ROTHENBURG, West Germany — Of the two dozen or so delightful medieval towns strung out along this country's Romantic Road, from Franconia's Wurzburg 217 miles south to Fussen, deep in Bavaria, this one is surely the most colorful, renowned and popular.
Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber (its full name) had been a stronghold of the Franks since the 10th Century. Its magnificent city walls and towers, along with the Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture, had survived fire, flood and earthquakes through the ages.
But it was two developments from the Thirty Years' War in the 17th Century that contributed most to Rothenburg's almost pristine beauty.
A conquering general, smitten by the marvelous local wine, offered to spare razing the town if a Rothenburg citizen could quaff a three-quart tankard in one draft.
A former Burgermeister mastered the toper's task and the town was spared. Alas, the same war reduced Rothenburg to just another poor market town, languishing in its poverty while others modernized and expanded.
So it was that a sympathetic general, hardy drinker and hard times combined to preserve a near-perfect medieval city for us to visit today.
Here to there: Take Lufthansa's daily nonstop to Frankfurt. TWA, Delta, Pan Am, Northwest, American and several foreign carriers also fly there, with changes. Two luxurious Europabuses leave Frankfurt and Wurzburg every morning (also Munich and Fussen in the south) for runs along the Romantic Road, stopping at most towns on the way for sightseeing and/or lunch.
A stewardess aboard gives regional history and highlights of each town. Your ticket is good for four weeks and you may get off and on anywhere along the way. Eurail pass and German Rail pass holders ride free, the perfect way for a hassle-free holiday.
How long/how much? Give Rothenburg a day or two and, if you have the time, spend a week in towns along the Romantic Road. Even with our weakened dollar, lodging and dining costs are moderate in all but the very finest places.
A few fast facts: West Germany's mark recently traded at 1.64 to the dollar, about 61 cents each. It's lovely here in the springtime, when the many flowers, rolling farmland and birch and pine forests are at their best. July and August can be crowded, but it's probably most crowded in gorgeous September.
Getting settled in: Hotel Sonne (Hafengasse 11; $47 U.S. B&B double) is a neat and simple place at town center. It has small rooms with pine furnishings, lacy curtains, thick down comforters. There's a little restaurant there (more on that later). Upstairs rooms take a bit of climbing, so you may want to ask for the first floor.
Gasthof Zur Schranne (Schrannenplatz 6; $55 double B&B) is a 17th-Century patrician home right beside the city walls. There's plenty of parking, which can be a problem in compact Rothenburg. More small rooms with pine furniture giving off a wondrous aroma, each with huge bed and down comforters. More: a large dining room, simply furnished, and a convivial bar hosting locals for a beer or schnapps.
Zur Glocke (Am Plonlein 1; $67-$85) could very well be on the most photographed intersection in Germany, the Plonlein, which has a remarkable backdrop of a city gate and tower to go with its cobble streets. Rustic appeal and Gemutlichkeit (good spirit) top to bottom, moderate-size rooms with a few more amenities than those above, some with TV. Excellent dining room.
Regional food and drink: Schaufele mit Klossen-- roast pork shoulder with dumplings--is a local favorite, along with trout and the cherished carp. When fried, the latter is served with potato salad; boiled, it comes with hot butter and boiled potatoes. Wild boar, venison and other game appear in season. Local bratwurst is said to rival that of Nuremberg's.
Schneeballen --snowballs made of cake dough and dusted with sugar--are a favorite dessert. The best wines come from the Wurzburg region. Tucher, a Pilsen from Nuremberg, is the beer of choice here and excellent.
Moderate-cost dining: Baumeisterhaus (Am Marktplatz) is in a marvelous old building dating from 1596, its walls covered with antlers, ancient crests of patrician families and portraits.
Several rooms and a courtyard each have a distinct atmosphere of old Rothenburg, but the superlative local dishes are the stuff of memories. Landsknechttopf , a thick lentil ragout with three kinds of sausage and homemade spatzle, is a house specialty.
But the venison goulash with mushrooms and Preiselbeeren (similar to cranberries) gets our vote as the menu's best.
Hotel Sonne's little dining room has a simple menu that lets you choose from Franconian-Bavarian dishes, all prepared well and inexpensive. The thick soups are delicious; wurst and cutlets really stick to your ribs. And don't forget to try the homemade apple cake.