Many writers and nearly all artists agree that the most picturesque towns in Europe are Mont St. Michel and Carcassonne in France, San Gimignano in Italy and Rothenburg in Bavaria. Of these, Mont St. Michel is probably the most remarkable and Carcassonne the most impressive, but Rothenburg is certainly the most lovable. It is not far from Nuremburg, with which it is often compared. But while Nuremburg possesses magnificent, artistic monuments, it is entirely inadequate as an illustration of what a medieval town was like. It is big, noisy and prosperous. Rothenburg, on the other hand, offers a complete and perfect idea of the environment amid which Germans of the Middle Ages lived. It is set upon beautiful hills, still entirely surrounded by ancient walls with their battlemented towers all unchanged by the presence of the Twentieth Century. Through its gate runs the road to yesterday, and once within, today grows very remote, and there are actually incarnate before you the streets, the dwellings, the public places, where men lived, and fought, and loved, and romanced five centuries and more ago.
In nearly every other medieval city that the writer has visited, the town has outgrown the old walls, and the new buildings hide the ancient ramparts and prevent the approach presenting to you that same picturesque view which the men of the Middle Ages had of the towered walls and piled-up roofs and spires within. But, with the exception of the houses that have sprung up along the road leading from the little railroad station to the Roder-Tor, which is one of the city gates, Rothenburg still lies wholly within the walls, so that from every point of view, save the railroad station, the town looks now as you come upon it exactly as it did in the Middle Ages-looks for all the world like one of Howard Pyle’s illustrations in his Arthurian stories.
The city is built upon a plateau that brings the level country to its walls on every side but the west; here the land falls steeply away directly from the base of the walls, to the valley of the Tauber some three hundred feet below; and from these western walls, and for miles along the river are some of the most beautiful sylvan views in Bavaria. Indeed, it is this very combination of beauty both within and without the walls to which Rothenburg owes the charm that so endears it to visitors. And this charm lies in the unique blending of rural beauty with a medieval picturesqueness absolutely unimaginable, imparting in some subtle way a sense of profound and exquisite peacefulness, a peacefulness that lingers in my memory as the dominant fact of Rothenburg.
As we sat at dinner on the hotel balcony at Wurtzburg and gazed across the darkening river to the castle fortress silhouetted against the green sky, my friend, the architect, who will always be a boy, exclaimed, ” Let’s go to Rothenburg now and get the thrill of entering the walls at midnight! ” So from nine o’clock until almost twelve we crawled along in a half-lit train. We changed to the little Rothenburg line at a station that seemed fittingly mysterious in the dim light of an occasional lantern. From here on the train had only third-class carriages, and only a passenger or two asleep in the corners.
At Rothenburg the night air was cool and damp; every now and then came the perfume of flowers. The hotel porter took our baggage and we followed him. Presently we saw the dim line of a lofty wall, the lift of a great tower; there was a bridge across a moat, a weird space surrounded by walls, another tower only partly seen in the darkness, and then a long street that seemed to come up out of a dream, so empty was it, so still and so strange. A bell somewhere tolled twelve, and we did thrill to the mystery and the adventure of it-to the remoteness, not only of place, but of time, for we did not seem in the Bavaria of today, but of the ancient time of knights and battles, of mystery and romance.
From the corner room on the upper floor of the hotel I looked out into the blackness of what I could sense was a vast space. Far below I could hear the tinkle of running water, and from out the night came again the faint odor of flowers, but there was nothing to see until morning. Then the view was glorious. The hotel is built directly on the walls at a point where they form an angle, sweeping forward on either hand in a magnificent panorama of blended roofs and towers and battlements, all a mass of soft reds and yellows. Directly beneath the walls the ground drops away to the tiny river, crossed by a curious twostory bridge, and then slopes upward again to the pastured hills that roll gently away to the far horizon.
Out in the town one picture succeeds another with every turn. Originally the walls were built to inclose a population of about five thousand, and as the city grew, a second line of fortifications was erected, which still forms the outer wall, as for the last four hundred years or so the population has remained at about eight thousand. The gateways of the older, inner line of defense create some wonderfully interesting pictures, the most noted of which are the Markus Tower, the White Tower, and, most famous of all, the Plonlein. This last owes much of its extraordinary picturesqueness to the fact that the street branches just before it, one fork leading to the Kobolzeller Gate shown at the right, which is on the outer wall, and the other leading through this Plonlein gate.
