Hanging in a Bavarian Fairytale: Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Rothenburg is the town the live action Beauty & the Beast set is inspired by (they made a replica of the fountain and everything!) but the history of the town is more interesting than fairytale.

Hitler considered Rothenburg to be the ideal town; to him, it was the quintessential German “home town” and was featured in tons of war propaganda. During WWII an order was given where no city was to surrender at any cost. Populations would be destroyed and cities would be flattened before a white flag would fly. Rothenburg was given the same order.

Jump towards the end of the war and the US is outside of Rothenburg’s town gates. Bombing.  Being aware of the cultural significance the town possessed, the American Assistant Secretary of War, John J McCloy, gave orders not to use artillery. Six US soldiers (one fluent in German) walked into the city in an attempt to come to come to a truce. They laid out to the local government that they had three hours to make the decision between surrendering the town (at which point everyone in it would be spared) or having Rothenburg leveled. If the soldiers didn’t come out of the town in under that time, it would be destroyed.

Against orders, the leaders surrendered, and bombing ceased. The men who went into town were from places like Hammond, Indiana, Tower City, Pennsylvania, and Lansing, Illinois — nowhere remarkable, but because of them, I was able to visit Rothenburg. General McCloy has since been named an honorary citizen of Rothenburg, the only American with that distinction.

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Prior to that, the town underwent an ordeal just as grave, albeit a bit more odd.  During the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, the town was surrounded by 40,000 Italian troops, hoping to quarter during the autumn. A town of its size, Rothenburg wasn’t able to accommodate its citizens and a troop of that magnitude, so the city tried its hand at defense, but ultimately couldn’t keep the troops out.

Legend has it that when the army entered and the invading general condemned the city councilmen to death, the town mayor tried to persuade him with a goblet filled with 3 ¼ liters of wine. The general declined, but claimed that if anyone could down all the wine in one-go the men would be spared. The mayor himself met this challenge, and the general, true to his word, spared their lives.

Upon our arrival into the walled old town we dropped off our bags then immediately left the town, walking towards the river.  Our destination was one Carl had been to a decade prior and had only the fondest memories of. Unter-Den-Linden (under the Linden trees) used to be a plain jane set up — a beer garden in the backyard of a residence with a walk up window where patrons could choose between a couple varieties of beer before sitting at one of the lawn’s picnic tables situated next to the river Tauber accessed just a few feet away, while their children played on the riverbed.

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In its current state there’s the same lawn and river access, but the food and drink game has been upped. There’s now a kitchen, indoor setting for the winter and over a dozen drafts to choose from. Children still play in the river, collecting rocks or hunting crawfish, bringing their findings to their parents sitting nearby. It’s the perfect way to pass a Saturday — bring your dog or your book and sit on the grass in the sunshine, watching everyone just enjoying how pleasant it can be to watch hours pass.

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The walk back to the old town from Unter der Linden is good amount of up, but it also presents you with a stunning look onto the town.  Make the trek on the right day and you’re met with those puffy Bavarian clouds and a sky that defines “blue”. With nothing left to do we spend the rest of the afternoon walking through the cobblestone streets, going through the few rooms of a museum which translates to “Historic Festival”, eating cheese and drinking wine.

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My only complaint of the day is of Rothenburg’s signature food, the Schneeball. The Schneeball is described as a deep fried lard pastry coated in sugar — How can this go wrong, right? Nope. I expected something like a balled up funnel cake, but I was met with a hard and dried out ball, similar to the crunchy strips in the wax bag you’re given (for free) whenever you order American Chinese food; the ones that are edible only when smothered in duck sauce. It’s likely there’s a shop in Rothenburg that does the Schneeball justice, but with every storefront peddling them it’s easy to get lost in the Schnee-chaos.

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The disappointing late afternoon snack left our bellies wanting more, leading to an impromptu 5:00pm dinner at restaurant Zur Höll (To Hell). The restaurant’s mascot may be satan dancing with a pitchfork, but the interior was decorated like a grandmother’s sitting room. Satan’s face stared up at me from doilies.

For those touring Germany in the early summer you’ll find the country is very serious about Spargel. That is, white asparagus. Spargel was written onto the specials menus of restaurants and taverns from Berlin to Munich. At Zur Höll our asparagus was smothered in hollandaise sauce and served with side of potatoes. It was the best version of the dish we had anywhere during our trip, even beating out the Spargel that was served with an entire gravy dish full of melted butter.

Where Bamberg has a population of young students, Rothenburg is filled mainly with tourists. An empty street in Rothenburg can fill with a tour group in a matter of moments, sometimes swallowing Carl or I if we were caught off guard. The town scenery is cute as can be, but the stores are mostly “stuff” shops shiling vanity license plates, snowglobes encasing the town’s iconic bell tower, or worst of all, the Schneeball.

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Double negative alert, I’d never say not to go to Rothenburg — you can parlay all of your childhood fairytale memories into a visit here and realize that something so perfect, so obnoxiously cute doesn’t just exist in your dreams, it’s an actual pin on the map.

Rothenburg is primarily pensioners and masses taking photos with a handheld digital camera or an iPad, but you can’t blame the place for becoming so touristed — there’s a friggin’ house in Rothenburg that straddles two streets and enough ambiance in the streets to drown one of those shirted talking mice from Cinderella.

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Everything is built in shades of terracotta. Livable it ain’t, but you can’t help but love it. And to be fair, that’s how I think of the life of any Disney princess 18 months after where we’ve left off. Sure Ariel, you have a husband but you were willing to give up your family and your ability to communicate. Sure Sleeping Beauty, you have a castle, but you’re 16 years old and are willing to throw your life away for some rando in the woods. Cinderella, you can clean well so that’s a life skill, and Belle, you’re literate which is more than I can say for other princesses, so we good.

I know Belle left Rothenburg for the muraled walls of a castle, but in the end, I’d still say that Rothenburg is one of the better places anyone could end up, princesses included.

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