years' War, Rothenburg never recovered its importance. It became nothing more than a minor local market town. From then on no new houses were built, no old ones remodelled, no roads were widened, no redundant town walls were knocked down to allow the place to expand. The town was effectively frozen in time. For 150 years Rothenburg was absolutely untouched. In 1082 the town was incorporated into Bavaria and the new authorities, caught up in the fashion for the romantic and medieval, saw in Rothenburg a unique survival. They slapped preservation orders on the houses, forbade any new building, created the Burggarten and demanded the highest standards of upkeep. These standards have been rigorously maintained ever since.
Tilly and Nusch: der Meistertrunk As explained, the fabric of Rothenburg was left intact despite the devastation wrought by the Thirty Years' War. The question why is answered by the most celebrated episode in the history of the city, the "long drink" or Meistertrunk. This story should be told in front of the Councillors' Tavern or Ratsherrntrinkstube just before the hour (see walking tour below). The hero is Burgermeister Nusch, the villain is General Tilly, the date is October 31, 1631, the story is more or less true.
Tilly, general of the invading Catholic forces, vowed, on capturing the city, to kill every member of the town council and raze the town to the ground. All appeals to his mercy were in vain. In a last effort to appease the general's fury, a waiter from the Ratsherrntrinkstube brought Tilly a huge tankard filled with the local wine. The tankard can be seen in the town museum. It holds seven pints. Tilly didn't drink but proclaimed, certain of victory, that he'd spare the town if one of the councillors could down the whole lot in one go. Heroically, Burgermeister Nusch stepped forward, accepted the challenge, took the tankard to his lips and began to drink. His legs shook, his knees buckled, his eyes rolled, sweat poured from his brow but he never let the tankard leave his lips until every last drop was gone. He showed the empty tankard to the crowd, the citizens cheered and Tilly was forced to keep his promise. Rothenburg was saved. It is said that it took Nusch 10 minutes to finish the drink and 3 weeks to sleep it off.
A Walking Tour akobskirche - Klostergasse - Burgtor - Burggarten - Herrngasse - Marktplatz
You will need to give a walking tour of the town at some point during the day. The following walk starts at the Jakobskirche. It takes about an hour at a gentle stroll. It is kept short because the group will be itching to go shopping or wander on their own. Nevertheless some suggestions are made below for continuing the walk if you have an eager and dependent group.
Jakobskirche: This is Rothenburg's main Protestant church, built between 1300 and 1510 by the Order of Teutonic Knights. The church contains two superb altarpieces. You should dwell for a few minutes at the first but concentrate your efforts on the second, which is extraordinary. The way in is by the south porch. Inside the church, after paying the entrance for the group, head straight for the main altarpiece at the east end, the Zwölfbotenaltar or Altar of the Twelve Apostles. It dates from around 1466. The sculpted figure of Christ is surrounded by four angels. The bearded figure below (one of six) is St. James, the patron saint of the church. The painted scene at the bottom shows Christ and the Apostles, hence the name of the altarpiece. The panels to the left and right depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. Round the back you can see a fascinating picture of Rothenburg as it was in the C15. It is still easily recognisable. The only thing that has really changed is the facade of the town hall.
The second altarpiece which you should go to see is upstairs at the west end. It is Rothenburg's greatest treasure and is breathtaking. It is called the Heiligblutaltar or Altar of the Holy Blood. The artist is Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531). He was the greatest in a long German tradition of sculptors in wood. You should have the group sit down while you explain about the work. The altar was commissioned between 1499 and 1505 as a reliquary for three drops of Christ's blood shed on the cross. These are contained in an egg of rock crystal held in the middle of a gold-plated cross dated 1270 in the center of the altarpiece. It is the main scene below the cross, the depiction of the Last Supper, that is Riemenschneider's. It is carved from limewood. The figure of Judas is made from one piece of wood; Christ and the remaining disciples from one other. Judas is clearly identifiable standing in the centre clutching a bag of gold in his left hand. Christ offers him bread as he says "One of you will betray me." The various disciples look tense, scared or shocked, protest their innocence or argue as to who it may be. Only John lies sleeping on Christ's lap, unafraid. The expressions are intense and the movement and interaction between the figures is beautiful. The quality of the execution, detail of the modelling and the delicacy of feeling are extraordinary. (The low relief scene on the left is Christ's entry into Jerusalem, in the right the Agony in the Garden.)
In the 1520s, Tilman Riemenschneider was involved in the so-called "Peasants' War." He was captured, taken prisoner and in punishment his hands were cut off.
