Many consider Germany's Rothenburg ob der Tauber to be the best-preserved medieval town in Europe...and many also consider it a horrible tourist trap. It's true that everyone in the town makes their living off tourism, and the storybook streets are indeed stampeded midday with visiting tour groups. The town even created its own "traditional" pastry — the Schneeball (snowball) — to complement all the faux traditional Christmas ornaments it sells. Yet when I pass through its medieval gates, I feel like a kid who just got a three-day pass for all the rides at Disneyland. I love Rothenburg, but I've long wondered why, exactly.
Perhaps it's because medieval life comes alive in its cobbled alleys. The ramparts are intact — complete with arrow slits. Half-timbered buildings show old-time lofts with warehouse doors and pulleys on top for hoisting (the lofts were once filled with a year's supply of grain so the town could survive any siege). The Night Watchman stokes his lamp and walks wide-eyed tourists through the back lanes telling stories of hot oil and great plagues. The monastery garden still has its medicinal herbs. And the Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum shows graphically how people were disciplined back when life was nasty, brutish, and short.
On one visit, I finally realized why I like Rothenburg so much. In spite of its Schneeballen, constant tour groups, and Christmas trinkets, it is a community of real characters. And a small enough community where all the characters know each other.
Norry — the man whose guesthouse was so old and moustache so droopy that the Addams' Family theme song would get stuck in my head with each visit — invented a cross between a trombone and a saxophone that he calls a Norryphone. Now with each visit I boogie on his honky-tonk piano while Norry improvises.
Across town is Mario's "Old Franconian Wine Stube," where "Hermann the German" spent a thousand Wednesdays hosting the (now defunct) English Conversation Club — a weekly opportunity for locals to share slang, tongue-twisters, and beer with Anglophone tourists. Mario — a bohemian chef and Gene Wilder look-alike — fastidiously checks each dinner plate as it leaves his kitchen. (He also rents rooms upstairs that have an upscale Lord of the Rings atmosphere.)
Spry Klaus, who runs a B&B above his grocery store, used to take travelers jogging with him each evening. Marie-Therese sold kitschy German knick-knacks so enthusiastically that when she took me to her house for dinner, I felt like I'd entered the innards of a cuckoo clock. Every time I walk under her house, I remember the old woman who lived in the wall who loved showing off her WWII bullet wound. She's gone now.
I sense no competition among the town's many shopkeepers. At the An Ra Mode shop, Anett sells her flowery clothes, but she also started an initiative called "Handmade in Rothenburg," a coalition between 10 local business owners who meet weekly to support each other and collaborate on ideas to strengthen the community. Businesses here are often passed down from generation to generation. Take the Friese Shop — cuckoo with friendliness, trinkets, and souvenirs — which has been open for more than 90 years. Long owned and operated for many years by Anneliese, it's now lovingly run by her son, with help from his daughter, nieces, and a close friend.
On my last evening in town, everyone seemed to be at Mario's. Hermann the German gave me a tiny business card that said: "If I had some of your business I could afford a bigger card." Norry was playing chess with Martin, the potter at the next table.
I've noticed that, for observant travelers, some of the best social moments combust among hotel and restaurant staff after a long day of work, and after most guests have said "ciao." It happens in a pub after hours in Galway when the door is locked and the musicians play on. It happens on the Italian Riviera when the anchovies are eaten, the dishes are washed, and the guitars come out. And in small-town German hotels when a family and the hired help stow their workplace hierarchy with their aprons and take out a special bottle of wine.
I told Mario of a wonderful hotel I'd just found, run by a man who reminds me of the Wizard of Oz enjoying a relaxed retirement. He concurred and marveled at how I am able to uncover the characters of the town.
I marvel at — in Rothenburg — how easy that is. As a guidebook writer, my challenge is to help travelers connect with real people. As I get to return year after year, it's easier for me. For travelers, the challenge is to find places where you can be a part of a quirky yet lovable community…if only for a short visit. Rothenberg is a good place to start.