The Characters of Rothenburg

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.

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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.


24 Replies to “The Characters of Rothenburg”

  1. I was disappointed Rothenburg isn’t included on the Germany, Austria and Switzerland (GAS) tour. I know it is included on the Best of Europe tour as several of tour memembers mentioned how much they loved Rothenberg on that tour. Perhaps the GAS tour itinerary should be reconsidered to include the fun city of Rothenburg. Happy travels and most of us readers are there with you. Keep the happy and fun thoughts coming!

  2. A block from the Marktplatz in Rothenburg, Germany, there is a restaurant with a very special filigreed, gilded, decorative wrought-iron sign extending over the sidewalk, with small Golden Arches conspicuously displayed. The most proficient McDonald’s sign we’ve seen. Each time we approach Rothenburg, Germany, Emmy wonders if it can really be as delightful and captivating as she remembers from our last stay. On our several visits so far, she has yet to be disappointed. The Rathaus in Rothenburg, Germany, has a tower that’s a must to climb. There’s a traffic light that glows green or red, depending on how many travelers got there first. Several flights of narrow wooden stairs, followed by a short ladder, then a squeeze through a small door, leads onto the narrow walkway around the very tip of the copper-plated tower roof. It was necessary to wiggle backwards through that door, then carefully shinny down that steep ladder. The applause was for my Sweetie as she descended the ladder.

  3. I’ve been trying to decide if I should add Rothenburg to our itinerary for our 2008 trip. We loved our first visit there last summer when we stayed at the Altfrankische Weinstube. We attended the Wednesday night conversation club and totally enjoyed it! Herman was really great – even when our 11 year old announced to everyone at the table that his mom and dad had tried out some marijuana in Amsterdam the week before. Seeing the Weinstube for myself made me realize I could totally count on Rick’s descriptions as he described the place like something out of the Hobbit – which it truly was.

  4. Rick, How is Anne-Elise? I just loved her and her shop that you recommended. We chatted for a long time in the off season – She even showed me the Christmas cards you sent her over the years. One suggestion – Ann Elise said you should get a new shirt. You had the same one on in the picture she made of you every year! Travelling light, I suppose! Keep us travelling vicariously through you when we can’t be there ourselves!

  5. Rick – Our family was stationed at Ramstein AB 1997-2000, we loved Rothenburg and always took our guests when they came to visit. We used your guide books all over Europe and we were definitely enriched by our experiences. I was sharing some of my travel stories in my current assignment with one of my fellow crewmembers and I must have shared with how I grew up in Seattle and my parents still live in Mill Creek. Long story short-my fellow crewmember asked if I had been to Edmonds and knew about Rick Steve’s, of course, I replied, did you know him too? Well, yes, he said, he’s my brother-in-law! Glenn says hi.

  6. You have set me to dreaming about schneeball! When my husband was stationed in Germany we would take visitors to Rothenburg. A sack full of schneeballen was the take home souvenier of the day. Whenever I heard that neighbors were headed to Rothenburg I would ask them to bring back some of that yummy pastry.

  7. My husband David and I were two of those Americans at the English Conversation Club when Rick stopped by recently! What a treat to talk with you, Rick–this is only our second trip to Europe, and your books have made us fearless world travelers! Although meeting Rick was great in itself, we enjoyed becoming one of the locals for a week. We made new friends that Wednesday night, who ironically have a sister who lives 10 miles from us in Maryland, and we found ourselves running into local aquaintences wherever we went. We spent quite a bit of time talking to the folks at the Friese Shop, and compared plans on at what age we’ll let our young daughters date…32. Martin and Gabriele at the Hotel Hornburg were not only perfect hosts,but are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Rick is right: when the day tourists go home, the city is a safe, romantic place to stroll with your sweetie (even if you’ve been married twenty years). We feel like we’ve found a home away from home.

  8. MGM filmed the movie “Grimms Fairy Tales” in Rothenburg, and it looks like just maybe it was built by elves. The wall has a roof to protect guards who walked guard-duty years ago, and the tourist who walks tourist-duty today. There are about thirty towers, many gates for vehicles, and more for pedestrians. Once as I approached the Plönlein (a half-timbered building), I noticed that if I could wait a few seconds, that car would disappear, at last, a “clean” photo. I stepped into the street, stopped the traffic and got that perfect picture, except, what a let down, it had no character. All that effort, and it’s obvious that people and things “do a picture make.”It is amazing what we can learn from a tourist brochure. The one entitled “Rothenburg, Worth seeing, Worth knowing,” says “Year 1400, Period of glory under Lord Mayor Toppler.” The very next line says, “Year 1408, Lord Mayor Toppler dies in the prison of the town hall.” Then Mayor Toppler is not mentioned again. What happened?

  9. Loved this blog because Rothenburg is one of our home away from home places when we do our extended year long trips. We stay with Henni and her family at the Golden Rose and go to the English Conversation Club. You made us home sick!!!

