Past meets present in Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Two days ago, we cycled across the border from Germany to Holland. It was day 26 of our cycle tour and we covered 101km that day — a first for me, Kaia, and Jake. We are now “centurions”. If German bike paths are excellent, Holland’s are outstanding! Wide, smooth, and well marked, they even have detour signs when there is a break in the path. Yesterday our total trip distance passed 1000km as we came into Utrecht where we spent the night with dear friend Jelda and family. Jelda was another VSO volunteer in Namibia back in 2009.
We are struggling to keep up with the blogs due to: lack of time,
limited access to electricity to charge the devices, and no tables at the campsites where we stay. Lots more to come!

Our cycling route from Frankfurt down the Main and Tauber Rivers took us past many picturesque old towns with stone walls and towers.  Whenever we mentioned to anyone that we were headed for Rothenburg, their eyes lit up and they said something to the effect of, “You mean Rothenburg ob der Tauber?  That is a beautiful place — you’re really going to like it!”  Then they frowned and said, “But you will have to cycle up a steep hill to get there.”  I developed quite high expectations for the place and am happy to report that I was not disappointed.  In fact, my expectations were surpassed by this gorgeous, well-preserved medieval city!

image
Looking out over Rothenburg from the town hall tower.
image
The most photographed view.

Rothenburg has been inhabited for about 1100 years.  Its prominent families became wealthy for 3 reasons:  the fertile soil, the lucrative textile trade (in sheep’s wool), and the fact that they were well located on both east-west and north-south trade routes.  Over 800 years ago, it was incorporated as a city — and not just any kind of city — a “free imperial city”.  That meant that it didn’t have to pay taxes to as many layers of people in the power structure and was able to accumulate even more wealth! 
A massive stone wall was built around the city at great expense and labour, since large stones were not easy to come by.  Each gate was closed at sundown and guarded throughout the night.  Because of its safe location (up on a ridge) and good protective wall, Rothenburg was not successfully attacked for over 500 years.  Not a bad record! 

image
Part of the (rebuilt and restored) wall.
image
It is possible to go all the way around the periphery of the wall in a covered walkway (almost 3km).

Of course, life was not easy in a medieval city.  Apparently, the stench from human and animal waste was so bad during the summer months that anyone who could afford to would leave for their “summer residences”.  And then there was the plague… Rothenburg was hit hard.  Among the first to die were the priests, who were exposed to the sick as they gave them their last rites.  And without priests, the local people knew they were going straight to hell; a truly horrifying prospect!
We arrived in Rothenburg (after climbing that tough hill) shortly before noon.  One of the first things we witnessed was the chiming of the bells in the main square.  It is coupled with a cute demonstration of some shutters opening and two figures appearing, one of whom is drinking from a large goblet.

image
The clock strikes twelve! Each hour, that guy on the right appears to guzzle 3 litres of wine, which is an event that, according to legend, saved the town back in 1631.
image
Part of the central square; a bustling place full of cafes.

We went on a walking tour at 2pm (after making a detour to the local laundromat and a bakery), and learned many interesting details about the town.

image
The town hall was rebuilt after a fire. The angled windows on the spiral staircase are a dead giveaway of the Renaissance style, we learned.
image
Here I am comparing my arm length to Rothenburg's official measure. The others are the foot and the rod. Since each town had its own standards of measure, the distance from Rothenburg to Nuremburg was "different" than the distance from Nuremburg to Rothenburg!
image
Our guide, Daniel, is showing an ingenious piece of German engineering that allowed the medieval nuns to give food donations to the poor without ever having to come into contact with the lower tiers of society. This barrel in the convent wall could be filled with goods and then turned and emptied from the outside.
image
The largest church in the city had to be enlarged at one point, but there was hardly any space. They had to expand it by building an arch over one of the main streets!
image
A typical street.

Rothenburg’s safety record was finally broken in the 1600s (near the end of the 30 years war) when a traveling army chose to spend the winter there.  Forty thousand troups were too much for the town of 6000.  They defended their town gallantly, but when one of their own townspeople accidentally set off an explosion in the garrison, it blew a hole in the city wall.  The 40 000 soldiers plundered the town over a period of several months and left it destitute.  Then, for 250 years, nothing much changed.  Nobody could afford to upgrade or renovate their homes so everything stayed pretty much as it was — as a medieval city.  When artists from the British Isles discovered it and started painting pictures of Rothenburg, people became interested in it for its beauty and historical value.  Our tour guide pointed out that those 19th century paintings could be considered as the first “tourist brochures”!  A tourism industry began and put Rothenburg back on the map.  Now it is once again a wealthy city, receiving over 2 million visitors each year!

We were so bewitched by this charming city that we decided to spend the night in a B&B.  We got the cutest little attic room and a fantastic German breakfast the next morning (fresh bread and lots of great cheeses and meats!)

image
Sitting at the breakfast table.

