Why do I still love Rothenburg? Everyone in the town makes their living off tourism. The place is stampeded midday with visiting tour groups. The town even created its own traditional pastry — the Schneeball(“snowball”) to compliment 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 used to think I liked Rothenburg for the medieval lifestyles on display in Germany’s best-preserved medieval town. The ramparts are intact — complete with arrow slits. The fish tanks next to the water fountains still evoke the days when marauding armies would siege the city, and it would survive on the grain in its lofts and the fish in its tanks. 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 crime and punishment museum shows graphically how people were disciplined back when life was nasty, brutish, and short.
But on my last visit, I realized why I like Rothenburg so much (in spite of its Schneeballs, obnoxious tour groups, and Christmas trinkets). It is a community of real characters…and a small enough community that all the characters know each other. And as a return visitor, I’ve learned the social scene.
Norry — the man whose guesthouse was so creepy and whose moustache was so droopy that I had to sing the “Addams Family” theme song with each visit — invented a cross between a trombone and a saxophone. He calls it the Norryphone, and now with each visit I boogie on his honky-tonk piano while Norry improvises.
“Herman the German” has spent a thousand Wednesdays at Mario’s “Old Franconian Wine Stube” hosting the English Conversation club (where Germans hang out with tourists, sharing slang, “tongue-breakers,” and beer). Mario — a bohemian chef Gene Wilder look-alike — fastidiously checks each plate as it leaves his kitchen.
Marie-Therese sells kitschy German knick-knacks so enthusiastically that when she takes me home for dinner, her house feels like the innards of a cuckoo clock — and it doesn’t surprise me.
Reno the Italian married into the town and runs a great little hotel-restaurant. For a generation his daughter, Henni, has caused travelers to dream in German. Spry Klaus, who runs a B&B above his grocery store, takes travelers jogging with him each evening at 7:30. Every time I walk under her house, I still remember the old woman who lived in the wall who loved showing off her WWII bullet wound. She’s gone now.
George, the night watchman, is the envy of his neighbors for his lucrative gig — taking a hundred English-speaking tourists around each night for $8 a head on a one-hour tour. Then he does it again in German. (He collects for the English tour at the end. But for the German-speaking crowd, he needs to collect at the beginning…since, otherwise, they’d melt away just before collection time.)
On my last evening in town, everyone seemed to be at Mario’s. Herman the German was holding court with his table of American travelers, there for the English Conversation Club. He 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 was enjoying a beer with Henni and Klaus. Mario jokes that it’s impolite for me to not have my hands in sight above the table. He sits down, and the four of us make a square with our stretched left hands — thumbs touching little fingers — and he sprinkles a little snuff tobacco in the “anatomical snuff boxes” we make where our thumbs hit our wrists. “For good health,” we sniff together.
After my nose stops wiggling, Henni tries to impress upon me how sick she thinks it is that American tourists are so nervous about their children having to share a double bed. She keeps repeating, “This is sick in head, krank im Kopf.Never would a European family ask for twin beds for brother and sister. Never. Why Americans? Why they insist?”
George, looking like one of the Bee Gees in his flowing hair and billowing white shirt, is done with his tour and joined by his hippie girlfriend. They dream of their next trip to Thailand. He’s chained to the town to do his tours every night for six months…then he’s free to travel.
In a small town, everyone knows everything. People get along impressively well. The only gang universally not liked seems to be the cartel of farm boys who take tourists on horse-and-buggy rides — apparently they are about as charming as their horses.
I told Henni of a wonderful new hotel I found run by Herr Baumann. I tell her he reminds me of the Wizard of Oz enjoying a relaxed retirement. She concurs, and marvels at how I am able to uncover the characters of the town.
I marvel at — in Rothenburg — how easy that is. For travelers, the challenge is to find places where you can be a part of a quirky yet lovable community…and find a way in. As a returning guidebook reseracher I have an advantiage. But I see lots of travelers having the same fun.