By Rick Steves
Thirty years ago, I fell in love with the picturesque village of Rothenburg, in Germany’s Franconian heartland.
At that time, the town still fed a few farm animals within its medieval walls. Today its barns are hotels, its livestock are tourists and Rothenburg is well on its way to becoming a medieval theme park.
But Rothenburg is still Germany’s best-preserved walled town. Countless travelers have searched for the elusive “untouristy Rothenburg.”
There are several “Rothenburgs” in Germany. Make sure you are going to Rothenburg ob der Tauber (on the Tauber River); people really do sometimes drive or ride the train to other, nondescript Rothenburgs by accident.
In the Middle Ages, when Frankfurt and Munich were just wide spots in the road, Rothenburg was Germany’s second-largest city, with a whopping population of 6,000.
Today, it’s the country’s most exciting medieval town, enjoying tremendous popularity with tourists without losing its charm. There’s a thousand years of history packed between its cobbles.
A walking tour helps bring the ramparts alive. For the serious side of Rothenburg’s history, you can take the tour offered by the town’s tourist office.
But for a thoroughly fun hour of medieval wonderment, take the Night Watchman’s Tour (www.nightwatchman.de).
The watchman jokes like a medieval Jerry Seinfeld as he stokes his lamp and takes tourists on his rounds, all the while telling slice-of-gritty-life tales.
For the best view of the town and surrounding countryside, climb the Town Hall tower. For more views, walk the wall that surrounds the old town. This 1.5-mile stroll atop the wall is at its most medieval before breakfast or at sunset.
Rothenburg’s fascinating Medieval Crime Museum, all unusually well-explained in English, is full of diabolical instruments of punishment and torture.
For a more kinder-friendly spot, there’s the Doll and Toy Museum, with two floors of historic playthings.
St. Jakob’s Church contains the one must-see art treasure in Rothenburg: a glorious 500-year-old altarpiece by Riemenschneider, the Michelangelo of German woodcarvers.
For a closer view of this realistic commotion of Bible scenes, climb the stairs behind the organ. It’s Germany’s greatest piece of woodcarving.
Rothenburg is one of Germany’s best shopping towns. One of the ornament shops has an excellent little German Christmas Museum upstairs.
You’ll take a look at tree decorations through the ages, Christmas tree stands, mini-trees sent in boxes to World War I soldiers at the front, early Advent calendars and old-time Christmas cards.
To hear the birds and smell the cows, take a walk into the Tauber Valley. A trail leads downhill from Rothenburg’s idyllic castle gardens to a cute, skinny, 600-year-old castle, the summer home of the town’s mayor in the 15th century, Mayor Toppler.
While called a castle, the floor plan is more like a four-story treehouse.
From the mayor’s house, the trail continues downstream along the trout-filled Tauber River to the sleepy village of Detwang.
It is actually older than Rothenburg and has a church with another impressive Riemenschneider altarpiece.
In the night, I’m happy to find myself alone with Rothenburg. It feels good to be within these protective walls, where modern-day travelers meet medieval wayfarers.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
© 2013 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.