One of the most interesting of the outer gates is the Klingen-Tor. To the right of this tower the wall is made beautiful by climbing vines and pear and plum trees trained upon it after the manner of English gardens. Mounting the wall at the Klingen-Tor one can walk upon it for several miles around the city. Through the loop-holes are caught vistas of a country rich in orchards and flowers, and on the town side there are repeated views of roofs and towers. Here and there the wall broadens to a platform where ancient cannon still stand, or the yet older machines for throwing heavy stones at the besiegers. At one point, though not within the limits of this walk, there is yet hanging the great iron cage in which the Rothenburgers used to imprison their malefactors while the crowd would gather below to watch the wretched victim slowly starve to death. But today all the ancient cruelty has vanished from these most kindly and simple folk. It may be the effect of the peculiar peacefulness of the beautiful landscape that surrounds the town; or it may be the sense of isolation that must inevitably come to men who live in an environment so altogether of the past, but something has set them apart from even their fellow Bavarians. A certain definite placidity is stamped upon their kindly and intelligent faces; a certain well-defined grace of manner, even in the little children, and a remarkable courtesy distinguish old and young alike.
Everyone bows to the stranger, and the humbler men doff their hats as they wish you good-morning. I was sitting on a log down by the bridge one afternoon, when three little children, aged perhaps three and five and six, approached, and each, with the utmost gravity, proceeded to shake hands with me. I was so overcome that I could think of nothing to say but, ” How d’y’ do, how d’y’ do,” and as they gravely departed on their way, I heard the youngest softly repeating to himself, ” How de do, how de do.”
There are flowers and vines everywhere, and such flowers; never have I seen the like of the roses, the dahlias and the asters that grow riotously around even the humblest cottage. And never can one forget the great balcony of the Rathhaus, a blazing heap of flowers and vines.
But this Rathhaus that now looks so a part of the peaceful picture has seen many a cruel and bloody deed, for the history of this ancient city has been a stirring one. First mentioned historically in 804, it was incorporated as a free city by Barbarossa, and has entertained kings and emperors as its guests, sometimes by invitation and sometimes in spite of itself when armed invasion was successful.
The zenith of its power as a factor in affairs was under Burgomaster Toppler, late in the Fourteenth Century. He was really a wonderful man, and made of his city a power felt throughout all Germany so that distant princes sought his alliance. And then, just as he was opening for Rothenburg a career of glory, his people conspired against him. On the sixth of April, 1408, he was deposed, and a few months later he died in prison; his name was blotted from the town records, and his property confiscated. Now the town builds monuments to his memory.
Following Toppler’s death, the prestige of Rothenburg waned; many of the wealthier citizens moved away, and so few skilled artisans remained that builders from Nuremburg had to be imported to design the buildings of the period. Then came the Peasants’ War, when mad revolt swept Rothenburg into a frenzy, and the town was delivered first to the mob and later to the avenging aristocracy, who, once in power, executed some sixty of the revolutionaries and drenched this peaceful market-place in blood.
Even more vivid were those days during the Thirty Years’ War, when Tilly’s conquering hosts stormed the walls. Thirty thousand of his veterans assailed the city with continuous assault for thirty hours. Every man in the city was on the defenses, but at last, worn with sleeplessness, decimated by shot, their ammunition exhausted, and their walls crumbling beneath them, the defenders surrendered. Enraged at the loss inflicted upon his army, Tilly decreed the death of the town councilors, the expulsion of the inhabitants and the utter destruction of the city. But it so chanced that the Burgomaster’s daughter knew the secret of a marvelous punch, and while Tilly raved she brewed the liquor, and, when the opportunity came, presented it to him with bended knee. The effect was propitious; another cup and then another, and then the great General summoned all the people to the market square, and offered them their homes, their city and the lives of their councilors if any one of them could drink at one draught a hunting-horn filled with this marvelous punch. I have seen this horn, now preserved in the museum, and take my word for it, it was a tremendous task; but one Herr Nusch undertook the deed and won. And to this day every year at Whitsuntide, there is enacted by the whole town in costume the festival play of Der Meistertrink, or the Master Drink, which Rothenburgers claim is among the oldest of Germon folk plays. But the spirit of the place was crushed, and a century or so later a band of thirty soldiers forced the gates and exacted a tribute from the city. True, in 1800 the townspeople plucked up courage to defeat a band of seventeen French soldiers who demanded the surrender of the town, but two years later it opened its gates to the forces of Bavaria, of which kingdom it then became and has since remained a part.
There is not that wealth of folklore and legend in Bavaria that so enriches the region of the Harz; in fact, I know of but one tale connected with Rothenburg that is worth the telling, for a translation of which I am indebted to SchaufHer’s Romantic Germany. The church of St. James is thrown directly across a street that takes its way along a gloomy passage underneath. Upon a time when prosperity had made the townspeople forgetful of evil and its author, the Devil thought it behooved him to reestablish himself in the public mind, so one dark night he lurked in this passage, and, seizing the first passerby, threw him with great force against the wall. ” The body fell down dead, but the soul stuck to the stones and you can see it there yet, sort of black, with brown spots.”
Up to a few years ago Rothenburg remained unknown to the tourist, but of late it has been discovered, and until the recent war the summer always found it filled with visitors, most of whom were English. A little while at most and Rothenburg will be on the beaten track, but for a time it is sure to retain its individuality and charm.