  10. We spent two nights in Rothenburg at the Hotel Cafe Uhl (thanks Rick) right under one of the wall gates. Run by a family, we had hot drinks to warm up after the night watchman’s tour one night and the grandparents and children of the owner were there for an evening visit. We got to share their evening with them as it gently snowed outside. I will never forget Rothenburg and hope to go back one day.

  11. I am an older study abroad student in Salzburg, visiting other countries on the weekends. My teacher insisted that I go to Rothenburg. Boy, was she right! I had only planned a day and night there, but fell in love with it and am going back there this weekend for a few leisurely days,just to roam around and explore. It was uniquely beautiful and had a lovely homey feeling. It is a treasure!

  12. Growing up in Germany as a military brat, my family always took everyone who visited to Rothenburg. Being an aerospace engineer today, I have a fond recollection of one of the myriad of trips we took there, and an aviation story told to a kid (me!) who was fascinated. There was an old restaurant (the name escapes me — stand in the main square, town hall on your right. you should be facing a Christmas shop. (On the left corner just past a fountain. Go straight up this street, and its on your right towards the end of the street in a basement. Might even be called the Ratskeller.) Anyway, down the stairs to the restaurant, and all the way at the back, just before the toilets was a picture of a zepplin on the right side, the Graf Zepplin if I recall rightly. Anyway, the gentleman who was running the place told a story of his grandfather — who was apparently supposed to fly the Hindenburg the day it was destroyed but another pilot got sick so he flew a different dirigible that day.

  13. I live in Rothenburg ob der Tauber part of the year and I had the pleasure of meeting Rick during his whirlwind visit this past July. If anyone has any simple, one line questions about my home away from home, ask away.

  14. We had a marvelous time in Rothenburg in December. We went on our own traveling by train. We stayed at Pension Elke. A lovey penison over the grocery. Klaus was very friendly. The breakfast was wonderful. We were right in the middle of town. We did all of the Christmas things during the day with the tourists but when night came after a wonderful dinner we joined the Night Watchmans tour.

  15. Rick – Bought your Germany & Austria 2007 and will be taking my son this month!! Hooray! (Also bought your German phrasebook – I am SUCH a tourist). We arrive in Dusseldorf on 8/31/07 and our first stop is Rothenburg. Question for anyone – we’ll have a car but I’ve heard traffic can be heavy on the A3 Fri-Sun. Does anyone know a scenic, more leiseurely drive to Rothenburg from Dusseldorf? We would love a scenic, leisurely drive if possible. Thanks for any help!!

  16. I would love to move to Europe. As an avid genealogist, I dream of living somewhere my ancestors were from. I can’t afford to get downtown now, let alone over seas, but I (being a huge Rick Steves fan) received his 70 show collection, and Germany’s Romantic Rhine and Rothenburg is definitely in my top 5 shows. Between Herr Jung in Bacharach and Rothenburg and all of her characters, you can’t help but be in awe. I am glad to finally have a name for the Night Watchman. He is on 3 different shows I have and he seems like a cool cat. I liken him to the London Town Crier on Ricks’ European Christmas show. It has been a joy to read all of the comments you folks have posted, and Rick, Keep up the fantastic work. If heaven isn’t what it is cracked up to be, send ME to Rothenburg or Bacharach.

  17. Last summer our family was lucky enough to be in Rothenburg and participate in the Nightwatchman’s Tour. We loved it. He has a DVD he was selling but I didn’t buy it at the time and wish I had. Does anyone know how I can order one from him?

  18. Pat, you can go to his web site at, and order a DVD there. There is also a link to the live web cam on the market square–brings back memories! Hope this helps.

  19. I really enjoyed your blog on Rothenburg. I’ve been there twice, the last time this past December, and I’m dreaming of going back. We used your Germany/Austria guidebook and stayed at the Gerberhaus which we really liked. What is the new hotel you mentioned run by Herr Baumann? I’m always interested in learning new things about Rothenburg – it’s my favorite town in Germany….Mary Wright

  20. for James Derheim … are you able to live in Rothenburg part of the year?? I fell in love with the place this past December. Do you have a job while you’re there, or are you retired? I envy you….

  21. After living here in Deutschland for 2 years we finally made it to Rothenburg. What a dreamlike place! We stayed in the apartment atop the kloster stuble (sp?) and the kids loved it. George was very entertaining and we went to hell (zur hoelle) for dinner as he suggested and had a great meal while talking to other Germans who sat at our table. The owner of Zur Hoelle obliged our kids the next by letting them sit in his tiny old 3 wheel BMW which he took for a joy ride on Sunday. These locals made us feel like locals. This was a must return to town!

  22. Loved Rick Steves program on the Rhine and Rothenburg……I lived in Germany 3 times and in 1978 was able to visit an elderly lady Sister Helma Hahn that lived second floor of the Plonlein the house over 500 years old…….wonderful program…..LOVE IT. Patti

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