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Germany’s Medieval Walled Town of Rothenburg

Rothenburg, Germany

Rothenburg’s fortifications, dating from the Thirty Years’ War, protect a trove of history. The town offers Germany’s finest carved altarpiece, its excellent medieval crime and punishment museum, and the most entertaining night watchman’s tour in Europe.

Complete Video Script

In three hours, we’re in Rothenburg, Germany’s ultimate walled city. In the Middle Ages, when Frankfurt and Munich were just wide spots on the road, Rothenburg was one of Germany’s largest cities, with a whopping population of 6,000. Today, even with its crowds and overpriced souvenirs, I love this place.

During Rothenburg’s heyday — that was about 1200 to 1400 — it was at the intersection of two great trading routes: Prague to Paris and Hamburg to Venice. But today the great trade is tourism.

Rothenburg is a huge hit with shoppers. True, this is a great place to buy cuckoo clocks, steins, and dirndls — but see the town first.

Most of the buildings were built by 1400. Like many medieval towns, the finest and biggest houses were built along Herrengasse — named for the Herren, or the wealthy class. The commoners built higgledy-piggledy farther from the center near the walls. Hanging shop signs advertise what they sold: knives, armor, bread… whatever.

Rothenburg’s wall — with its beefy fortifications and intimidating gates — is about a mile around and provides great views and a good orientation.

Rödertor is the only tower you can actually climb. It’s worth the hike for the commanding city view and the fascinating display on the bombing of Rothenburg in the last weeks of World War II, when much of the city was destroyed.

But Rothenburg’s most devastating days were 400 years ago, during the Thirty Years’ War.

In the 1600s, the Catholic and Protestant armies were fighting all across Europe. The Catholic army took the Protestant town of Rothenburg, and, as was customary, they planned to execute the town leaders and pillage and plunder the place. But: The Catholic general had an idea. He said, “Hey, if somebody in this town can drink a three-liter tankard filled with wine in one gulp, I’ll spare the city.” According to legend, Rothenburg’s retired mayor Nusch said, “I can do that.”

Mayor Nusch drank the whole thing, the town was saved, and the mayor slept for three days. And today tourists gather on the town square several times daily for a less-than-thrilling re-enactment of that legendary chug.

Nice story. But in actuality, the town was occupied and ransacked several times during that 30 years of war. And when peace finally came, Rothenburg was never again a major player.

It slumbered peacefully until rediscovered in the 19th century by those same Romantics who put the Rhine on the grand-tour map. They came here to paint and write about the best-preserved medieval town in Germany.

Shops are filled with etchings and prints inspired by this 19th-century Romantic take on the town.

And Rothenburg is lined with other shopping opportunities.

Tourists flock to the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas Village — a phenomenon requiring a special electrical hook-up and offering a Christmas shopping fantasy 365 days a year. Upstairs, its Museum of Christmas Ornaments gives a kind of historic legitimacy to its merchandise.

While celebrating a winter festival with trees predates the birth of Christ, about 500 years ago Germany was the first place where decorated trees became a part of Christmas celebrations. These first trees were strewn with cookies, apples, nuts, and sugar sticks — which children eagerly raided.

In the 1800s, when candles became affordable, the tree of lights arrived. And the tradition of the family gathering around the tree for gift-giving was also established.

In the early 1900s — during the Art Nouveau age — trees were draped in tinsel and ornamented with lovingly painted glass bulbs.

In Germany — the land of “O Tannenbaum” — Christmas trees were so popular that during World War I, thousands of them were actually mailed to soldiers on the Western Front. These tiny trees — assembled right out of the postage box — were made of feathers and paper.

Okay, you gotta do your shopping. But Rothenburg has two sights you absolutely must see: the Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum, and the great art in this church.

St. Jakob’s Church, built in the 14th century, has been Lutheran since 1544. Its Twelve Apostles altarpiece grabs your attention. With several large panels that swing on hinges, it’s permanently left in its open, festival-day position.

But hiding upstairs in the back of the church is the artistic highlight of Rothenburg, and perhaps Germany’s most wonderful woodcarving: the glorious, 500-year-old Altar of the Holy Blood.

Tilman Riemenschneider — this is supposedly his self-portrait — was the Michelangelo of German wood-carvers. He whittled this incredible ensemble to hold a precious rock-crystal capsule — believed to contain a drop of Jesus’ blood. Below, in the scene of the Last Supper, Jesus gives Judas — clutching his bag of coins — a piece of bread, marking him as the traitor. Art like this gave Rothenburgers spiritual guidance.

But some of the townfolk needed a more physical form of guidance, as displayed in Rothenburg’s Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum. This museum — the best of its kind — shows graphically how people were punished in the Middle Ages. Each feudal state thoughtfully described its cruel and unusual punishments in carefully written laws.

Torture — like stretching someone on the rack — was only used to get confessions. Generally, just a quick look at these tools got the accused talking.

Death penalties were common and came in degrees. A minor offense — such as stealing — earned you a quick death by beheading. More serious capital offenses — like murder with theft — earned you a slow death, like having all your bones broken under a wheel before your execution.

Bad social behavior was dealt with by public embarrassment via shame masks. Men acting like pigs wore this mask. Gossips — people who heard too much and talked too much — would be locked into this contraption with a bell ringing on top. Quarrelsome people would be locked into a “double neck violin” until they worked things out.

Glorious woodcarvings and cruel and unusual punishments shine a light on medieval life, but my favorite trip into medieval Rothenburg is with the Night Watchman. Nightly, he lights up his lantern and leads a gang of tourists into the past.

Night Watchman: This town was conquered the first time in 1631, so it took a while — hundreds of years — no enemy made it into this city. But they all did one thing: If they couldn’t get in, like it was their plan, and they had to go back to where they came from after they tried everything they could…well, then they plundered our villages, they killed our peasants, they took parts of our outside territory and burned our villages down. There was always a price to pay…

The tour finishes with a scene from the Rothenburg of centuries ago.