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.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

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.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

This morning, inspired by a brief entry in the Rick Steves guidebook titled “A Walk in the Countryside,” I’m going to hike through the Tauber Valley, past Toppler Castle and across a covered bridge to the tiny village of Detwang.  It seems like a brilliant idea on a Sunday morning in late May, but midway there it occurs to me that I may have overlooked, or at least underestimated, the sentence that reads “The trail becomes really steep…” Heading down through the woods is fine, but with every step I take I become ever more acutely aware of the effort it will take to return.

In the end, the walk is a long and tedious one under a scorching sun, which somehow makes the destination less impressive.  When I reach Detwang I find a sleepy little town with little to recommend it, aside from the charming country church of Saints Peter and Paul, which houses another of Riemenschneider’s carved altarpieces.  I linger there in the cool of the interior, before trudging back down the road and up the hill and through the streets of Rothenburg, all the way back to my hotel, where I crash upon the bed for a much-needed one and a half hour nap. 

By 2:00 pm, I’m refreshed and back out on the streets, determined to see a quartet of small museums before I leave for Munich in the morning.  First, I browse the Christmas museum upstairs in the Käthe Wohlfahrt shop, where there are shelves of blown glass ornaments, feather trees, and Victorian diecuts.  Then, I head to the Imperial City Museum, which is housed behind lush gardens in a former Dominican convent nearby.  It’s a fascinating place to wander, well worth the extra fee they charge for photography.  There are trade signs and tankards and pastry molds, an impressive series of panels painted by Martinus Schwartz in 1494 that depict the passion of Christ, and the original weatherbeaten statues from the façade of the Baumeisterhaus depicting seven vices and seven virtues. Yet my favorite, perhaps, are the romantic paintings of Rothenburg so similar to those that must have hung on the McCloy’s dining room wall, which their son remembered so fondly years later.

Finally, I trace my steps back towards my hotel to visit a small museum devoted to German dolls and toys, and another that preserves the home life of an average tradesman from Rothenburg’s prime 700 years ago.

By now I’m starved for dinner.  I walk down Herrngasse and settle into a table at  Burgerkeller, where the owner is playing an odd selection of music that sounds as if it came from an American jukebox in the 1970s.  I order a hearty plate of Nürnberger Bratwurst, boiled potatoes, and white asparagus.  It’s Spargelzeit season, after all, so the latter is practically unavoidable on local menus, but for the life of me, I can’t think why.  The sausage is delicious, but the asparagus is sodden and tasteless, saved only by a generous portion of clarified butter on the side. 

This is my last night in Rothenburg, and I’m loathe for it to end.  I finish off a generous slice of apple streudel with vanilla ice cream for dessert and then head for the walls, as I have every night since coming here.  Like so many others who have come before me along the Romantic Road, I have found what I was searching for and will remember it always.