Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a beautiful medieval town on the Romantic Road in Bavaria, Germany, about halfway between Frankfurt and Munich. It is known for its medieval center (Altstadt), seemingly untouched by the passage of time, encircled by the undamaged 14th century town wall. In the Middle Ages, Rothenburg was a free imperial city, reaching its apex of prosperity under Bürgermeister Heinrich Toppler in the 15th century with a large population of 6,000 – much larger than Frankfurt and Munich at that time. Now Rothenburg is a small town and a big tourist attraction.
The name “Rothenburg ob der Tauber” means, in German, “Red fortress above the Tauber”. This is so because the town is located on a plateau overlooking the Tauber River. As to the name “Rothenburg”, some say it comes from the German words rot (red) and burg (burgh, medieval fortified settlement), referring to the red color of the roofs of the houses which overlook the river. The name may also refer to the process of retting (“rotten” in German) flax for linen production.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber dates back almost 1000 years. In 1070, the counts of Comburg-Rothenburg, who also owned the village of Gebsattel, built Rothenburg castle on the mountain top high above the River Tauber. The counts of the Comburg-Rothenburg dynasty died out in 1116. The last count, Count Heinrich, Emperor Heinrich V appointed instead his nephew Konrad von Hohenstaufen as successor to the Comburg-Rothenburg properties.
In 1142, Konrad von Hohenstaufen, who became Konrad III (1138–52), the self-styled King of the Romans, traded a part of the monastery of Neumünster in Würzburg above the village Detwang and built the Stauffer-Castle Rothenburg on this cheaper land. He held court there and appointed officials called ‘reeves’ to act as caretakers.
In 1170, the city of Rothenburg was founded at the time of the building of Staufer Castle. The center was the marketplace and St. James’ Church (in German: the St. Jakob). The development of the oldest fortification can be seen, the old cellar/old moat and the milk market. Walls and towers were built in the 13th century. Preserved are the “White Tower” and the Markus Tower with the Röder Arch.
In 1274, Rothenburg was accorded privileges by King Rudolf of Habsburg as a Free Imperial City. Three famous fairs were established in the city and in the following centuries, the city expanded. The citizens of the city and the Knights of the Hinterland build the Franziskaner Monastery and the Holy Ghost Hospital (1376/78 incorporated into the city walls). The German Order began the building of St. James’ Church, which the citizens have used since 1336. The Heilig Blut (Holy Blood) pilgrimage attracted many pilgrims to Rothenburg, at the time one of the 20 largest cities of the Holy Roman Empire. The population was around 5,500 people within the city walls and another 14,000 in the 150 square miles (390 sq. km) of surrounding territory.
In October 1631, during the Thirty Years’ War, the Catholic Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, wanted to quarter his 40,000 troops in Protestant Lutheran Rothenburg. Rather than allow entrance, the town defended itself and intended to withstand a siege. However, Tilly’s troops quickly defeated Rothenburg, losing only 300 soldiers. A popular legend called the Meistertrunk, states that when General Tilly condemned the councilmen to death and was set to burn the city down, the councilmen tried to sway him with a large drink of 3 1/4 liters wine. Tilly proclaimed that if anyone could drink it all in one drink, he would spare the city. The mayor at the time, Georg Nusch, succeeded, and General Tilly kept his word. However, after the winter, they left the town poor and nearly empty, and in 1634 a bubonic plague outbreak killed many more townsfolk. Without any money or power, Rothenburg stopped growing, thus preserving its 17th-century state.
Since 1803, the town has been a part of Bavaria. The famous German landscape painter Eugen Bracht visited Rothenburg in 1877; although he stayed only two days, he was clearly impressed. Some years later, especially artists of Romanticism, such as Hans Thoma and Carl Spitzweg, visited Rothenburg, too, followed by the first tourists. Laws were created to prevent major changes to the town.
With its splendid location and charming atmosphere hardly any other town is able to captivate its visitors quite as Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Rothenburg has a lot to offer visitors, including picture-perfect medieval views, tons of shopping, a few interesting museums, a spectacular 500-year-old wood carving, and one of the most amazing one-hour walking tours in Germany.
Walking around Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one of the best things to do while you are here. However, this town has the added fun of having the best preserved medieval walls in Germany and you are free to walk most of it. Most of the walk is also covered and we were able to do it even when it was raining a bit outside. There are many places you can enter, typically there are steps near the towers. While parts of the wall are the original medieval walls built in the 13th and 14th centuries, parts of the wall were destroyed by air raids during World War II. However, the damaged walls were completely rebuilt with worldwide donations (you’ll see plaques of all the donors’ names as you walk along the wall).
Make sure to take time to examine some of the gates and towers. Best times to go are the first couple hours after sunrise or around sunset.
Between the Rödertor and Galgentor towers is one of the finest half-timbered houses in Rothenburg. It is a loving restoration of the original house, Gerlachschmiede, completely destroyed in 1945 by an air raid. Its highly decorative gable, pretty windows and colorful heraldic symbols were fully restored to their former glory in 1951. The coat of arms with the crowned serpent was created by the legendary blacksmith, Georg Gerlach himself. The forge closed in 1967, since when it has been in private ownership.
While buildings within the walled city reflect the city’s medieval history, this part of the city is in many ways a normal, modern German town with some concession to the tourist trade. Many stores and hotels catering to tourists are clustered around the Town Hall Square and along several major streets (such as Herrngasse, Schmiedgasse). Also in the town is a Criminal Museum, containing various punishment and torture devices used during the Middle Ages. For authentic Rothenburg ob der Tauber fare, one should have a Schneeball, deep-fried dough shaped like a snowball and covered in either confectioner’s sugar or chocolate.