|Rothenburg's town center is straight out of a Grimm's Fairy Tale...yet is the fairy tale fading?|
By Rick Steves
"The tourists, they come like a big, one-time-in-a-year flood. We Rothenburgers sit and wait for you to float by."
Changing trains on my way to Rothenburg, I have a few free minutes in Würzburg. As an experiment, I approach three different lost-looking groups of tourists and ask, "Rothenburg?"
Each says, "Yes."
Like a caring traffic cop, I hold up fingers and say, "Track number four, five minutes," and point them in the right direction.
This is a bad omen. Twenty years ago, I fell in love with a Rothenburg in the rough. At that time, the town still fed a few farm animals within its medieval walls. Today Rothenburg's barns are hotels and its livestock are tourists. Once the premier stop on a medieval trading route, Germany's best-preserved walled town survives today as a popular stop along the tourist trail called the Romantic Road. The English and German signs that long marked the entire route have been replaced by new ones still bilingual, but in English and Japanese. And Mr. "Off the Beaten Path" is right here with the camera-toting masses.
I walk from the Rothenburg train station through the plain, modern neighborhood and step under the medieval gate into the colorful old town. Short, squat shops with pastel sawtooth gables line the narrow, always-clean lanes. Steps in the sidewalk are painted with stay-alert white lines to keep gawking visitors from tripping.
I climb Rothenburg's wall for the fifteen-minute stroll to my hotel. With medieval timbers and red tiles for a roof, a stone wall on the outside and a thin wooden railing on the inside, this elevated sidewalk arcs around the town as if bundling together a world of medieval cuteness. Even with a rucksack soaking up the sweat on my back, I choose this scenic hike over a quick and easy taxi ride. My mission: to find the ever-weaker pulse of medieval Rothenburg.
Peering through a narrow slit, I see the tour bus parking lot just outside the wall and three rows of empty tour buses. Fifty yards ahead of me a couple with a baby stroller approaches. By their trendy teal and evergreen parkas, I guess they're American tourists. As I get closer, the woman pulls out a camera, the man hums the theme song of my TV show. Now I know they're Americans. They're from Orange County. They saw the episode we shot with our kids we filmed my daughter, Jackie, in her stroller on this same bit of town wall.
From this rampart perch, the city looks perfectly preserved. Row after row of higgledy-piggledy pointed roofs fill the skyline. Each roof is upholstered by red tiles patterned like fish scales. Romantic painters discovered Rothenburg in the 1880s. By about 1900, a society the first of its kind was created to preserve the town's physical character.
The wall is lined with memorial plaques, a reminder that no preservation society was a match for Hitler in the desperation of his last year. In the final phase of the war, in March 1945, Rothenburg was bombed. One-third of the old town burned. Overestimating the artistic conscience of all-out war, Nazis hid here. They thought the town was too cute for the Allies to target. Rothenburg was rebuilt with a fund-raising idea that was novel for its time. Donors who paid eighty deutsche marks for the restoration of one meter of town wall would be recognized by little plaques. Today all that is left of the war other than these plaques are the tired memories of Rothenburg's oldest citizens, who spend their afternoons gazing out second-story windows at waves of tourists sipping McMilchshakes.
Rothenburg is well on its way to becoming a theme park. Always anticipating a siege, the townspeople used to stock the fountains with trout, fill the lofts with corn, and churn grain safely inside the town walls at the horse-powered mill. Today the fountains are flower pots, the corn comes popped and candied, and the horse mill has been turned into a youth hostel. The mighty cannons that were used to defend the town are now aimed at playground crocodiles in the park-filled moat. From ramparts where soldiers once splashed hot oil onto screaming attackers, kids fly paper airplanes.
After I drop my bag at the Hotel Golden Rose, I realize I'm angry. I'm angry at mobs of tour groups invading my medieval playground. I'm mad at merchants selling their town's charms. And I'm mad that by promoting this town in my guidebooks, I've contributed to the prostitution of Rothenburg.
Hearing the spirited clip-clop of a horse pounding the cobbles, I look out my window. Coming through the gate is an old-time carriage filled with tourists in teal and evergreen. It rounds the corner and the cobbles are quiet again.
I latch my window closed and remind myself that any original Rothenburger would prefer the modern siege of tourism over the meaner medieval sieges. I hang my room key on the rack behind the postcards and powdered sugar schneeballs on the reception desk and set out to take Rothenburg's touristic temperature.
Mele Kalikimaka from Kris Kringle
To see just how commercial Rothenburg has become, I make a reconnaissance mission into the town's busiest place: Käthe Wohlfahrt's Christmas shop.
A six-foot nutcracker with a mouth big enough to crack a camcorder welcomes a steady stream of tourist shoppers. A spinning white-flocked Christmas tree is heavy with red and gold bulbs. Serving as Santa's own turnstile, it whisks me into a land of perpetual Christmas.
|Rothenburg has Christmas shops galore enough to make little tykes in a perpetual state of holiday glee.|
This ever-blinking, always-twinkling Kris Kringle market built on the notion that Christmas should last twelve months a year is the biggest consumer of electricity in Rothenburg. Deeper and deeper past megawatt candles and chimes, into the grand grotto of year-round Christmas I go.
The shop is oddly multicultural: Japanese salespeople sell Chinese knickknacks as if they're German. A smiling monkey cleans a chimney, Kermit der Frog hangs dirndls out to dry, and a stern-faced teddy winds a cuckoo clock. Mossy manger scenes come ready populated or a la carte. A toy medieval village street shakes with autistic Steiffs-battery-powered teddies entertaining a nonstop parade of tour groups.
Members of an East German group, sweaty after a long, hot bus ride, clog the aisles. They come on twenty-deutsche-mark day trips from Dresden and Leipzig with picnics from home and a lifetime backlog of curiosity. Pushing the East Germans deeper into the store, an American group follows, chattering excitedly about how they decorate their Christmas trees. The next group is Japanese, snapping up souvenirs and shooting photos like gunslingers. Old-time woven shopping baskets make impulse buying feel almost traditional.
I, too, have some Wohlfahrt souvenirs: a few shiny Christmas tree ornaments and a letter from Wohlfahrt's lawyer. Displeased with the favorable treatment my guidebook gives to a competing shop, he warned me that it was "illegal" to favor one shop over another.
Ready to leave, a momentary panic hits me as false passage after false passage leads me into more racks of trinkets. Finally, dodging my way through steindorf and cuckooville, I roll past the twelve zinging cash registers, out of December, and back into the Rothenburg summer.
Annaliese (who runs the shop I do recommend in my guidebook) is sitting at a café across the street with a tall slender beer. With "tsk tsk tsk" in her voice she says, "Oh, Rick. Rothenburg is becoming Wohlfarhtsburg. They got eight shops in Rothenburg now. What you do in there?"
"Just picking up my kickbacks," I joke.
She laughs and reminds me, "Tonight is the English Conversation Club. We save a place for you at our table."
Check out Part II of Club Rothenburg in August Travel News.