We finally get around to Germany's most popular small town destination for Americans. Contributing editors Claudia Fischer and Roger Holliday find Rothenburg ob der Tauber surprisingly free of schlock.

Absolutely everybody goes to Rothenburg ob der Tauber. In fact, the very thought of it is enough to convince any normal person not to go to there.

That, however, would be a mistake.

In spite of it all - the mega parking lots, the tour buses, the multilingual signs, the masses of tourists standing passively in front of one sight or another, collectively looking here, looking there, moving as one behind upraised umbrellas - Rothenburg ob der Tauber has retained its integrity as a perfectly preserved medieval town.

It can't have been easy. The place virtually cries out for sleazy souvenir shops and ice cream vendors, but for more than a hundred years the citizens of Rothenburg have stood fast against that sort of invasion. Not for a moment have they let their guard down as so many other picturesque places have, to their eternal regret. No glass-sided department store squats on this market square. Commercial, yes. Tacky, no.

The one tiny overindulgence - the legend of the Meistertrunk - is easily forgiven.

It seems that during the Thirty Years War which, just to refresh your memory, was a bitter 17th-century struggle between Catholics and Protestants the citizens of Rothenburg made a big mistake. They sided with the Protestants, a decision for which they would pay dearly.

In 1631, General Tilly, a Catholic, stormed the gates, captured the town and was about to order wholesale destruction when someone offered him a conciliatory glass of local wine. So impressed was the General that he offered to spare the town, provided one of the assembled VIPs could drink a 3-1/4 liter tankard of the wine in one draught.

Former burgermeister Nusch rose to the challenge. He downed the wine, slept three days and supposedly lived to the age of 80.

At any rate, it's a great story and you can't go anywhere in Rothenburg without confronting yet another depiction of the good Nusch's noble deed.

In reality, the prosperous town was stripped of all its wealth by Tilly and left to sink into obscurity, remaining over the centuries much too poor to even consider civic improvement projects. Rothenburg ob der Tauber waited, untouched, until the late 19th-century when by chance a Romantic painter happened along and extolled to the world the virtues of this tiny little remnant of the past.

Time marched on until, in the darkness of night on March 31, 1945, Allied planes returned from a raid on Nürnberg with a few unused bombs. They dropped them on Rothenburg, severely damaging 40% of the old town. The damaged structures were carefully rebuilt using photographs, paintings and drawings to ensure accuracy on the exteriors. The interiors, however, were constructed to 20th-century standards of plumbing and electricity. The happy result is modernization within antiquity, a characteristic that serves hotel patrons well.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber Hotels

The good people of Rothenburg o.d. Tauber have made sure that no one should ever be turned away for lack of a decent place to sleep or eat. There are lots of hotels and restaurants in every price category.

Interestingly, while there are a number of quality hotels, none is graced with more than three 'bumps' by the venerable Red Michelin for Germany, presumably for lack of conference rooms and valet parking. The shortcomings of Michelin's rigid rating system are clearly illustrated when two hotels - one positively oozing charm, the other take-it-or-leave-it simplicity - both receive two 'bumps'.

Romantic Hotel Eisenhut

(Editor's Choice)

The best-known hotel in Rothenburg, the Eisenhut, is impressive from the moment you walk through the big front doors and into a lobby that can only be described as baronial. Stone arches supported by thick columns, heavy ceiling beams, helmets and spears, statues everywhere, all dominated by an enormous wooden staircase leading dramatically to the floors above. It's a challenge to even find the front desk, so inconspicuous is its presence.

The atmosphere, dignified and slightly formal, is suitable to the setting and a refreshing change from the usual forced jollity. Under the direction of Karl Prüsse, who's been at the helm for over twenty years, unobtrusive professionalism is in evidence from concierge to chambermaids.

The hotel, located just off Market Square, is made up of the separate houses of three 16th-century patricians, so locating your room may require some interesting twists and turns through the corridors. The good sized rooms are typically equipped with color TV, radio, mini-bar, tub and shower, hair dryer and two phones, one of which is in the bathroom. Some rooms have balconies, many have magnificent views of the valley below.

