13 December 2006

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

The unversity's international organization put together an excursion to the above mentioned city this past Saturday. Now I had been to Rothenburg before, two years ago for a day, but I remembered it as a beautiful medieval town and decided it was worth another visit.

From the beginning one thing was made clear, Rothenburg is not of the beaten path of tourists. One could even say the path is paved and posted with exit signs. Out of all the small towns and villages I've visited so far, Rothenburg had the most tourists. A cacophony of languages filled the streets, everything from Italian to Japanese. Aside from the year-round draw of the town's medieval charm, the Christmas Market was in full swing and undoubtedly brought in even more tourists. However, it was not too difficult to escape the throngs of people when desired, a short walk to the outskirts of the city center and one could roam the cobble-stoned streets alone.

A quick word on the name of this town. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is actually a short form of the full German name, which translates to Rothenburg over the Tauber River. The town lies on a hill overlooking the aforementioned river. For the sake of avoiding needless redundancy and extra sore fingers, I will refer to the town simply as Rothenburg.

Below is a photo of the Rothenburg snowballs, a local speciality confection. The story goes that in the past the townsfolk made the snowballs for weddings and other special celebrations. It would take ten days for the snowball's taste to mature, due to the use of some sort of wine as an ingriedent; therefore, the little spheres of surgar brought the wedding planners more time to prepare other dishes. One can find a bakery selling snowballs on just about every corner of Rothenburg, and remarkably enough each store has somehow obtained the one and only originial recipe.

In the center of town, around the cathedral and town hall, we came across the Christmas Market. Most German towns and cities have a Christmas Market of some form, and they usually last from December 1 to Christmas Eve. Rothenburg's spread out from the town's market place along the streets and back alleys. Merchants busily sold Christmas-themed gifts and trinkets, candy, food, and drinks. In the following picture one sees the cathedral in the background and the market place in the front.

Here are some more pictures from the market.

These baked hearts are typical German sweets given as gifts or special treats, and usually offer a special message for the specific occasion.

Eventually Alexi (France) and I ventured to the old town hall with the purpose of climbing to the top of the building's tower to look out over the city. Here is a view of the market place taken from our walk up the stairs.

The stairs soon turned narrow and steep, and not long after that they essentially became a set of ladders. By the end of the climb we were no longer walking through doorways at the end of each flight of stairs, rather coming up through holes in the floor. Below is Alexi coming through the final passageway and onto the tower's open air floor.

This is how wide our standing room was at the top. We could walk on this floor the whole way around the tower.

Overall, I think I had more fun with the tower than Alexi, who mentioned he has a slight case of vertigo. The climb up to the top was well worth the one euro entrance price, and the views of Rothenburg were the icing on the cake.

The view probably gives you a better idea of the obsevation deck's layout. As said, we went in a circle around the tower, feeling kind of like corraled cattle. Once one makes it back to the single passageway, he is expected to climb back down. Perhaps you can imagine how such a setup could test one's patience; one person pausing to take many pictures holds up the entire process since there's no room to pass. In this photograph Alexi grimaces about our height over Rothenburg, or maybe his face was directed towards the comments from the man in the center of the photo. I think it was about this time he told me to move along in German. Alexi metioned that he found such comments rude, and I made it a point to take a few more photos before taking another step.

Here as some more views from high above Rothenburg.

In this view one can see the old city wall in the upper left of the photo. The wall is one of the defining characteristics of Rothenburg. Nearly the entire structure remains intact and still surrounds the city center. One can even walk on the wall for its full length.
After the town hall tower, Alexi and I met back up with the rest of the group for a tour through a museum which showcases punishment and torture devices of the Middle Ages. It was very interesting and often entertaining to see how much the idea of what constitutes as a crime, the humane treatment of criminals, and the proper punishment for criminals has changed over the centuries. Below Illania (Italy) is used to display how a violin would be used to punish a bickering woman.

And there there were things like executioner's swords, . . .

chastity belts to keep wives faithful while the husband was away, . . .

witch catchers, . . .

and literal masks of shame. The one below is in the form of a fox. Men who were found guilty of telling smutty jokes were forced to wear it around during the day.

