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September 7, 2010 – Pilger – Part I – Rothenburg ob der Tauber to Schrozberg – approx. 22 km. (more if you get lost).

Pilger (German) refers to both pilgrim and pilgrimage depending on the context used.

So…the tale begins…..

All set to go!

Pack on, all set to go, take that first step … and my first thought is:  “I should have cut my toenails.”  My second thought: “I hope I never drop anything because otherwise I am going to be doing a lot of headstands.”

However, balance issues quickly got sorted and off I went, excitement and anxiety competing for equal space in my thoughts.

My first problem, how to actually get on the “Way”, had been resolved a couple of days previously with the help of a friendly shopkeeper with whom I had shared a couple of glasses of sherry.  She was the first of many who would help me along my journey, because as it turns out I have a particular talent for getting lost.  By the time I quit the pilgrimage this talent had been honed to a calibre rarely seen.  *Pilger tip #1- bring a map and learn how to tell North from South, etc.  North, as I discovered, is not always in front of my nose.

Road to the right is where I entered the woods.

Anyway, getting out of Rothenburg ob der Tauber was problematic because:  1. My German reading skills are not that good, and there seemed to be an uncommon number of compound words in the wee guidebook.  Germans have a bad habit of simply adding two or more words together to make a new one instead of coming up with a nice short new word, for instance the word for tank is about 26 letters long.  2. No signs are allowed to be posted within the city walls, so how was I to find the yellow shell on a blue background (sign of the Way).  3. There are at least seven towers along the wall of Rothenburg and it really wasn’t clear (to me) which one to leave from as indicated by the guidebook.

Gate I left through

However, my friendly, shopkeeper got that sorted for me, and I proceeded with confidence.  To make doubly sure of a confident beginning I had scouted out the “Way” for a couple of kilometres two days previously.  I even discovered a shortcut which would knock off at least 1\2 Km from the trip.  Believe me that would count!  Well, in no time I lost the shortcut and in wandering around trying to find it I
probably added a kilometer.  Sigh.

But, I was off!  It was excellent walking weather – overcast, but not cold, and, although my Lady pack was heavy, it rode comfortably on my back.

All was going well.  I stopped at the suggested rest place to have the suggested last look at Rothenburg and took suggested photos.

Last view of Rothenburg

Weather did not hold and it started to sprinkle, but that was still ok, I had a poncho.   Although, I did have a few suggestions of my own about what was supposed to be a non-rainy day.

By the time I reached Enzenweiler, a village about 7.5Km from Rothenburg, my feet were getting sore and the sprinkle had stepped up a couple of notches.  Still ok though and the yellow shell signs were right were they were supposed to be.

Yellow shell - sign of the Way

That all went South (or wherever) when I left Enzenweiler as there was no indication where to go next beyond turning right at the crossroad and then left at the village end.  Sure that I had missed a yellow shell marker I retraced my steps, but no, I was on track.   Still it seemed to me that the village had ended a couple of kilometres back and that was before the suggested right turn on the crossroad.  So, which village end were they talking about???  In talking with another Pilger a few days later – she also got turned around here and ended up in a village not in the guidebook. Gratifying to know I wasn’t alone – in this instance anyway.

Failing any signage I strode straight ahead (my default setting) figuring I would come to a village sooner or later and then see where I was.  And, so it came to pass.  Unluckily for me though this was not a village named either in the guidebook or shown on the sketchy map in said guidebook.  I was losing confidence in the guidebook.  Still at its end there were several signs indicating village this and that, this way or that way.  With the exception of one, none of these village names were in the guidebook or its less than helpful little map.

Along the way. The Windrader in the distance were landmarks to look for.

However, the one recognizable name riveted my attention because it said:  Rothenburg ob der Tauber (that way) 5 Km.  Keep in mind that by now, with backtracking and discovering new villages, I had probably walked at least 12 Km.  So, upon seeing this sign, I said to myself:

“Why gee willikers, would you look at that.  I’ve been walking in a circle.  Gosh darn it, don’t that beat all.” (or words to that effect).

