For 21 days, Rick and I are tour members on one of his own tours: the Best of Europe. We’re trying to combine vacation with quality control and research. And it’s going great! Join us as we traipse from the Netherlands to Germany, Austria to Italy, and Switzerland to France with a terrific tour guide and 26 wonderful fellow tour members.
Walking through Rothenburg in the middle of the day is a bit like slipping through a time-tunnel back to Medieval Germany. Its pastel half-timbered façades, pointy spires, delightful fountains, and small-town charm enchant visitors and make us all forget we have to share the cobbled streets with a swarm of crowds. And while you might feel like you’ve walked onto the set of a Walt Disney film, this town’s preserved-for-centuries appeal is the real deal. It’s because it was forgotten for so long that it survives today as it did hundreds of years ago.
The town flourished through the middle ages–for five centuries a crossroads of European commerce, ideas, and information. But with the 30 Years War in the 17th century (the fight between Catholics and Protestants), the wealthy city was suddenly a poverty stricken backwater. It was so poor, it was literally stuck in the past. Nothing new was built, nothing changed, and this former powerhouse became a veritable cocoon. Time marched on without Rothenburg.
In the 19th-century, writers, artists and musicians uninspired by the Industrial Age, needed inspiration. They found it in time-passed places like Rothenburg. Through their writings, paintings, and music, they inspired wealthy Europeans to travel here on their Grand Tours of Europe. And the Rothenburg we know today–that place of half-timbered German dreams–was re-born. Ironically, the town’s poverty led to a new affluence as tourism breathed life into the once depressed place. People told their friends and families to come here. And they told their friends and families. And people came.
The spell of romantic Rothenburg spread even to people who had never been there. One mother shared glowing memories of her visit in the late 1800s to Rothenburg with her son. Mementos from her trip hung on the wall. She firmly etched her love of the town in her son’s mind. And although he had never been there himself, he knew it intimately from the stories told to him by his mother.
Knowing the historic and cultural significance of Rothenburg from his mother’s descriptions, John J. McCloy (U.S. Assistant Secretary of War during World War II) became a pivotal figure in the town’s survival. Rather than bomb the town to destroy the Nazis that were holed up behind the town’s fortified walls, McCloy sent orders to not use artillery to take the town. Instead, he was instrumental in negotiating the Nazi troop’s surrender and saving the town from utter destruction. Thanks to him, we get to be tourists here today.
In the evening, Rick and I join about 80 other people (practically the only tourists who aren’t day-tripping but rather staying overnight in this town) for an “intimate” stroll with the Night Watchman. Decked out in a heavy black cloak and wielding his intimidating axe-like hellebard, his in-case-of-emergency horn, and hisiconic lantern, he shares tales of what it was like to be a medieval night watchman–the third lowest person in society, behind the executioner and the undertaker.
Riveted by his medieval stories of siege, tidbits about architectural features, and compelling details about WWII, we cling to his every word. He has a strangely unmelodic yet whimsical voice. He bellows his tales slowly, clearly, with just a tinge of a German accent, and his precise comedic timing throws us into fits of laughter. He’s been doing this every night for years, but it still feels fresh and unjaded. He’s the most famous citizen of Rothenburg, but it doesn’t seem to go to his head.
While his walking tour is peppered with historical facts, the experience is more entertainment than a history lesson. But it doesn’t matter. Like those 19th-century writers that inspired so many travelers, the Night Watchman is getting people interested in this well-preserved and charming town of Rothenburg, so that, hopefully, they’ll tell their friends and families…and perhaps they’ll come visit, too.