This is the first stop on the Flensburg Files’ Christmas Market Tour for 2011
The first stop on the Christmas market tour for 2011 is a small Bavarian town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Located southwest of Nuremberg in the district of Ansbach, Rothenburg may look like a typical small German town on the outside; especially when you get off the train. It takes only five minutes to travel from Steinach to this town. The town of 11,025 inhabitants does have a special place in the hearts of many tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world, when one walks about 5-10 minutes from the train station, which is its historic city center. This is perhaps one of only a handful of city centers left in Europe, which is fortified all around and whose wall and towers date as far back as the Medieval Ages. Yet the town came so close from becoming rubble at the end of World War II that had Major Thömmes of the German not agreed to surrender to the Americans under John Devers, who surrounded the entire town, it would have ended up like Dresden and unfortunately the unique features of the town would have been lost forever. It would not have even been considered a place to stop during the holidays as it would have been rebuilt to a point of no recognition. That plan to escape being completely annihilated was the worst of the close calls the town had since its creation in 970. There were wars in 1167, 1408, 1520, 1552, 1631-48 and the earthquake of 1356 which inflicted damage on the city and its people. But once the town was annexed into the state of Bavaria, the age of tourism and preservation of the city took shape.
Today’s town center resembles exactly that of the one that was bustling with activity in the 13-1500s. It has two sets of fortresses- the one that was built in 1172 and passes through the White Tower, Markus Tower and Röder Arch- consisting of the oldest building in the city Zur Hölle (In Hell), created by the monastery in the 1100s- and an even larger one in 1204 to accommodate a larger population and passes through gates of Kobolzellar, Würzburg and Klingen and the towers of Siebers and Röder. The churches dominate the inner city with the likes of St. Jacob’s, Franciscan, St. John’s, St. Wolfgang’s. There’s also one of the most gothic city halls one will see in Germany (which was built in the 1200s, and lastly the buildings that have existed since the 1300s and have been restored to make it look like the ones that contributed to the success of the city as an international point of trade during that time. One has to take into account that two of the major roads intersected in Rothenburg, making it the international place of commerce: the one from Munich and points to the south to the ports of Hamburg and beyond, and the east-west route connecting France and Frankfurt in the west and Dresden and Prague in the east. That meeting point has recently been shifted to present-day Nuremberg in the form of the Autobahn motorways connecting Prague and Frankfurt on the east-west axis, and Flensburg/Hamburg and places in Austria (west of Munich) on the north-south axis. The end result is the town that has since lost its importance as an international trading point but has embraced itself in tourism thanks in part by the attempts to preserve it and make it attractive for everyone.
Especially at Christmas time.
As a general rule for Christmas markets in a small German town, they usually take place on only one weekend and offer just the basic localities. They are not as representative as some of the ones that are common, like Nuremberg, Frankfurt, and Dresden, just to name a few. One would be lucky to attract just a handful of tourists from outside the district (Landkreis)- that is unless you live in the Rhein corridor between Frankfurt and Cologne and people spend a few hours at the markets in Bingen, Neuwied and Lahnstein, just to name a few. Rothenburg is the exception to the rule for the Christmas markets take place from the last week in November til right before Christmas Eve. However, if one chooses to pick a better time to visit the city and not deal with the overcrowding and the overbooked hotels during that time, then between Christmas and New Year is perhaps the best choice to visit the city for there is a lot to see and one still has the feeling of Christmas when exploring the historic city center. This was what I felt, when my wife, daughter and a couple friends from the US visited the town a couple Christmases ago, while touring northern Bavaria.
This leads me to the question of what is there to see when one wants to forego visiting the city between Christmas and New Year. My answer is plenty. I decided to put together a nice program for you to tour the city and still enjoy a bit of Christmas. You have to be forewarned of the fact that it takes 2-3 days to tour the entire town and absorb the heritage that Rothenburg has to offer, let alone imagine yourself living in the town during the Medieval times.
