Rothenburg captivates and dazzles during December with a buzzing Christmas market and the celebrations put on by a plethora of year-round Christmas shops surrounded by half-timbered houses, colorful gabled buildings and brightly lit trees dripping with ornaments. Shop windows display beer steins, wooden nutcrackers and German-made Teddy bears.
Hand-carved Bavarian Cuckoo clocks come alive hourly and the clopping of horses' hooves on the cobbled streets adds to the Christmas spirit. This walled-in city is an exceptional jewel from the middle Ages. It all began with the founding of a castle in the 10th century. Today, it inhabits 12,500 people inside and outside the walls.
I flew into Frankfurt Airport, rented a car and drove under two hours to Rothenburg. Once inside the confines of the walls, there is no need for a car. I parked mine behind my cozy hotel (Hotel Gerberhaus) and was on foot for my 48-hour visit.
Rothenburg is compact and can be covered at a leisurely pace in two full days. (It's one of the most popular destinations for German day-trippers.) The storybook town lies on a plateau at the intersection of the "Romantic Road," which travels south to Bavaria. A fortified wall surrounds it and entry is gained via the Kobolzeller Gate.
The gate's outside wall is decorated with coats of arms of the imperial city, including the imperial eagle. In the 12th century, the first city walls were built. However, in 1356 an earthquake struck the city and destroyed all of the fortifications. The walls were rebuilt and were partially destroyed again by bombs in World War II.
After the war, the town was rebuilt in the old style and fortifications were restored with the support of friends and well-wishers from all parts of the world. Be sure to walk along the one mile and a half wall during your visit, where names of people who donated money for the restoration can be found. (It takes about one hour to walk around the wall). This is also the best way to get your bearings of the ancient city. Marketplatz is the main cobbled square surrounded by patrician's houses and the City Councillors Tavern, and this is where you will also find the Christmas Market.
After meandering around the town's streets and alleyways, the gothic Town Hall's steps provide a perfect resting spot for mulled wine and hot sausage from one of the Christmas market stalls. (It's also great for people-watching.) If you look up from the steps and to your left, you will see three clocks on the face of the tavern's baroque gable. At various times throughout the day, figures appear representing the principal parties in the "Drinking feat" which took place during The Thirty Years' War. Crowds gather below the shutters where figures appear drinking beer from steins.
For the highest and best view of Rothenburg, climb the 214 narrow steps up the tower in the main square, where you'll be treated to an aerial view of the entire town with a sea of red roofs, turrets, towers and fortifications.
There are several small, intriguing museums. Don't pass up the opportunity to visit the Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum. With more than a 1000 years of history, it's the only museum of law in Europe. Your visit will be enhanced by learning past traditions about the town. You'll see an assortment of fascinating contraptions.
One of the most photographed spots in Germany is the "Plonlein." A half timbered Hansel and Gretel style house is situated in the center of a tiny intersection and is framed by the 13th century Sieber's Tower and gate. Steps away and through the tower's archway is a 500-year-old building, which is home to Hotel Gerberhaus, where I stayed during two visits. It's small and romantic with stenciled rooms, goose down comforters and a lovely German buffet breakfast. I received a small discount by paying in cash and by having Rick Steves' Germany guidebook.
United, Lufthansa, Delta and American service Frankfurt International.
Driving to Rothenburg:
It's 111 miles/180km southeast of Frankfurt. The drive will take approximately an hour and a half. Take the A3 on the Autobahn. At Wurzburg take the A7 to exit Rothenburg o.d.t .
Tip: For the best rates, book your car rental through Auto Europe in Portland, Maine (888.223.5555).
Trains run frequently from Frankfurt International to Rothenburg. It's a ten-minute walk from the Rothenburg train station to Market square/Marketplatz.