I went on the “Night Watchman’s Tour” and was spellbound by his stories.  My favourite one was about how Rothenburg avoided being completely destroyed by bombs during WW2.  About 40% of its buildings were in fact destroyed in an allied bomb attack, but only because it was the alternate target in a mission to destroy a fuel supply.  These parts were later rebuilt thanks to a major international fundraising effort.  Near the end of the war, when a German commander brought his retreating platoon to Rothenburg and announced that they would defend it “to the last man”, it became a military target and was slated to be bombed again.  But… someone in a position of power in the US forces had grown up with a painting of Rothenburg in his childhood home.  He remembered his mother’s passionate descriptions of her 1914 visit to this beautiful medieval town.  This man contacted the American commander and gave the order, “Before you bomb Rothenburg, give them the option to surrender.”  Hitler’s generals were under strict orders not to negotiate, but as luck would have it, the #1 leader was out of town, leaving a second in command.  And when the option to surrender came, he took the very risky decision to accept it.  Obviously, this could have been considered an act of high treason and resulted in severe consequences for him.  But perhaps he could see the writing on the wall (it was March 1945), and decided not to sacrifice his men and all the civilians who were living there.  In response to the request that he surrender, he said,  “We’ll be out by morning.  You may have it.”  Rothenburg was not bombed, the Americans occupied it for a few weeks, and then the war ended.  So, in this way, the combined acts of an American and a German, both of whom had the courage to make independent decisions, saved many lives and a beautiful piece of medieval history.  (And the German was not accused of treason.)

image
This interesting double-arched bridge was partially destroyed by the Germans themselves to stop advancing American tanks from crossing (before the surrender). Obviously it was rebuilt in the same style.

Rothenburg is now famous for its Christmas market and festival.  There are also some adorable Christmas shops and a museum showing the changing trends in Christmas decorations over time.  Many of our traditions, such as a decorated tree, candles and several Christmas carols originate in Germany.

image
Rothenburg's specialty: pastry snowballs!
image
Of course we had to try some!

The most spectacular building in the city is St. Jacob’s church. 

image
St. Jacob's Church -- notice the "new" addition on the left (the roof colour is different).
image
The Gothic spires are really impressive.
image
This is actually at the back of the church, where they have displayed their most famous artifact: the altarpiece of the Holy Blood. In the past, it was an important destination for pilgrims.
image
This unique scene of the Last Supper (with Judas as the central figure) was carved in wood 5 centuries ago by the German master, Tilman Riemenschneider.

An interesting feature of this carving (apart from the amazing detail in the hair and hands) is that the figure of Judas is removable.  During Holy Week, it used to be removed.  The artist’s purpose was to remind people that each one of us could be Judas.

image
Here is a photo of a photo of what it looks like with and without Judas.

We loved exploring the various parts of this well-preserved historical city.

image
Some of the defensive towers are in unusual locations since the original city wall had to be moved to accommodate a growing population.
image
Old fortifications.
image
This shows part of the double-gate defenses. The path from the first to the second gate was not straight so that shots could not be fired directly.
image
Enjoying fresh-pressed apple cider in the town square.
image
A modern shop in Rothenburg featured bicycles in their chic window display!

Eventually, it was time to leave this fairytale town.  But at least the path was downhill! 

image
This was our route.
image
We are in the south-west part of Germany, heading into Bavaria.

We rode through beautiful countryside, enjoying the lovely bike paths and seeing lots of evidence of renewable energy production:  solar panels, biogas plants and wind turbines.

image
It's not all downhill, though!

image

image
Cam happened to have a shirt that matches his bike -- he looks very colour coordinated!
image
The rapeseed fields are bright yellow.
image
Very well marked bike paths.
image
Biogas facility.
image
Rothenburg isn't the only quaint town!
image
We "renegade" camped a couple of times. This spot was nest to a small road used by mountain bikers and hunters. Jake is peeking his head out of the hunting hide.
image
Here he is working on his blog!
image
There is a whole network of guesthouses that cater to cyclists, so it would be very possible to travel without a tent. I'm not too sure what this sign says, but it appears to be cycle-friendly!

One thing that surprised and disappointed us in Germany was the amount of smoking in public places. It’s almost as bad as Indonesia! On café patios, we really had to make an effort to be upwind from the smokers. To avoid them, one has to sit indoors, but that seems like a shame on beautiful warm spring days!

image
These cigarette vending machines are a common sight. I was shocked until I noticed that to make a purchase, one must at least swipe an identity card with proof of age.
image
Can you believe a cigarette billboard with the slogan "Born that way" ?!? I have never been so tempted to vandalize a sign -- I wanted to cross out 'born' and replace it with 'die'. Anti-smoking legislation is one area where Canada is ahead of Germany.

After 3 full days of cycling, we arrived in Augsburg. Since there was rain in the forecast, we decided to take the train the rest of the way to Munich. A friendly local who saw us with our bicycles at the train station informed us that there was a train strike! But in Germany, that basically means that there will ONLY be 1 train per hour. Imagine! As opposed to the usual train every 20 minutes. He advised us to check out the city and take the train in a couple of hours once all the football fans had left for the big game in Munich.

image
Augsburg has a nice walking district with tram service.
image
They also have an impressive cathedral. It looks sunny in this photo, but the rain did come!
image
We climbed to the top of a tower to get a view of the city.
image
The city suffered a lot of damage from bombing in August 1944. It took them years to rebuild.

image

And finally, we got on the train with our loaded bikes.

Yvonne

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Past meets present in Rothenburg ob der Tauber”

  1. I live In a small town in Northern, ON., Thessalon. I can’ t express how much I an enjoying your blog. I have travelled the world through your eyes. Thank you so for that. You have filled your year with a lifetime of memories for many. Take care I look forward to each entry.
    Linda MacDonald

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s