The hotel bar occupies one corner of a large lounge with small tables and comfortable chairs arranged into groups for easy conversation - it's a bit like being in someone's living room. An impressive piece of memorabilia you're not likely to have at home, however, is a big table top covered with the autographs of famous Eisenhut guests: Winston Churchill, Clement Atlee, Edward Heath, Marilyn Horne, Burt Lancaster, Franz Josef Strauss and the Crown Prince of Japan, to name a few.

The dining room lives up to the standards set by the rest of the establishment. Two soup options, cream of wild mushroom garnished with spring onions and cream of asparagus with Brittany lobster, cost 12 and 15 DM ($7-$9) respectively. Grilled salmon steak on a bed of fennel looked as good as it tasted (about $30) as did a substantial plate of fresh asparagus accompanied by a rare fillet of beef (56 DM/$33).

Eisenhut Hotel-Restaurant, Herrngasse 3-7, D-8803 Rothenburg ob der Tauber, phone 09861/7050, fax 09861/705 45. Singles 205 DM to 225 DM ($121-$132), doubles $300 285 DM to 380 DM ($168-$223). Major cards.

Hotel Eisenhut: III

Restaurant Eisenhut: 2 stars

Hotel Goldener Hirsch

The façade of the Goldener Hirsch isn't particularly imposing but for visual excitement its location is hard to beat. Outside the front door is the Plönlein, Rothenburg's most photographed scene, an intersection of two cobbled streets each ending in a tower and framed by half-timbered houses.

A short walk through the lobby to the Blau Terrace Restaurant in back reveals a stunning and completely unexpected view of the city walls and the lush countryside of the Tauber Valley that literally takes ones breath away. The local saying is that at the Goldener Hirsch a few short steps take you from the city into the country.

The building, which dates back to 1476 AD, features a balustered walkway overlooking a ballroom, big wrought iron doors, oriental rugs and dark wood paneling.

Each guestroom is different, some of the older ones are frankly a little funky and old fashioned but each has its own character. Ten recently remodeled rooms are the pride of manager, Wilhelm Hornn, who designed many of the special features which include pull-out luggage racks, a night light that comes on when you get out of bed and special granite counter tops in each bathroom.

Note: some rooms do not have ensuite plumbing facilities.

Hotel Goldener Hirsch, Untere Schmiedgasse 16-25, D-8803 Rothenburg ob der Tauber, phone 09861/7080, fax 09861/708100. Singles with WC/bath or shower 120 DM to 195 DM ($71-$115), doubles with WC/bath or shower 170 DM to 295 DM ($100-$174). Major cards.

Hotel Goldener Hirsch: III

Romantic Hotel Markusturm

The history of Markusturm goes back a few years, too. Markusturm, or St. Mark's Towergate, was part of the first city wall built in 1172. The building that now is the hotel was originally a customs house and it wasn't until 1488 when an inn and a brewery were added that the long tradition of hospitality began.

Though somewhat unsophisticated and schmaltzy for a hotel with these prices, the general feeling is one of friendly comfort. A standard double that costs 270 DM ($159) during high season is pleasantly furnished and has TV, radio, phone and a full bathroom with tub, shower and hair dryer. One of the 300 DM ($176) rooms, on the other hand, was much larger with a sofa and leather chair in a separate sitting area and a huge bathroom. Some rooms have four-poster beds, himmel betts.

Romantik Hotel Markusturm, Rödergasse 1, D-8803 Rothenburg ob der Tauber, phone 09861/2370, fax (09861) 2692. Singles 140 DM to 170 DM ($82-$100), doubles 300 DM to 350 DM ($176-$206). Major cards.

Romantic Hotel Markusturm: II

Hotel Reichs-Küchenmeister

(Editor's Choice)

The Hotel Reichs-Küchenmeister is definitely a family institution. Not only is the fifth generation busy running the hotel, but the rest of the Niedners seem fully occupied producing excellent sculptures and paintings to adorn guest rooms, hallways and staircases. This family's warmth and enthusiasm permeate the whole operation.

Parts of the building can be traced back to the eleventh century. The name Reichs-Küchenmeister means 'master baker of the realm' and the emblems of a knight's helmet and assorted cooking utensils have been in place for 800 years. It's been a hotel since 1455.

The thirty-five guest rooms are fully modern, however, with cozy painted wood furnishings and fresh flowers. Each one has its own special touches, some even have himmel betts.

Seventeen rooms which opened in a nearby annex in 1992 are clean, bright and more standardized with hairdryers, mini-bars and good bedside lighting.

