As exhausted as I was when my head hit the pillow, I’m surprised to find myself oddly alert at 6:30 AM. I lie still for a bit, trying to fall back asleep, but when sleep doesn’t come I seize upon a moment of inspiration and slip quietly downstairs and out of the hotel door with my camera in hand.
Rödergasse is a perfectly lovely street, but it is a busy one by day, with cars parked up and down the curb. At this hour of the morning, however, I am quite alone in the world. Rays of sunshine are hitting the clock at the top of Markus Tower, casting shadows onto the timber-frame buildings below. As I walk past the colorful Café-Stübchen, I glance up at the motto painted on its façade and at the year 1617. It reads: Herr, der Du Segen teilest aus, Gib ihn auch mir und meinem Haus, which means something like “Lord, of thy blessings you divide, give them to me and my house.” I’ve never been an early riser, but this accidental walk has been enchanting. I almost feel as if I’ve stepped back in time.
I walk back to the hotel and doze off until breakfast. The restaurant downstairs has handsome wood paneling and the selection of food on the buffet line is superb, although the value of both seems lost on the gentleman seated at the table next to mine. In a loud and grumpy British accent, he has beckoned to the waitress and is insisting on two boiled eggs, cooked for six minutes precisely, and warm milk—not cold—for his coffee. I roll my eyes, but feel badly for him in spite of myself. Inflexibility does not make for happy travels, and I suspect he has many disappointing days ahead.
I head outside and down to the marktplatz, where local farmers selling fruits and vegetables and flowers have set up shop under a canopy of green and white striped umbrellas. I stop at one stand and buy a glass of fresh pressed apple juice, before cutting across the square towards the lacy spires of St. Jakob’s church.
The church is bright and beautiful inside, with a trio of tall stained glass windows that soar above the High Altar, but the altar itself is equally impressive, with stunning figures of Christ and the twelve apostles carved in wood and then painted. I spend so long admiring it, I nearly forget that an even more famous treasure is housed upstairs in the Chapel of the Holy Blood. It is an altarpiece depicting The Last Supper, carved by the Würzburg sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider between 1499 and 1505 to house a reliquary containing a drop of Christ’s blood. Here, the wood figures are left unpainted, which lends a rustic authenticity.
I make my way out of the church and decide to stroll next down Herrngasse to do a little shopping, stopping at the Käthe Wohlfahrt store to buy a Christmas ornament. It’s a massive place, stuffed to the brim with cheerful nutcrackers and incense smokers. I decide on a round little Bavarian man in lederhosen, clutching a mug of beer in one hand. It’s a cultural stereotype to be sure, but an appealing one I can’t resist.
After a steaming cup of cappuccino at a café nearby and a Franchise bratwurst from the local butcher, I feel fortified and ready to walk once more along the city’s walls. I make my way down past the Plönlein towards the Spital Bastion and then head clockwise to explore a new section of wall. Along the way, I meet a couple who greet me with a polite “Guten Morgan.” Never confident in predicting nationalities on sight, I return it with a smiling “Guten Tag,” only to hear the obviously American wife grumble to her husband after we pass, “See, I told you, it’s not morgen anymore!”
Mindful that the day is, indeed, slipping away, I climb down from the walls and wander back through town to the Crime and Pumishment Museum for an intruiging tour of medieval torture devices, ranging from the barbaric to the comical. There are grusome spiked chairs, hanging cages, thumb screws, and iron maidens, but also elaborate “shame masks” with long tongues and large ears that once subjected light offenders, such as gossips, to public notice and ridicule.
At 2:00 pm, I decide to join an English language tour of the city offered by the tourist information office, but I make an early retreat from the group once we reach the Burggarten. The guide is friendly and kind, but she seems to offer the same commentary that is printed on the city map, and the afternoon sun is beckoning me to linger longer in the shade and relax.
Late in the day, I use the last strength in my legs to climb the 13th century tower of the city hall for a glorious view all around, then settle in for dinner at Baumeisterhaus, at Obere Schmiedgasse 3, where I order a plate of Jager Schnitzel. It is a perfectly acceptable plate of food, but already I’m beginning to suspect that the best German food may be not much different from the worst. Afterwards, I return to Café Uhl Gastehaus for dessert and find that my purchase of a small nougat Schneebällen and an almond crescent called a Mandelhörnchen improves my culinary mood tremendously. Sweet things always do.
It’s been a lovely day, but the true highlight has been saved for the end as I queue up for the night watchman’s tour at 8:00 pm, along with a least fifty others. Wearing long black robes and a cap, from which long curls of hair protrude, the guide–a Rothenburg local named Hans-Georg Baumgartner–walks dramatically into the square carrying a lantern and an executioner’s axe. He has a dry and ironic sense of humor, but when a young woman posing for pictures asks to hold his axe, and then suddenly turns it sideways into an air guitar which she grips like a rock star, tongue stuck out, he has trouble suppressing a grin.
Hans-Georg, as it turns out, is a bloody fine tour guide, living up to every inch of his exhaulted reputation. His jokes are entertaining and well-timed–such as his quip that the two lowest medieval professions, the executioner and the grave digger, “like to work together, only minutes apart”–but the stories he tells are also surprisingly touching. During the second World War, the city’s perimeter was bombed by the Americans and the rest was slated to be destroyed until John McCloy, a Deputy Secretary of State, and a beleagurered Nazi officer intervened. The Deputy remembered that his mother had come here as a child and he had grown up with a romantic painting of Rothenburg on the family’s dining room wall. Impressed by its beauty, he pushed to delay, promising to spare the city if enemy troops withdrew. This was in March 1945, and knowing the end of the war was near, the mayor and the Nazi commander acted against orders and chose to surrender the city rather than see it destroyed.
History, it is said, makes for unlikely bedfellows, especially in times of war. I think again of the commemorative plaques the line the reconstructed portions of walls today, and of how they represent the affection of those who have come here for centuries and been moved by its beauty. How grateful we should be.