The stairs were uneven, the path was narrow, and some portions seemed on the verge of crumbling, but I loved it nonetheless. Walking along the wall of Rothenburg ob der Tauber may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s a rewarding experience that is worth the possibility of risk. The city of Rothenburg will gift you with sights of half-timbered homes, stretches of green valleys on the horizon, and peaks of the inner city between rooftops.
As my group approached the wall of Rothenburg on a Wednesday morning in May, I picked up my pace in excitement when I first glimpsed it. I was forced to stand on the side of the road to photograph the gate in front of me as cars came and went through it. They weren’t pausing like I was, stopping to soak in the sight of an impressive, intact city wall. I approached the gate and started looking for stairs to climb up. That was when Mr. Meena pointed out that the stairs wouldn’t be on the outside of the wall.
Of course. This isn’t just something neat to see in a tourist filled city.
This was a military battleground.
The wall of Rothenburg dates back to the 14th century and includes 42 gates and towers among its defenses. One of those towers, the Spitaltor, has seven gates, a portcullis, a drawbridge, and a parapet with cannon. The Burgtor has a both a large, heavy gate with a murder opening and a narrow gap called the “Eye-of-the-Needle”, which was the only way people were allowed to leave at night – that is if they were granted permission to leave by the Town Council. The entire wall of Rothenburg stands as testimony to the desire of an imperial city to protect itself from outsiders. Yet the weakest gate, the Galgentor, is the spot where the town was breached in the 17th century during the Thirty Years’ War.
With that in mind we passed underneath that very gate, thankful for a time of freedom and peace, and ascended the stairs to begin our walk along the wall.
Uneven stones made up the wall to my left, alternating between shades of brown, orange, and red. The pathway stretched out in front of us and we were fortunate to be the only ones on it. Wooden beams and a small roof hovered not far above my head. More beams formed a protective railing to my right as I gazed out over homes close to the wall. Deep windows were spaced out along the wall, but instead of providing a panoramic view of the countryside they featured only narrow openings. I pressed my face up to the gaps to peer out while reflecting on those that might have stood in that very spot with bow and arrow to defend their city.
Various names and dates appeared along the wall as yet another reminder of war.
War was the purpose for building the wall, it was the reason the wall was breached in the 17th century, and it was also why nearly 50% of the wall was destroyed decades ago. During WWII the U.S. military intentionally made attempts to preserve the historical city, but nevertheless dropped bombs that destroyed homes, killed residents, and took out approximately 2000 feet of the wall.
The wall of Rothenburg was quickly repaired after the war, with donations coming in from all over the world to help in the effort. According to the city, the success of the various post-war restorations was their most significant achievement in recent history. We saw donation bricks like this one incorporated into the wall every few feet in heavily repaired areas.
We briefly passed through dark corridors inside the various towers, testing out the different platforms and aromas with apprehension. Looking down from our vantage point on the wall we observed people in their everyday lives. People who were walking their dog or driving to work, all within sight of this piece of history. While they were moving forward, busy, distracted, we were going back in time and reveling in the fact that we could actually walk on top of this fortified wall.
While there were many reminders of the ugliness of war along the wall, there was also abundant beauty.
We saw bright blue lawn ornaments and lovingly tended garden paths. Young German children scrambling up the stairs ahead of their families. A tall red and yellow half-timbered home that rivals the more famous one on the Plönlein.
We enjoyed taking in the flowering trees and the landscape of the city’s rooftops.
We looked forward to each bend in the 3.5 kilometers of the wall and seeing what was beyond it.
We laughed at plants trying to find a way inside and wondered what we would be waiting for us each time we looked out of the many small openings.
When we reached the Spitaltor we were intrigued by its impressive structure and walked throughout some of its dark, circular corridors. We waved to one another as we leaned out of windows on opposite sides of an interior courtyard.
After our fascinating exploration of the gate, which is inscribed with “Peace to those who enter in, good health to those who leave again”, we did indeed leave, exiting outside the wall. We realized shortly after that the covered walkway does not continue for the entire wall. We even lost the wall for a while and walked between homes and into the city before finding it again.
One of my favorite features along that part of our walk was an outdoor theater area where the walkway had many steps that dipped and rose again in symmetry.
There were several platforms throughout our walk that overlooked valleys of Rothenburg. Some were little more than cement balconies, but the Burggarten (located immediately outside the city wall via the Burgtor) featured a garden with sheer precipices at the furthest edge of its walls. We stopped to take in the expansive view of the city and a section of its wall. Towers and buildings demonstrated their heights in the distance while the valley revealed homes, churches, and the Tauber. It made me feel like there was so much more to discover there.
We detoured for a delicious German lunch at the Flairhotel Reichsküchenmeister and later continued our walk of the wall, once again starting at the Galgentor and heading in the opposite direction.
This stretch of the wall seemed older than the portion we walked earlier. There were wooden panels covering gaps in the path, which we carefully stepped across. We squeezed through many tight spaces, forced to walk in single file. At times we pressed close to the inside of the wall, silently questioning its stability. One member of our group nearly turned back due to anxiety about the safety of that part of the wall.
There were more ways that this part of the wall was different. Our horizon was more limited; we saw the city up close but had less of those far flung views of the countryside that we liked so much. But we still enjoyed scenes of half-timbered homes and greenery.
There were even love locks along the wall, showing us that this place was quite special for some.
With each step we took things started to look a bit less like the perfect, stereotypical Rothenburg that tourists have come to love. Tiles were missing from the covered walkway. Trees and vines started taking over the path. The lovely homes started to deteriorate, with the roofs too dirty to see the standard red tiles. Some houses looked abandoned, were barely holding together, or were overflowing with items as if they were asking for an intervention from the hoarders TV series. Perhaps this is the part of town that the tour guides skip over. I didn’t mind, I wanted to see and experience everything about Rothenburg, not just the most aesthetically pleasing, magnetic tourist attractions.
All too abruptly our walk ended. The walking path became stairs, we descended to ground level, and it seemed that this special time was over. I wasn’t ready to leave, so we explored the outside of the wall for a time. I looked up at the height of it, this wall that is still faithfully doing its job to protect the city. Houses peaked over the top and some were even incorporated into it. I could hear people talking on the other side and occasionally see someone walk past one of the upper window slits.
We found a playground outside the wall and enjoyed it as if we were all 20 years younger. Our hearts were ready to laugh and have a good time together.
Walking along the wall of Rothenburg brought out the best in all of us. I felt relaxed, enlightened, thoughtful, and fortunate. Our spirits were buoyed as we spent a few more hours exploring Rothenburg and made a detour in another town on our way home. It was a flawless day trip that gave our family (the group was myself, Mr. Meena, his brother, and his brother’s wife) time to bond and fond memories to recall together for many years.
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Do yourself a favor – head to Rothenburg and walk the entire wall. You won’t forget it.
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