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Turning Back the Clock in Bavaria

With its cache of half-timbered homes and red-tiled buildings, Rothenburg transports visitors to another era.

April 15, 2001|DON WHITEHEAD | Don Whitehead is a freelance writer in Los Angeles

ROTHENBURG OB DER TAUBER, Germany — It is surprising that this town, poised for military battles and scarred by natural disasters over the centuries, has settled comfortably into quaint.

The walls that surround the city were once meant to keep attacking armies at bay. Damaged by war and nature, they have become charming elevated walkways that provide excellent views of the town below.

The town hall, partly destroyed by fire in the 1500s, was rebuilt into a structure that's now a mix of architectural styles-and a draw for tourists.

In the 1600s, the town was nearly wiped out in the Thirty Years War. Legend has it that an enemy general promised to spare Rothenburg if someone could down 3 liters of wine in one gulp. Now that scene is reenacted through mechanical figures in the town square several times a day.

Throw in an earthquake, a plague that wiped out half the population shortly after the Thirty Years War, and a World War II bombing raid, and Rothenburg would seem due for some quiet time.

And that's exactly what we found during our stay-quaint and quiet, but not too quiet.

The Bavarian town, about 70 miles east of Heidelberg in southern Germany, sits on a gently rolling plateau above the Tauber River. It had more than enough charm to captivate my wife, Katherine, our two sons, Alex, 11, and Henry, 15, and me during our seventh annual family vacation to Europe last summer. We chose Rothenburg because I had read that it was the best-preserved medieval town in Europe, and I wanted to see whether it lived up to the billing.

Shortly after our afternoon arrival, we found our home for the next two days, Hotel Gerberhaus, on Spitalgasse, one of the city's well-trodden streets. The 500-year-old half-timbered structure was once a tanner's house, and in keeping with that history, animal skins cover the hallway floors.

We shared a "family room," a nice double room to which two beds had been added. This arrangement works in many European hotels, even small ones that have a few larger rooms. In this case, our room ($87 a night with breakfast) was really too cramped for the four of us, but we didn't spend much time there.

We began our visit with a walk to the market square.

The town's full name, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, means "Red Castle on the Tauber," and two castles once stood where Castle Garden is now, on a promontory outside the walls.

The town was begun about 970 when the first castle was built. The first of the disasters occurred about 400 years later, this one an earthquake that destroyed the castle and some city fortifications. After the temblor, the city began to refortify and expand.

From the square, which is more or less the center of town, you can walk a few blocks in any direction to gain access to the walls that surround the city, catching glimpses through arrow-slit holes to the outside and looking at the red-roofed beauty of Rothenburg.

Since Rothenburg became a town-it was granted a charter in 1172-it has expanded in roughly concentric layers. By 1204 the town had outgrown its first line of fortifications, and construction on additional, outer walls and towers began. These include Siebers Tower, which created the southern entrance to the town. A 14th century expansion added the "Spital" area of the city.

This was a bustling, important town with a 15th century population of 6,000. It prospered because of its location on trade routes, a thriving textile business and the fertile land and numerous villages that surround it. As the city expanded beyond earlier fortifications, much of the old construction remained. For example, if you enter through Spital Bastion, you walk a few blocks toward the center of town and pass through Siebers Tower.

The larger and more ornate houses are closest to the center of town-principally on Herrngasse and Schmiedgasse streets-while workers lived more humbly on the outskirts.

Passing through Siebers Tower we strolled up Schmiedgasse, where gift shops and pastry emporiums abounded. The buildings are taller, the street is narrower and retail charm is almost palatable here. Bakeries line their windows with an array of Schneebllen, or snowballs, a local specialty made of inch-wide strips of pastry that form a softball-size sphere. They are sold plain, dusted with powdered sugar (my favorite) or coated in caramel or chocolate.

We moved on to the market square, dominated by the town hall, or Rathaus. In this case it's actually half a town hall; the Renaissance side was begun in 1572 to replace half of the Gothic building that burned in 1501. The Renaissance structure is linked to the part of the Gothic building that survived the fire. The older part is topped by an almost 200-foot-high tower that we decided to climb. For $1 per adult and 50 cents per child, we went to the very top for a bird's-eye view.

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