It’s hard not to have high hopes of a fortified town. What traveller can resist the lure of an unbroken ring of medieval battlements? Who could possibly pass by such a place without secretly wanting to approach the castle gates, knock on a huge wooden door, state a password and be allowed inside to seek shelter and mischief?
Today, I’m indulging this whim and as we drive through the Bavarian countryside I can see a promising horizon of tiled red roofs and spires as Rothenburg od der Tauber slowly pokes its aged head above the treetops.
Gaining entrance to this historic town no longer requires a password, just a bit of delicate steering through a narrow, arched entrance at the foot of a lofty gate tower. Once inside, it’s clear the only people turned away these days are property developers. Rothenburg’s formidable outer walls, once built to keep out armed undesirables, feels more like the sides of a well-stuffed jewellery box jealously guarding all its beauty and tradition from the devious fingers of the outside world.
A late-afternoon stroll quickly reveals an intricate jigsaw of antique buildings, from square, steep-roofed pastel mansions to smaller dwellings hidden down crooked alleyways, which once housed the workshops of blacksmiths, cobblers and clockmakers. All over town, timber beams overlap like leather straps, transforming grand facades into gingerbread lattices. Picturesque gatehouses — 42 in total, and many with towers — turn cobbled cul-de-sacs into tourist attractions. Shop fronts are adorned with bright wooden shutters and ornate metal signs, while flower boxes and fountains enliven streets and squares.
Synonymous with German Romanticism, it’s the stuff of fairytales, and it’s no real surprise to learn the town appeared in a Harry Potter film as the scene of a wand theft — nor that it doubled as Vulgaria, the home of Baron Bomburst, in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Both the beautiful late gothic Town Hall and the imposing St Jacob’s Church, built between 1311-1484, are evidence of Rothenburg’s considerable historic wealth. Indeed, in the 14th century, it grew to a population of 5,500, making it one of the 20 largest cities in the Holy Roman Empire at the time. However, its lengthy medieval heyday came to an abrupt halt in the 17th century when, during the Thirty Years War, Catholic armies brought this Protestant stronghold to its knees, before the Black Plague finished it off. The town then sank into a deep depression that lasted over 250 years. With no money to develop and renew, it remained frozen in time, its beauty preserved by its poverty.
One might reasonably expect a place like this, fortified and forgotten and left to evolve in isolation for so long, to be a hotbed of eccentricity, and as I explore I keep an eye out for evidence of this. It arrives with a bang shortly after nightfall, when I join a large crowd of tourists on the steps of the Town Hall.
From out of the shadows emerges a strange bearded figure wearing a pointed hat and carrying what looks like a sharp axe and a lantern. He announces himself as George the night watchman, and in a melodic, laid-back German drawl, with lengthy pauses after each short sentence, he tells us all how Rothenburg’s nocturnal guardsmen — who patrolled its streets as late as the 1920s — were considered the lowest of the low, despite keeping the city safe from both disorder and fire.
“There were six of us,” he explains. “Six night watchmen. Each had to guard his own district. Now it’s just me left. I’m the only one who’s still around. Still doing it. Thank God. I had to get rid of the other five to make a living.”
George is, of course, just a very skilful tour guide, but there’s something about this place that fires the imagination, and it’s so easy to picture him roaming these streets after dark, singing his haunting Hour Song to the chimes of the Town Hall clock.
Like dutiful ducklings, we follow this strange, cloaked figure down alleys and lanes, paths and passageways, out through a gate tower onto the lofty castle gardens, and then along a narrow outer ledge back in through the battlements.
In every corner, the architecture is impeccable, with not a single hint of jarring modernity to break the spell, while the town’s wonderful imitation gas lamps only add to the atmosphere.
At the tour’s conclusion we retire to the Zur Höll (To Hell) tavern, which is housed in the town’s oldest building, circa 900. Here, in a snug, windowless cellar room, sat around a sinister looking wooden bench resembling an interrogator’s rack, we sip tall steins of Bavarian beer, feeling distinctly medieval.
On a high
The next day, from my hotel window I watch as a veil of eerie, early-morning mist descends over the fields and forests, which stretch for miles beyond Rothenburg’s lofty ramparts. Out on the streets, by daylight, the town feels a touch more touristy than it did by starlight — locals number a demure 11,000 or so — but no less enchanting.
