Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany’s most perfectly preserved walled medieval town, is a magnificent ensemble of cobbled streets, timber-framed houses, ancient churches and soaring towers enclosed within a sturdy defensive wall. Stand on top of the wall and you get sweeping views over the surrounding countryside. It’s no wonder that this is one of the most popular tourist stops in Bavaria. Rothenburg has 11,000 residents and receives two and half million visitors each year.
I feel grateful to have visited in the days following the end of coronavirus travel restrictions. It’s hard to imagine the crowds on a normal summer weekend – let’s just say that Rothenburg has been likened to a medieval theme park. Not that you can blame people for wanting to visit, the town survived the Second World War almost wholly intact. Almost, but not quite. An Allied air raid destroyed a number of houses and a chunk of the wall, all fully rebuilt.
The town you see today dates to the 10th century, with many of the houses dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. It’s a miracle that neither fire or war have reduced Rothenburg to ruins over the centuries. We arrived after a drive from Nuremberg and entered the town through the Röderturm, a city gate and massive defensive tower. I felt a shiver go down my spine, for Rothenburg is home to one of the most terrifying characters from my childhood: the Child Catcher.
Fans of the 1968 film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, will know Rothenburg ob der Tauber as the fictional capital of child-hating country, Vulgaria, ruled over by the wicked Baron and Baroness Bomburst. I recall the Child Catcher scenes as if they were yesterday, and I’m not the only one. In a 2005 BBC poll, the Child Catcher was voted the scariest villain in children’s literature. Rothenburg is a place to glory in medieval atmosphere and confront childhood terrors.
We headed straight for the main square humming the tune to Hushabye Mountain (famously sung to the captive children of Vulgaria by Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes). It’s hard not to be impressed passing under the suitably higgledy-piggledy Markusturm before entering the Marktplatz surrounded by some of the town’s most imposing buildings. There were quite a lot of German families enjoying their day out seemingly unaware of the terrible danger to their children.
We walked to St. Jakobskirche, one of Germany’s most famous churches thanks to the presence of the sublime Holy Blood Altar wood carving by the greatest of all 16th century German sculptors, Tilman Riemenschneider. I know this from seeing pictures of the altar, when we arrived the church was closed – it’s only the most famous thing in the town, why bother to open all day? Instead, we wandered picturesque lanes until the heat got the better of us.
We had just walked past Plönlein, the most famous street in town (it’s featured on the front of the Lonely Planet guidebook), when we spotted what looked like a very promising looking beer garden. We made our way into a huge courtyard at the end of which was a lawn with tables shaded by trees next to the delightful Hegereiterhaus. We ordered a local beer and marvelled at the half-timbered houses and city walls.
In truth, Rothenburg is almost too good to be true. A little too neat and tidy, a little too ‘fairytale’, the rough edges smoothed out to accommodate all-encompassing tourism. It would be unfair to hold that against it though, it’s a charming place filled with 700 year-old houses that invites slow exploration. I wished we’d spent a night here, these same streets must be wonderfully atmospheric in the early evening.