Rothenburg ob der Tauber means “red fortress above the Tauber”.  The Tauber (Celtic word for water) is a tributary of the Main River and is 131 Km long.  I’m afraid that by the time the Tauber River gets to Rothenburg it gurgles less than a rivulet.  Perhaps in 950 when the Count of Comburg-Rothenburg established a weir system (small overflow dams to raise the level of a river or stream) for his gardens it had more of a presence.

Tauber River at Rothenburg

View of Double Bridge with Rothenburg in the background

Geographically Rothenburg is located in the Middle Franconia region of Bavaria, a linguistic region of exceptional ‘r’ rolling.  Ubiquitous rolling green hills, tile roofed dwellings tucked or clustered here and there, radwegs and wanderwegs abound.  Rothenburg is one of the major attractions along Germany’s tourist favoured Romantic Road.

Although there was habitation in the area Rothenburg was not officially founded until the year 1170. In 1274, it was granted Imperial Free City status, which meant that it was ruled by the Emperor only (and had the privilege of paying taxes only to the Emperor) and not by one of the plethora of princes in Germany.    With the building of the Protestant Lutheran Cathedral of St. Jakob’s (1311-1484), Rothenburg ob der Tauber became an important site for pilgrimage on the Way of St. James (end point – Cathedral of Santiago De Compostela in Spain).

Oldest house, now a pub - foundation dates from 900

St. Jakob’s is important not because it is bigger than all the other churches but, because it has the very treasured Helig Blut (Holy blood) relic – a drop of Christ’s blood.

During this time Rothenburg, with a population of about 5,500 within the walls, was one of the 20 largest cities in the Holy Roman Empire.  Today, its population of 11,053 (Dec. 31/09) is not a whole lot greater likely because the residents keenly keep development out.

Market Square

Over the next few centuries Rothenburg flourished, but due to bad weather, took a serious nose dive in October of 1631, during the Thirty Years War.  The Catholic Count of Tilly and his 40,000 men had been marching for several days in very wet weather when someone spied with their little eye Rothenburg in the distance.  The Count decided that Rothenburg would be a good place to rest up and dry off.  The

Medieval Festival - sword play

Medieval Festival - random marching

Protestant citizens decided otherwise.    A siege ensued …well you can guess the outcome.  By the end of that winter in 1631 the town was poor and nearly empty.
In 1634 the Black Death reduced the remaining population even further.  Rothenburg was well on its way into the abyss of obscurity when in the 1880s, “Romantic” artists “discovered” the wonderfully preserved medieval town (everything had pretty much come to a halt during the 1600s) and tourism was born.

Medieval Festival - Dancing

It was the unlikely combination of tourism and foggy weather that saved Rothenburg from complete destruction during WWII.  On March 31, 1945, 16 planes dropped bombs over Rothenburg, but since it was a foggy night they largely missed – although 39 people were killed, several buildings, 9 watchtowers (Rothenburg has a lot of towers) and 2000 feet of the Wall were destroyed.

Medieval Festival - Woodturners Guild

Tourism came into play when the U.S. Assistant Secretary of War got wind of the plan to destroy the city.   His mother had been a tourist in love with Rothenburg many years previously and he often heard how wonderful the city was.  He ordered no further artillery attacks on the city.   At the same time the local military commander, who was quite fond of Rothenburg and could also see the writing on the wall, ignored Hitler’s order for all towns to fight to the end.  He agreed to make himself and his troops scarce and the Americans peacefully occupied the city on April 17, 1945.

Medieval Festival - Guild set up on Main street

Rothenburg is a religious city.  Grüß Gott (short for “es grüß dich Gott” = May God greet/bless you) is the standard greeting or farewell, whether answering the phone or from a passer-by on the street, but the sentiment is neither sticky nor insincere.