From the Jakobskirche take the Klostergasse round to the Burgtor and Burggarten - The C14 Burgtor is the oldest and the largest tower in the city's fortifications. You are in the oldest section of the city, the Burggarten spur. Between the tall tower and the gatehouse which also served as a customs house there was a moat. This gate was once the entrance to the castle. 1,000 years ago, the Graf von Rothenburg built the first castle on this site. When his line died out, early C12, the town fell into the hands of the Emperors (at this moment the Hohenstaufen family) who built a massive new imperial castle. This was destroyed by an earthquake in the C14 and never rebuilt. Only the little chapel the Blasiuskapelle (c.1150) survives. It is a war memorial today. A couple of hundred years ago the site of the castle was converted into a park. This is the pretty, well-maintained Burggarten that we see today. There is a lovely view on to the green Tauber valley with the little village of Detwang to the north, the Doppelbrücke and the Spital quarter to the southeast and the oddly-shaped "Topplerschlösschen" just across the river. This was the summer house of Mayor Toppler, Rothenburg's greatest mayor, who brought the city to the height of its power in the C14.
Go back through the Burgtor to the Herrngasse - The grandest and widest street in Rothenburg. These are the houses of the Burgers or patrician families. If you can you should have a quick look at the splendid courtyard of no. 15 which has belonged for the last 400 years to the same family von Staudt. Emperor Charles V once stayed here. In this street every house is huge, every gable is different, every loft has a projecting beam for raising goods for storage. The typical Rothenburg style is for a solid stone base with half-timbering on the upper floors beneath a steep tiled roof. Most of the houses on this street date from between 1500 and 1600. The oldest surviving houses in the city go back to about 1250.
(At the end of the Herrngasse, just before the tall Rathaus tower, you should point out on both sides of the street the famous Christmas shop of Käthe Wohlfahrt. It is delightful. Besides if you organise it in advance you can gain something as well.)
Markplatz: This is Rothenburg's main square and the focus for all the town's activities. It is lined with grand patrician houses and the most important municipal buildings. You need to explain the scene.
On the west side the grand C16 renaissance building is the Rathaus or Town Hall with the older section and tower behind. For a small fee you can climb up to the top of the tower 197 feet high for a fine view over the rooftops of the city.
On the north side is the Ratsherrntrinkstube or Councillors' Tavern with the three clocks on the gable, the Imperial Eagle and the windows enclosing Tilly (left) and Nusch (right). These two are ready for the Meistertrunk (see explanation above) which they perform daily at 11:00 a.m., 12:00 noon, 1:00, 2:00, 3:00, 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. Don't worry if you miss it. You would be hard pressed to call this little 30-second performance spectacular but it is moderately cute in a way. You should certainly explain the story. (If you are there on Whitsun or on the second Sunday in July and September the whole town re-enacts the story of Tilly and Nusch in a way that is much more impressive.)
In the southwest corner of the square is the Herterichsbrunnen, a well set up in 1446. All over Rothenburg you can see such wells, necessary because of the town's position high above the river. Only the mayor and the town council knew the siting of the external conduits, a closely guarded secret for fear of enemies poisoning or stopping up the supply in time of war. In front of this well in the Middle Ages stood the town gallows, the pillory and the hoisted cage.
To continue... This walk ends here on the presumption that the group will want to escape now. Otherwise, take the Schmiedgasse down from the southeast corner of the Marktplatz. This is a charming but crowded street of shops, bars and restaurants with overhanging wrought-iron street signs. At the bottom when the road forks either side of a half-timbered yellow house is the Plönlein. This is said to be the most photographed view in Germany. Pass under the Siebersturm, the left-hand tower, and turn immediately left towards the Stadtmauer or town ramparts. This is one of the points from which you can access the walls. At the top head north towards the Rodertor. It is an interesting section of wall because there are plaques to all those who have assisted financially in the reconstruction of the walls after the damage of WW II. Look out for the lovely Old Forge just before leaving the ramparts. From the Rodertor take the picturesque Rodergasse and Hafengasse straight back to the Marktplatz.
Apart from walking the walls and climbing the tower of the Town Hall for the view, there are various other possibilities for free time. Many people will be happy enough just shopping, eating and exploring. Alternatively there is a beautiful walk outside the town walls along the "Tauber Riviera" from the Kobolzellertor beneath the Plönlein to the Burggarten. If you are looking for medieval horror and instruments of torture the Kriminalmuseum is exemplary of its kind (explanations in German and English). The Spielzeug-und Puppenmuseum is a charming privately owned-collection of historic children's toys and dolls.
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