Friday 23 May, Detwang
We devoted the whole day to Rothenburg – with mixed feelings. It certainly has some very lovely buildings, but is not a real town in the way Nördlingen was. It has been discovered in a Big Way by Japanese visitors who drive the entire length of the Romantische Strasse in coaches – the route is even signposted in Japanese as well as German. In the shops signs are in Japanese, in the restaurants menus are also in Japanese and sushi is widely available. It rained steadily most of the morning as they wound their way in bedraggled groups under umbrellas rather like figures in a displaced Hokusai woodcut.
A footpath led up to the old town from Detwang, cutting a couple of kilometres off the distance taken by the winding road from the village. It brought us in to the Klingentor and another rampart walk – taller and more impressive than that in Nördlingen but not as complete. We noticed that metre sections of the wall had been sponsored by companies and individuals, both from Rothenburg and wider afield – most parts of Germany but also from America and even Japan. We noticed none from Britain, although allied bombers had destroyed almost half the medieval town in the 1940s.
Rothenburg means Red Castle – similar to Exeter's Rougemont. The castle occupied a spur of land and was erected in 1142 but was destroyed in an earthquake in 1356. The impressive gate remains but the site of the castle is now planted with gardens which offer wonderful views across the wooded slopes below the town to the ramparts beyond.
The market square has the medieval town hall along one side, although the façade facing the square was reworked in Renaissance style in the 1570s – as was Exeter's but on a less grand scale. In fact Rothenburg was an important imperial city, visited by many emperors, kings and princes. King Christian I of Denmark spent a week in a house on the market square in the 15th century. As we passed the town hall it was lined with Japanese tourists peering up from under their umbrellas at the clock on the Councillor's tavern as moving figures recreated the Meistertrunk. This event supposedly took place during the Thirty Years War in 1631 when the imperial general Tilly arrived in the Protestant town. To put him in a good mood he was given a jug with three litres of wine. Tilly declared that if anyone could down the entire contents in one draught he would exercise mercy. Alderman Nusch managed to do this and so the townsfolk were spared. Over Whitsun a play is also performed to commemorate this event.
The large church of St James extends out over the street, which passes below it though a massive vaulted archway. Like Nördlingen, Rothenburg has the traces of an older inner circuit of walls with street names like Alter Stadtgraben (Old Town Ditch) and even a couple of gateways, the Röder Arch and the White Tower. There are countless picturesque corners, perhaps the most photographed being the little square known as Plönlein, together with Siebers Tower.
But perhaps our best discovery of the day was not in Rothenburg itself, but in the little village of Detwang, older than Rothenburg. The church was dedicated in 968, two centuries before the castle was built, and the tower has Romanesque features. But the treasure was inside – an altarpiece by the wonderful sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider. It was completed in 1508 for St Michael's Chapel in Rothenburg but moved to Detwang in 1653. The central panel had to be cut down to fit, but this does not diminish the effect of the groups of figures around the cross, the deep folds of their drapery, the gestures, the expressions of grief on their faces. It is interesting that Riemenschneider used published engravings as models for his carvings, one of the groups being taken from a copper-engraved passion by Martin Schongauer and a turbaned man among the soldiers from an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, "Die Türkenfamile". The two side altars, dating from a little earlier by unknown Swabian masters, were also very fine. One of them includes a depiction of Saint Ottilie, the patron of those with eye problems, carrying a Bible with two eyes placed on it. Ian took a picture as an act of intercession for Jill.
Saturday 24 May, Kirchzell
We left Detwang and continued north and west along the Romantische Strasse. We followed the pleasant but not spectacular valley of the little river Tauber, through a series of picturesque Swabian towns. One we stopped in briefly was Creglingen, which showed clear signs of its former ramparts in as series of old towers. One of its churches has another altar by the prolific Riemenschneider and there is also a little Jewish Museum.
Further on we passed Bad Mergentheim, home of the German Order of Knights and the ramparts were clearly visible. The other place we stopped in was the sleepy little town of Tauber-Bischofsheim with its castle a riot of half-timbering. One of the half-timbered houses in the town had carved decorations evoking the medieval tale of fair Melusine and there was also a veritable baroque palace erected not for one of the bishops but for a wine merchant. We climbed up to the great hall in the neo-gothic town hall, lined with crests of local communities and enjoyed a view over the market place. The hall was being set up for the count in the European elections due to take place tomorrow.
In Tauber-Bishofsheim we finally left the Tauber valley to continue west through Amorbach to the little village of Kirchzell where we are the only camper van occupying a huge grassed area in the middle of a large but quiet campsite.