There are numerous churches in the city and the largest of these is St. Jakob’s (St. James) of the drop of blood fame.  St. Jakob’s is also the official starting point of several pilgrimages.  I did not go into this church except to buy the wee Pilger guidebook.  I have found that large  churches tend to be impersonal.  The smaller churches are more to my taste. Not nearly as fancy, but a cozy welcome guaranteed, having said that, I will be spending Christmas in Rothenburg, and will visit the Cathedral at that time.  There are a number of very interesting things to see within.  I read about them after I had left Rothenburg.

Medieval Festival - viking

The only church I did go into was St. Johannis Kirche (St. John’s Church).  A Catholic church first established in about 1200 and restored and renovated several times since then.  It has the most interesting Crucifix I’ve seen.   According to the information pamphlet – “the crucifix is carved out of willow and silver plated:  The crucified goes beyond the Cross and overcomes death.”   This church breathes quiet respect and receives it in turn.

St. Johannis Crucifix detail

I am not the religious sort, but I was lonely at the time and spent about an hour there.   Kind of funny, isn’t it?  A non-religious, but spiritual, baptized, but never confirmed Lutheran taking comfort in a Catholic church.  There were about a dozen of us, ranging in age from mid-teens to 80, all sitting quietly contemplating, although some were dabbing eyes and noses.  I hope everyone received what they needed, I know I did.

Skit - getting dunked

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is without doubt heavily indebted to tourism, but somehow it has retained its charm and the residents their friendliness.  About 2.5 million folk
(mostly American and Japanese) a year ogle Rothenburg’s considerable charms.  I had timed my arrival in Rothenburg purposefully so that I could take part in the medieval festivities held the first weekend in September.   Rothenburg, as I mentioned, was granted Imperial Free City status in 1274.  700 years later in 1974, the citizens decided to celebrate that status again – took a while to recuperate from the first party, I guess.

Medieval Festival - Beer garden

Things worked out so well with that 2ndcelebration in 1974, that the town decided to hold one every year.

Medieval Festival - waiting for the procession

The market square and the main street are closed off to traffic.  In addition, several sections of the main street are roped off for use by the  townspeople to set up living displays of various guilds.  The weekend is launched Friday night with a torchlight procession of about 1100 medieval costumed residents.  After the procession reaches the Town Hall (located in the market square) there are two speeches – mercifully short, but you have to listen to them in 3 languages – German, English and Japanese (Rothenburg has a Japanese sister city). Fireworks in front of the Town Hall cap off the opening ceremonies and are repeated on Saturday night outside the city wall as well.

Market Square - waiting for fireworks

Throughout the weekend townsfolk (those that like dress up) wander around and pose for photos attired in costumes of their choice (this is
actually an interesting study in personality too).  There are skits, dancing, music and other demonstrations but other than being passive viewers “outsiders” don’t really participate except at the beer garden (of course!).  Still it is good fun and interesting.   A good imagination (or enough beer) can have you almost believing that you are back in the 1600s, until a medieval garbed lass whips out her cell phone sending that fey notion on its way. Festivities come to a quiet end sometime in the afternoon on Sunday and by Monday the cars are back.

Should you have a chance to travel to Rothenburg, and I strongly suggest that you do, and if you make it more than a day trip, I highly recommend staying at the Pension Elke.   Pension Elke is right in the old town, great for sightseeing, shopping and sampling the many fine restaurants in the area.  The rooms are clean, comfortable, quiet and reasonably priced.  Wireless is available, but a public computer is provided as well.   Breakfast is substantial and varied.  And, Klaus, the proprietor, is warmly welcoming and exceptionally helpful.  He and his father jog every morning, before breakfast, around the town wall.  Guests are welcome to join.  I’m told it takes about 30 minutes.

View from my room at the Pension Elke

Pension Elke

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is my favourite city to date even though I was by turns euphoric and melancholic there.   I like the size, the people, the geographic area, the history, and the vision.  It is also special to me for another reason.  There is a quote by Lao Tzu a Chinese philosopher of 1st Century BCE.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins by finding your shoes”.  It was in Rothenburg that I “found my shoes” – the start of my solo travel and the tremendous experiences following.