Start off by having a nice breakfast at one of the fanciest old-time bed and breakfasts in the old town, like the Pension Birgit, where we stayed- a typical German breakfast consisting of meat and cheese slices on a roll along with real Nutella chocolate spread (made in Germany and not in New Jersey by Kraft Foods) and homemade jam. Then take a nice tour around the two walls of the old town, passing through each tower and getting the feel of what it was like being the guard of one of the towers and enjoying the view from both the outside as well as the inside the city. Some of the interesting sites worth seeing include the Wolfgang Gate and Church, once deemed as a place of refuge by those whose villages north of the city were threatened with attack by the invading armies. Then there is the Röder Gate and Tower, which is the main entrance point from Ansbacher Strasse, the main road that connects it to the station and one that serves as an awesome overture for tourists before entering the old town. When Kobozellar Tower and Gate and the wall connecting the Reichstadthalle provides a person with a view of the steep Tauber Valley and the gardens that line up along the hillside. One can see the Double-Bridge (a 1328 stone arch bridge) and the Kobozellar Castle and church from up above. The castle was a place of quarantine for those affected by the Plague that wiped out over half the population in the 1300s. And lastly, there is the Spital Bastion, with its seven gates that made entering the old town from the southwest rather torturous for any visitor or invader.
After a couple hours of walking, stop at one of the finest cafés in town for a cup of coffee and a snowball. Snowballs are a signature of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, consisting of cookie dough rounded into a ball together with various chocolate fillings, and covered in sugar, chocolate or other toppings. I was introduced to them in 2002 while at the Christmas market in Jena with my wife but neither of us had an idea where it originated until coming to Rothenburg, even though one can also find them at the market in Nuremberg. Having one of them will get a tourist full in a hurry- as they are way too luscious to pass up- but they give you enough energy needed for the next round of touring in the old town- the museums.
While one will learn a lot of Medieval Times and how Rothenburg played a role in it through the Crime Museum or the Imperial City Museum, at the heart of the Old Town; especially at Christmas Time are the Christmas Museum and the Doll and Toy Museum. The Christmas Museum is open every day of the year- even on Christmas Day- and has a gallery of decorated Christmas trees from all over the world as well as those resembling the trees that were decorated in the past, both in Germany and the US as well as elsewhere. It provides the tourist with a special holiday feeling regardless of when he/she visits the place. Furthermore it is a place where one can learn about Christmas and its origins. These are even more so when walking through the Christmas Village, located right next to the museum and featuring the works of Käthe Wohlfahrt. Both of these places, located in the Herrengasse next to the town square represent a special point in the old town where Christmas runs year round, and after visiting the two places, tourists will have a lot of creative ideas of how they want to make their house more Christmassy- meaning away with the tacky stuff on the houses and embrace Christmas with a truer meaning.
Not far from Herrengasse is the Doll and Toy Museum, where 200 years worth of dolls from Germany, France and other places are on display for people to see and awe from. Many are handcrafted and appear to have their own life when looking at them, which is impressive from a tourist’s point of view.
After eating a traditional Franconian (or even a Medieval-style) dinner at one of the restaurants in the Old Town (and there are over two dozen to choose from), the day should be wrapped up with a tour of the town with a Night Watchman, who speaks many languages and has the voice of doom in him that makes the tourists think they are watching a Halloween thriller on TV, narrated by the guide. But he provides the tourists with some interesting facts about the city that not many people knew about beforehand, like how salt was used as a commodity for transaction during the Medieval Age, how the town helped the poor lurking both inside and outside its gates, how outdoor plumbing during the 1300s would not be acceptable to today’s standards, and most shocking: where the children’s song “Ring Around the Rosie” originated from! Let’s just simply put it this way: it is ok to sing it when the child is small, but please do not tell him/her how the song was created unless he/she is old enough to swallow it! The guide who led the tour while we were there in 2009 has done this work for over 20 years, and judging by his experience in this profession and how he led this tour, one can tell that the longer he has been doing the guides, the more experienced he is with getting the tourists involved, and the more he has become part of the culture and heritage of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, that a tour guide with him is a must for anyone happening to pass through the town.
When finishing the tour of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, one will receive impressions of the town and its history that the experience will be shared with those who love history and want to visit the town. While Rothenburg is one of the hot spots to visit during the holiday season because of its Christmas market, it is a must-see place to visit year round for the tourists from all over the world because of the awesome architecture that the city has worked hard to preserve and the unique features that the city has to offer. One of those is Christmas, which can be found year round in the Herrengasse, for apart from its Medieval heritage, that is what Rothenburg ob der Tauber stands for; especially now as the holiday season takes hold on all aspects of life and people are preparing for holiday travel with family and friends, some choosing this town as the point of destination.
Useful links to Rothenburg ob der Tauber (including facts about Käthe Wohlfahrt):