Appreciating Touristy Rothenburg

Rothenburg is one of Germany’s most touristy towns. And I absolutely love it.

For years I searched for the elusive “untouristy Rothenburg.” There are many contenders, but none holds a candle to the king of medieval German cuteness. Even with crowds, overpriced souvenirs, Japanese-speaking night watchmen, and, yes, even Schneeballen, Rothenburg is best. Save time and mileage and be satisfied with the winner.

I just finished my research visit to Rothenburg (updating my Rick Steves’ Germany guidebook for 2015), and today and tomorrow, I’ll share a few thoughts, along with a handful of photos.

One thing I added to our Rothenburg chapter was a fun little shopping walk, which leads down the charming main drag, Spitalgasse. I always like to give a new walk I’ve written one last run-through before leaving town. Fun things always happen, and I can add them to my chapter.

Strolling through town as I followed my own tour, I met the owner of an etching shop I mentioned. What I learned from him let me bring more life to his listing:

“At Kunsthandlung Leyrer, Peter Leyer would love to show you his etchings. He’s one of the last artisans using the copper plate technique of Albrecht Dürer to print his art. (After Peter retires in 2017, his 3,500 copper plates from all over Germany will go to a museum.) Peter and his wife print the black-and-white etchings, and then watercolor them in.”

When you travel for several decades, as I have, you see the slow churning of traditions and lifestyles as small family-run enterprises give way to the rising tide of giant corporations. Small hotels, shops, pubs, and so on simply don’t have the economy of scale to compete, and eventually they get washed away. (Particularly insidious are giant chains faking like they’re one-offs that care about their communities; English pub chains are expert at this.) Shops like Peter’s — so real, yet becoming so rare — are a joy to stumble upon.

Do you have any favorite small medieval town in Germany that rivals Rothenburg?


Plonlein-Rothenburg.jpgPlönlein, a famously picturesque corner in Rothenburg, is named for the carpenters’ plum line — a string anchored by a plum, creating what gravity guarantees is a straight line. Of course, in this centuries-old town, nothing is “to plum.” If you look up the lane from here, you can see some cute pastel buildings that stand straighter. Being uniform and perfectly to plum indicates they were rebuilt after WWII bombings hit this part of town. By the way, if this image brings you back to your childhood, that’s because it inspired the animators of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940).


man-with-etchings-in-Rothenburg.jpgPeter Leyer makes his etchings the old-fashioned way — just as Albrecht Dürer did more than 500 years ago. Meeting artisans who lovingly carry treasured traditions into the 21st century inspires me.


Rothenburg-country.jpgIn my various lectures, I’ve long driven home the point that in the Middle Ages, today’s Germany — the size of Montana — was made up of hundreds of tiny states. I just found a painting in the streets of Rothenburg that helps visualize the fragmentation of feudal Germany. This painting shows a bird’s eye view of the “country” of Rothenburg in 1537. Back then, Rothenburg actually ruled its own little state — one of about 300 petty dukedoms like this that made up what is today’s Germany. It was 12 miles by 12 miles (or about the size of Denver), with 180 villages.


blue-hourOne evening after dinner, I simply found myself wandering Rothenburg’s cobbled lanes at that moment when the lamps and the sky hold hands — when the sky is no brighter or darker than the streetlamp-lit buildings. The next day I mentioned it to a local friend, who said, “That’s what we call ‘die blaue Stunde’ — the blue hour.” (I was so distracted by the experience, I forgot to take a photo. This one’s by one of our tour guides, Cary Walker.) I’m glad that I now have a term for my favorite time of day in a medieval town.