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!
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!
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.
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.
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!)
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.)
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.
The most spectacular building in the city is St. Jacob’s church.
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.
We loved exploring the various parts of this well-preserved historical city.
Eventually, it was time to leave this fairytale town. But at least the path was downhill!
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.
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!
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.
And finally, we got on the train with our loaded bikes.