Friday, May 27, 2011

It’s just after 10 AM and my flight has arrived early in Terminal 1 at the Frankfurt am Main airport.  When I was last here in 2009, I was en route to Paris, but this time after filing through passport control and baggage claim, I follow signs to the Fernbahnhof where I buy a train ticket from a helpful clerk at the counter to the small town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which lies three hours away at the end of a solitary railway line.  It’s going to be a long day, this I know.  I am determined nonetheless to spend my first night in Germany along the Romantic Road, and from what I have read there is no more enchanting place than Rothenburg.

I climb aboard a high-speed ICE train to Würzburg, and from there change to a slower local train to Steinach, and in Steinach change yet again for the final leg to Rothenburg. The clock at the train station shows that it’s nearly 3 PM when I arrive, shoulders hunched and aching, dragging my luggage behind.  There is a dull sky overhead and it’s spitting rain as I walk the half mile to my hotel along bumpy cobblestone sidewalks that grind down the plastic wheels on my suitcase.  Yet as I pass under the stone arch of the town gate, my heart leaps.  I have been in the air and on the road for thirteen hours straight, but I have arrived a world apart from where I began, in a place Hansel and Gretel might have recognized as home.

Rödergasse is a snug street lined with colorful half-timber houses, where flowers perch from window boxes and the names of businesses are painted on plaster in bold Bavarian script.  My first thought is that it is pleasingly foreign and yet oddly familiar, like the well-worn page of a fairy tale brought to life.

I am staying at the Romantik Hotel Markusturm, a former toll house that dates from the year 1264.  It appears often in postcards of Rothenburg ob der Tauber because of its prime position alongside the Markus Tower and Röder Arch.  I duck inside and find a rustic parlor  with an oak paneled ceiling and fanciful fretwork chairs.  I check in at the reception desk and I’m led up the stairs and through a long hallway lined with antique pots, an old butter churn, and a doll carriage, all the way back to #114, a small room with a twin size bed.  I spend a few minutes settling in, but by now I’m famished and with a burst of adrenaline I’m eager to head out to explore the town.

It’s just a short stroll to Rothenburg’s market square—the marketplatz—and for a moment I twirl happily in the center, gathering my bearings.  My map tells me that the west side is anchored by the town hall, a massive stone structure dating back to 1250.  It’s ornamented with turrets and a portico, added later in 1681. Perpendicular to it is the City Councilor’s Tavern, or Ratstrinkstube, awash in salmon pink, and to the east a row of handsome shops and cafés under pointed gables and red tiled roofs. And finally, to the south there is a fountain with a tall column crowned by a painted figure of St. George slaying the dragon.

I take a short walk to stretch my legs, down Herrngasse to the castle gate and the edge of the Burggarten, before returning to the marketplatz for dinner.  I settle into a table at Restaurant Ratsstube, which faces the square, and dine well on pork tenderloin in a sherry cream sauce, with potato fritters, a salad, and a glass of crisp Riesling wine.  For dessert, the waitress offers me to bring me ice cream, fresh fruit, or apple strudel, but I have my heart set on something different.  I have been in Rothenburg for little more than three hours, but already I have seen hundreds of Schneebällen, stacked row upon row in shop windows, and as loathe as I am to admit it, I want one.

In English, Schneebäll simply means snowball, but here the shape is transformed into something of a local culinary specialty. They are, in essence, large deep-fried balls of dough, made from strips of pie crust.  Some are sprinkled generously with powdered sugar, others dipped in chocolate or coated in nougat.  In his Germany guidebook, Rick Steves is uncharacteristically harsh on Schneebällen, calling them “unworthy of the heavy promotion they receive,” but honestly I find nothing about the idea to dislike.

I walk down Untere Schmiedgasse, past the ornate wrought iron signs of butchers and bakers, until I reach the charming little square known as the Plönlein.  Nearby, I buy a Schneebällen of the chocolate variety from Café Uhl Gastehaus and happily munch through it as I mount the stairs to Rothenburg’s medieval walls.  By now, the sky has cleared and a slant of evening light is warming the stone. I can’t resist exploring.

I have walked a lot of walled cities in my travels, from York, England, to Lucca, Italy, but this night stands apart.  Maybe it’s the novelty of seeing a new place for the first time after an exhausting day of travel.  Maybe it’s the charm of the red tiled roof above the narrow corridor that frames the town like an Old Master painting, or maybe it’s the plaques I encounter every now and then that commemorate those whose loyal support rebuilt portions of the wall that were destroyed in a bombing raid during World War II.  Or, maybe it’s simply the unexpected break of weather.  Whatever the reason, I walk on and on in an elevated circle above the town until I reach the Klingen Bastion and the approach of darkness finally drives me home.

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