After breakfast I find myself wondering through endless vaults of baubles and ornaments as I navigate the cavernous Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas Village — Rothenburg’s year-round festive superstore. It’s a bewildering spectacle, and the items on display are of the highest quality — from the intricate, handcrafted wooden snowmen to the life-sized nutcrackers and huge revolving Christmas tree. It’s the kind of place where one could easily spend a small fortune, so I limit myself to buying two small snow globes and make a timely exit.
Moments later, I’m at the foot of a stone spiral staircase, contemplating the ascent to the top of Rothenburg’s 165-foot, 13th-century Town Hall Tower. I’m no fan of heights, but nor am I fond of missing out, and I feel oddly compelled to make the climb. Enthusiasm, however, gradually turns to trepidation as the stone steps give way to wooden staircases, each one narrower, steeper and more ominous than the last.
The final staircase is little more than a vertical, wooden ladder, which takes visitors out through a loft hatch onto the bell tower, but it’s strictly a one-at-a time affair and as I arrive, a large group of backpack-wielding tourists are making their way down.
After what seems, to my frail nerves, like an absolute age, I finally make it up and out. It’s a similarly tight squeeze on the balcony, and only fervent concentration keeps me from losing my nerve, but the views are an awesome reward.
I take a deep breath and snake my way once round the perimeter, making sure I take it all in — the gate towers and gables, the steeples and spires, the pointy red roofs and the forests beyond. Then it’s back through the hatch and quickly down the stairs, all the while wondering whether or not it’s too early for a beer.
A tale of two towers
Several hours later, history threatens to repeat itself as I once again find myself standing at the foot of a medieval tower, contemplating a nervous climb. The tower in question has been christened ‘the Daniel’ by the locals, and it’s part of Saint Georg’s church in the town of Nördlingen, 65 miles away, and which like Rothenburg, is historic, beautiful and fortified, its mighty ramparts forming an unbroken ring around its ancient centre.
Nördlingen feels larger and a little less crowded than its near-neighbour. The town actually sits near the impact point of a meteorite, which struck the region nearly 15 million years ago and created the Nördlinger Ries depression — a huge circular crater that pockmarks the Bavarian countryside.
The outer crust of this crater is discernable from the top of the Daniel, but at 295 feet it’s much taller than Rothenburg’s, and it requires a lengthy climb to reach the top. Once there, I edge out into the blustery Bavarian air. The stone balcony around the bell tower is narrow, its walls a little too low and open for my liking. Nervously, I edge my way around, trying my hardest not to look down over the sides, and I glance out to the horizon. There, beyond the rooftops, ramparts, and the surrounding fields and forests, I can clearly make out the dark raised ridges of the depression’s outer rim.
What a curiosity Nördlingen is — a perfect little circle of centuries-old dwellings in the middle of an enormous, ancient crater. How could one live here and not feel somehow special? And how must it feel to conduct your everyday affairs on such a distinct and decorative stage?
Later that evening, after a truly hearty German dinner, I find myself back outside the Daniel. It’s dark, but as I look up I see the upper chamber of the tower is lit from inside. Then, amid the clack of shoes on cobbles, I hear a melodic German voice drift down from on high. “So g’sell, so! So g’sell, so!” it cries.
It’s the sound of the tower night watchman calling out to the townsfolk — a call that has rung out every night for over 500 years. We’re encouraged to call back, and a few of us do, hoping the watchman can hear us.
It’s all a little surreal, but that’s precisely what I’ve come to expect of Bavaria and its curious walled towns.
Airlines flying to Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart and Memmingen include Lufthansa, Germanwings, British Airways, Ryanair and Air Berlin. lufthansa.com germanwings.com ba.com ryanair.com airberlin.com
Average flight time: 1h 50m
To visit both towns in one trip, hire a car and follow the Romantic Road tourist trail. Rail and bus services connect both towns with their nearest airports.
When to go
Bavaria has average temperatures of 25-30C during the summer months, which drop below freezing throughout winter.
Zue Hölle Medieval Tavern. hoell.rothenburg.de
The Night Watchman of Rothenburg. nightwatchman.de
Käthe Wohlfahrt. wohlfahrt.com
NH Klösterle Nördlingen. nh-hotels.com
Alte Wache. alte-wache-noerdlingen.de
Resturant Schlossle. schloessle-noerdlingen.de
How to do it
To Europe offers a seven-day self-drive of Southern Germany’s Romantic Road tourist trail, including Rothenburg and Nordlingen, from €629 (£500) per person B&B (excludes flights). toeurope.eu
Published in the September 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)