Rothenburg is the definitive fairy-tale walled city of Europe. Not quite as large as Avila or Carcassonne, when it comes to charm and enchanting walks, Rothenburg easily surpasses its rivals. The walled city and its treasure of architectural masterpieces, among the oldest in Bavaria and Germany, look as if they have been lifted straight out of a story by the Grimm Brothers. In fact, many movies have been filmed on location here, from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The city owes its present state of preservation to a dedicated citizenry, a thriving tourism trade, and the fact that it has managed to avoid destruction in war for nearly four centuries. Located along the famous Romanric Road, Rothenburg is the most popular and visited walled city in Europe.
Rothenburg-on-the-Tauber, as it is officially known since there are several places called Rothenburg in Germany, is one of the oldest cities in Bavaria. Predating Munich, it was a prominent trade city of the Holy Roman Empire throughout the Middle Ages. Under the Staufer dynasty in the 13th century, the city was fortified with walls and a castle. Although most of these earliest fortifications are now gone, some have survived and have been incorporated into the current structures.
In 1274 Rothenburg became a crown city under the direct supervision of the Holy Roman Emperor. At its height in the 14th century, Rothenburg was one of the largest cities in Central Europe. However, an earthquake in 1356 left the castle in ruins and began the city’s long decline. Nevertheless Rothenburg managed to stay more or less intact until well into the 17th century.
In 1631, Rothenburg was dragged into the Thirty Years War. A predominantly Lutheran city, it was captured by Catholic troops after a brief siege. The Catholic army ravaged the town before abandoning it. Although Rothenburg never recovered from this blow, either in political or economic importance, the city itself survived. It was from this point onward that Rothenburg and its buildings remained unchanged.
Rothenburg played a small, dark role in the history of the Third Reich. Considered by many Germans to be the most idealistic of German cities, it became a haven for Nazi sympathizers and later a popular outing destination for school groups, Hitler Youth, and so on. Fortunately the city was only partially damaged when American forces captured the area in 1945. Thanks to its historical and architectural importance, not to mention its tourism industry, Rothenburg was one of the first cities to be fully restored after the war. Since the war, Rothenburg has become one of Europe’s most popular filming locations, and has appeared in many major releases over the ensuing decades.
The walled city of Rothenburg-on-the-Tauber is compact and ensconced in a thick carpet of green forest. While the forest does add the to the town’s enchantment, it also obscures much of its magnificent wall. Rothenburg is one of the few walled cities where the fortifications may actually be better appreciated from within, or from above. Almost the entire length of the wall is accessible and can be strolled at a leisurely place, offering excellent vantages of the city. Of particular interest are the fully restored shingled roofs, designed to protect defenders from arrows and tourists from rain, which cover most of the walk.
One of the things that make Rothenburg special, and practically unique, is the high percentage of old buildings. Accept for those rebuilt or replaced after World War II, the majority of the city’s structures date from the 17th century or earlier. This includes almost all of the city’s gates and towers. Of particular interest are the iconic Burg Gate on the city’s west side, which leads to Toppler Castle, and the Town Hall Tower.
Rothenburg is located along the tourist-heavy Romantic Road, about 100 miles northeast of Munich and 70 miles southwest of Frankfurt. The city is an open site, and the walls for the most part are accessible for walking. There is no charge for admission. Web: www.rothenburg.de (official website).
Thanks to its location at the heart of feudal Europe and the hundreds of splinter states that constituted the Holy Roman Empire, Germany probably boasted more walled cities than any other country in the world. The vast majority of these are now long gone, but a few survive along the Romantic Road. In addition to Rothenburg is the Walled City of Dinkelsbuhl and the Walled City of Nordlingen, both of which are good runners-up. Also near Rothenburg are Blutenberg Castle and the massive Nuremberg Castle.