We learned about and saw other interesting things as well. For instance, during the Middle Ages the crime of stealing salt was punishable by death. The phrase "to laugh to death" comes from this time period. One form of punishment was forcing the criminal to laugh to the point of exhaustion. Sometimes the poor soul would be unable to catch his breath and actually die from asphyxiation. Baker's could be arrested for intentionally selling loaves of bread too small and charging the normal price for them. Also, perhaps may favorite, those found sleeping in or absent from Sunday church service were forced to wear a giant rosary. The oversized necklace on display in the museum would probably have hung down to my knees, and each wooden bead was a little larger than a baseball. In the small towns it was easy to tell who was absent on Sunday mornings because the churches created assigned seating for all the townsfolk. After the museum it was back to the beautiful, but crowded, streets of Rothenburg.

As I strolled along the cobble stones I couldn't help but feel like I was in the pages of a Charles Dickens story. Actually, I came to find out that Allied bombing during World War II razed nearly forty percent of the building stock in the old town. After the war, Rothenburg worked with donations from around the world to rebuild the city center, and made a point to highly respect the historical character of the community. Untrained eyes today can not tell the new buildings from the old.

Not long after the museum, Alexi, Briana, and I decided to escape the masses and explore the old city wall. The wall completes the feeling of stepping back in time that one finds in Rothenburg. In order to even enter the city center one must walk the gates in the wall. We spent our time walking through the corridors of the wall, passing the same windows used by sentries and archers 500 years ago.

As dusk set in we turned back to the city center and rejoined the bus loads of tourists.

Before meeting back up with the full group for the ride back to Eichstätt we made one last pass through the Christmas Market. Below you can see me holding my dinner for the night: a half meter long wurst in fresh bread. I've come to terms with the fact that when I return to America my cholesterol count will be twice the amount it was before I left.

Throngs of tourists aside, I have to say that Rothenburg stands as my favorite small German town that I've had the opportuity to visit. Though several of the buildings were only built 60 years or so ago, the overall historical detail mesmerized me. Further more, the Christmas Market and the Dickens atmosphere provided an all too appropriate means with which to greet the Christmas season.

I feel inclined to offer one last note, inspired by my experience with the tourist masses in Rothenburg. When you travel to a foreign place, exotic locale, or strange environment, go not as a tourist, rather journey as an explorer.

Tourists travel for the sake of vacation or holiday. Tourists arrive at their destination, see the sights, take photos, buy the souvenirs, and return home without any real connection to the place. A tourist stands out as an outsider and makes no attempt to blend in with the local culture; as such, tourists never experience the authentic soul of a place.

Explorers on the other hand travel for the sake of discovery, both of the world and themselves. Explorers acknowledge that some of the sites marked on the free tourist info maps probably really are worth visiting, but to stick with these one would only scratch the surface of a place's essence. Explorers realize that in order to experience this nitty-gritty, one must venture beyond the cleaned-up post card and t-shirt version of a place. Therefore, explorers take the time to learn a little of the local language, customs, history, and traditions knowing that only then the indiginous inhabitants will reach out more warmly to show off their world. Explorers can also leave with photos and trinkets to act as reminders and tell the story of their travels, but the most important souvenirs which an explorer comes away with are the memories, the memories of creating a lasting connection with the people and the culture of a place.

In the end, tourists can only say they visited a place. Explorers can say they discovered a place, experienced it, and lived it. Go not as a tourist, rather journey as an explorer.


DaddyO said...

Nicholas, sounds like you had a good time! Your favorite place so far, that's saying allot. Your dinner looked mighty delicious to me, can't wait to try a couple of those wurst myself. Did you try any of the snowballs? What kind of things are they selling in the Christmas mart?

Grandma said...

WHOW! What wonderful story of your visit to this city. The pictures are great. I know you will have lots to show your Mom, Dad and Austin. We wish you a Merry Christmas and have nice visit. We will be thinking of you all and wishing to be there with you.

Mom said...

I can see why you like this city the best! It looks like it is right out of a fairy tale (Hansel and Gretal perhaps). I can hardly wait to see you and see where your digs are and where you go every day. Dad told me that the Christmas martet will be over when we arrive - that too bad. Maybe they will have a 50% off sale on Dec 26th? What do you think? See you in one week and one day.

Nick O. said...

Dad: I did try the snowballs, they were very tasty. Perhaps a little over priced though. They were selling all kinds of things, decoration, food, candles, clothes, drinks, and other Christmas items.

Grandma: I'll be thinking of you too. Merry Christmas!

Mom: Well, not with the Christmas Markets, but perhaps with the stores. See you soon.