I confess that I gave serious consideration to walking back to Rothenburg, hopping a train, and pretending nothing ever happened.  However, with spirits and self considerably dampened as it was by now raining, I set about looking for someone to tell me how to get to Schrozberg (my end point for the day plus I had overnight
accommodation booked there).  *Pilger tip #2 – make sure you have proper rain gear. Poncho doesn’t cut it.

I did finally find a farmer who kindly stopped in his headlong rush from his barn to his warm, comfortable home to help me out.  He actually happened to be the only person I saw outside in this village.

Permit me to digress and mention a little something about German dialects.  The Schwäbisch dialect sounds like so much pea gravel and sand being swished around in a bucket of water.  I understood maybe three words out of this man’s directions.  I never did catch on to more than half of what anyone said to me in Schwäbisch.  The only dialect that was more incomprehensible was Badish.  Later in the week, I would meet two Badish Pilger.  Thankfully, they were not talking to me as based on my open mouthed look I’m sure they would have thought I had the IQ of a celery stick.  I understood one word, “gel” (hard “g” like in girl), and as it is like our “eh” it really isn’t a word after all.  The Bavarian folks, by the way, roll their “r” so vigorously that I’m surprised they don’t choke for air halfway through a sentence!

Anyway, at my “deer in the headlights” look the farmer slowed it down and spoke more Standard German giving me directions that all involved walking back the way I had come, but then turning towards Heligebronn (3 Km away) and then walking another 2Km or so, to Spielbach where there was a gas station in the middle of town (it’s down the road on the 2nd left when you get to the middle of the village – you can’t miss it.  Right.), and someone there would be bound to know the way to Schrozberg.

He was also the first that would ask me two common questions.  1.  You are alone?  2. You are walking?  all the while looking over my shoulder as if expecting people or a car to appear.  It got so that I was often tempted to have a look myself, even though I knew the air behind me would remain distressingly empty of companions, or A CAR.

So, he says “You are alone?”  “Yes” I say.  “You are walking?” He says.  “Yes”, I say.  “That is bad” he says.  “How so?” I say.  “Because it is a long way”, he says.  “Yup”, I think.  Of course, I have translated for your benefit, although, I’m pretty sure the thought bubble was in English.

Well, there was nothing for it and off I go and trust that I will reach Heligebronn and then Spielbach.  I had begun to put a lot of trust in trust because nothing else was working too well!  And, I did find Heligebronn and it was just where the farmer said it would be!  By this time though, my legs were aching something fierce and my feet were so sore I could feel blisters playing King of the Castle on my toes, and I was wet through and through.  I spotted a bus shelter and thought – screw it – I’m taking the bus to Schrozberg!  I had been walking for several hours with only one break.

*Pilger tip #3 – in small villages in Germany when kids are on school holidays – as they were until Sept.13 – buses do not run.

So, I have to drag my carcass to Spielbach after all.  What’s another 2 Km (in theory) to the 20 Km I must have walked already, eh?

Still, I am optimistic… until I get to the crossroad.  No signage and every direction looks equally well travelled.  I am so very tired, so very sore, so very wet and the wind has picked up and I am getting cold and there is NO ONE in sight, and I just cannot stomach retracing my steps yet again.  I give in, but only have enough vigour to perform about 30 seconds worth of the standard 2 minute dance of panic.  But, it’s enough to clear my head and, as per usual, I head straight.  I am rewarded in short order by the sight of houses.  I have made it to Spielbach!

Spielbach - fountain where I waited for Marlene. Appropriate.

I have NO intention of looking for gas stations, and instead phone Marlene, owner of the Gästehaus Im Tal that I am going to be staying at, to ask her if she could send a taxi for me.  I really, really cannot physically or mentally walk another step further.  Schrozberg is larger (about 4500 people) and it has taxis, a bus and a train station!

I never did get a chance to ask Marlene to send for a taxi, because after she got over her surprise that I was in Spielbach (she was aware of the correct pilger route), she said she would come and get me.  I spent the next four days in Marlene’s care.

Gästehaus Im Tal - Schrozberg.

Schrozberg, by the way, was another 8 Km away.

And, that, my friends, ended my first day of walking.

Hope this all finds you healthy and happy!



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.




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