Friday, 18 March 2016

In search of the world of the Brothers Grimm

The iconic Plönlein
The tour party flowed into the town square, streaming past their guide, leaving him standing rather lamely on the cobbles holding aloft a little paddle so they wouldn’t get lost; a 21st-century pied piper whose tune had – temporarily at least – lost its power.

There would be little time to see much. If they were quick, they’d be able to snap off a couple of selfies on Plönlein, where the road splits in two and exits the old city through different gates, and in the square itself, where the Rathaus stands on one long side and two large, half-timbered buildings make a perfect medieval corner.

It is doubtful that they would be able to make it into the Jakobskirche to see the wondrous wooden altarpiece by Germany’s Michelangelo, but there would doubtless be the opportunity to nip into one of the town’s many Käthe Wohlfahrt shops to pick up some extremely overpriced Christmas decorations as a souvenir as an arranged part of their trip, before heading back to the coach and the next stop on their whistlestop tour of Germany or Europe ...

Market place – Rathaus to the right

Such tourists bemuse me: it’s the same as with people in galleries, taking selfies in front of famous paintings – what do they honestly get out of it?

There may be a reason that Plönlein comes up as the main result in a Google image search for Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

You could be forgiven for imagining that it was the main (if not only) medieval vista in the old city. But to find some of the others, you have to scroll down further on that search – and you need to spend longer in the city itself than a coach visit will allow.

US travel writer Rick Steves has noted that, while millions visit Rothenburg, far, far fewer spend even a single night in the city.

For those who do, the benefits are obvious: whatever time of the year, after the tour guides pipe their charges back aboard buses, the city is yours as the sun falls.

Steves says that, after dark, you can almost feel the past. I beg to differ, but only ever so slightly: there were moments in the daytime when the centuries seemed to spin past, leaving me almost dizzy with a sense of times long gone.

Markusturm – complete with storks' next
Rothenburg ob der Tauber – there are other Rothenburgs, so its relationship to the river Tauber is important – is somewhat on the old side.

A prosperous, independent city state, it was besieged during first the Peasants’ War and then the Thirty Years’ War, before a subsequent burst of the Black Death effectively halted its development, leaving us with the most perfectly intact medieval city anywhere.

‘Rediscovered’ in the 19th century and, in the 1930s, it was raised by the Nazis to a semi-religious level as a perfect, idealised German town.

In 1945, bombing did much damage, but it was spared worse when the German commander defied Hitler’s orders and accepted a US army promise that surrender would spare the city.

It is one stop on Germany’s Romantic Road, a 350km route through the forests and mountains of Baden-Würtemburg and Bavaria.

Starting in Würzburg, it ends in Füssen, where we spent a few pleasant days last March, walking in the Alps and visiting Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein – a visit that had led directly to this one.

Old bridge
We left London early on a Thursday evening, and spent the night comfortably in a hotel at Stuttgart airport before setting off the following morning by train – first to central Stuttgart and then, from there, to Bavaria and Rothenburg ob der Tauber itself, via three trains.

Our hotel was in the centre of the old city, just above an ancient gate leading to a park and, after unpacking as rapidly as possible, we set off for a first orientation.

It’s impossible not to be instantly struck by the city. Plönlein actually feels rather understated in medieval terms, such are the other sights to be encountered, but in general, this is like walking through a fairy tale.

Hardly surprising, indeed, that MGM’s Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm was filmed here in 1961, while the village scenes in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were also shot in its streets.

A view from the city walls
The latter, incidentally, also saw filming at Neuschwanstein, adding another sense of continuum to this trip.

If Neuschwanstein gave Disney the template for its castle, then Rothenburg gave Hollywood as a whole an architectural aesthetic for fairy tales.

The half-timbered, slanting, sloping, tiled buildings are what you expect. You’ve seen it all before before – on a small or a big screen – but wandering around, you have to keep reminding yourself that this is no theme park, but a real, living town, full of real, living people.

The Markusturm is one of the city’s gates, surrounded by half-timbered buildings in bright colours. Perched atop an adjoining roof is what looks to be a metal wheel, lying horizontally.

Burgator, leading from the garden to the city
In fact, it’s a frame for a stork’s nest: these huge birds have returned to the area in recent years and a couple of days before our arrival, a pair had just returned from their winter sojourn to Africa, triggering excitement among local people.

The previous year, “Mr and Mrs Stork” had produced four chicks, to the evident delight of the community. Another nest, opposite our hotel room, was still awaiting birds when we departed, but the sight of the birds taking off and returning to their nest at the Markusturm could only add to the magical sense of the place.

Anyway, after that initial stroll into the past, our first night’s repast in Rothenburg saw us dine at an old tavern, filled with local people and with a waitress dressed in a dirndl, serving properly hearty German food.

For me, that was a piece of pork shoulder, flaking off the bone and accompanied by red cabbage, gravy and potato dumplings, with a dunkel (dark beer) on the side.

And then we slept in the peace of our centuries-old hotel, dreaming the dreams of fairytales all around us.

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