There is also a sauna, whirlpool, Turkish bath and solarium as well as a guest room accessible to the handicapped.

The dining room, decorated with old family portraits, serves reasonably priced meals that include some vegetarian dishes, not a common occurrence in meat-loving Germany. Dinners cost 16 to 40 DM ($9-$24). Fresh fish raised in the family's ponds is a specialty of the house.

But the hotel's best feature is a beautiful stone terrace where guests can spend a sunny afternoon under shade trees, enjoying the view of St. Jacob's Church and the chapel of St. Michael.

Hotel Reichs-Küchenmeister Kirchplatz 8, 8803 Rothenburg ob der Tauber, phone 09861/2046, fax 09861/86965. Singles 85 DM to 130 DM ($50-$76), doubles 120 DM to 180 DM ($71-$106). Major cards.

Hotel Reichs-Küchenmeister: III G $

Hotel Tilman Riemenschneider

Tilman Riemenschneider, the 15th-century master sculptor whose works can be found throughout Germany, including the nearby St. Jacob's, would no doubt be surprised to find a hotel named after him. The Hotel Tilman Riemenschneider is well located near the market square and has the usual amenities. Typical double rooms are attractively furnished, some with peasant style chests and armoires.

The hotel is perfectly acceptable but caters heavily to tour groups. The dining room menu, for example, is safely generic and prominently displayed in English. In the lobby, numerous trinkets, obviously aimed at tourists, are offered for sale.

Hotel Tilman Riemenschneider, Georgengasse 11-13, D-8803 Rothenburg ob der Tauber, phone 09861/61 20 86, fax 09861/2979. Singles 140 DM ($82), doubles 220 DM to 250 DM ($129-$147), triples 280 DM ($165). All credit cards.

Hotel Tilman Riemenschneider: I

Glocke Ring Hotel

This more moderately-priced hotel is nicely situated across the street from the Hotel Goldener Adler. The rooms lack charm but are clean and comfortable.

Glocke Ring Hotel, am Plönlein 1, D-8803 Rothenburg ob der Tauber, phone 09861/3025, fax 09861/86711. Singles 87 DM-135 DM ($51-$79), doubles 144 DM-174 DM ($85-$102).

Glocke Ring Hotel: I

Glocke Restaurant

A better reason for stopping at the Glocke Ring Hotel is its downstairs restaurant where hearty, well prepared meals are served throughout the day. The traditional stube atmosphere features natural oak floors, benches and paneling set off by wrought iron light fixtures and a vase of fresh apple blossoms on each table.

Main dishes are from 13.50 DM to 27.70 DM ($8-$16). The goulash soup at 6.80 DM ($4) was bland but half a roasted chicken served with an excellent mixed salad was a good value at 13.80 DM ($8). A somewhat unusual but tasty item on the menu is hausmachte käse spätzen mit röstzwiebeln und bunter salat (13.80 DM/$8) a sort of macaroni and cheese made with spätzle that came with crisp, fried onions and salad.

Glocke Restaurant: Good

Some Final Words

• Shops abound in Rothenburg and, despite the rarefied location, prices in the well-known stores seem about the same as elsewhere. One unique establishment, however, is Käthe Wohlfahrt. The theme is Christmas and with over 65,000 different items from inexpensive glass orbs to elaborate candelabras and nutcrackers, there must be a suitable Yuletide souvenir for just about anyone. The two main stores are on the Herrngasse and worth a stop.

• Rothenburg's busy season runs from April through October and then picks up again for the Christmas Market which takes place in the market square during Advent. It is futile to try to miss the crowds but avoid weekends and realize that July and August are the months with the heaviest concentration of Americans and Japanese. Many, if not most, tourists come to Rothenburg by bus in the early afternoon and leave by six o'clock, so evenings and mornings are relatively calm. Plan to stay a night or two and you'll have time to explore the pretty side streets and back gardens.

• Take a walk all the way around the city wall; you can do it on the ground or up on the ramparts themselves, an easy three-mile walk which we enjoyed very early one morning. All was peaceful and quiet with not much but the chirping of birds to break the silence.

• And on December 26? You can almost hear every one of Rothenburg's 11,000 residents let out a collective sigh of relief as another year's tourist season finally ends and they begin to settle in for a long winter's rest.