A short intro: Why a mystery in Rothenburg?
A long time ago, my hubby and I packed (or rather stuffed!) our Fiat Punto and travelled all the way to Germany to stay in the picturesque town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
I fell instantly under its spell! The town was quaint beyond all expectations.
So no wonder The Watchman of Rothenburg Dies – the book that opens my Homeswappers Mysteries series – takes place along The Romantic Strasse in this stunning medieval town, with its ancient walls, colourful half-timbered houses and mysterious watchtowers.
Visit Rothenburg along The Romantic Road
Rothenburg is one of the main stops along The Romantic Road in Southern Germany, running for about 360km from Füssen to Würtzburg, passing towns and small villages characterised by fairy-tale castles (the most celebrated of which is Neuschwanstein near the beginning of the route), medieval centres and half-timbered buildings.
In our German itinerary, we crossed the Romantic Strasse several times, the first time to visit Füssen and the famous castle of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, then to discover Dinkelsbühl with its mighty walls reflected in the water of the ancient moat. And finally, we chose to spend a few nights in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which turned out to be a smart choice.
It is true that the town is invaded by more than a million tourists a year, but most of them do not stay there for the night. Thus an overnight stop or (better!) longer means you will be able to experience the town early in the morning and in the evening, when its streets empty and you find yourself alone, even in the middle of August, enjoying its extraordinary atmosphere. During the busy daytime, you’re better off exploring the surrounding areas, which are less renowned but equally enchanting.
A marzipan town
We entered Rothenburg through the city walls with their mighty watchtowers. While the grey stone gives the façade of the town an almost austere appearance, as soon as we were inside, we were amazed by the pastel colours of the houses: blue, green and pink, half-timbered, an explosion of flowers everywhere. We seemed to have entered into a fairy tale where the buildings were made of coloured marzipan.
The clock in the Main Square and the history of the Burgomaster
The heart of the town is the Main Square where the enchanting Town Hall stands, as well as the clock with the carillon that rings at 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 20, 21 and 22 hours, telling the story of Rothenburg’s salvation during the Thirty Years’ War. The French General Tilly, about to burn the ancient town to the ground, promised to spare Rothenburg if Burgomaster Nusch, the mayor, was able to gulp down a huge seven pints of wine in one. Guess what? Yes, Der Meistertrunk succeeded in the arduous undertaking and Rothenburg was saved.
In Rothenburg, it’s Christmas all year round
Also in the Main Square stands Käthe Wohlfahrt’s Christmas shop (and museum), selling all kinds of decorations for your windowsill, tree or Nativity scene. I challenge even those who do not like Christmas not to get carried away by the glitter and the beautiful exhibits, made and painted by hand. I still treasure a small reindeer and a Santa Claus I bought in Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
What to eat in Rothenburg ob Der Tauber
In Rothenburg, you’ll find plenty of restaurants and cafés where you can savour the superb Franconian food. Pork is a particular favourite on their menus.
We enjoyed the many bakeries (konditorei), displaying the enchanting schneeballen – fried shortcrust pastry shaped like snowballs, sprinkled with powdered sugar or dipped into white or dark chocolate, nuts, coconut, cinnamon or marzipan, each ingredient giving them a different colour and taste. I also loved the dark rye bread, freshly baked and placed to cool on the wooden racks.
My favourite treats, though, were the cakes, each bakery offering its own personal selection ranging from the classic apple strudel to the amazing Bavarian prinzregententorte: seven layers of thin white sponge, just as many layers of chocolate buttercream, plus a bonus layer of apricot jam. Delicious!
Rothenburg’s museums, churches and shame masks
As in any historical European town, you’ll find plenty of choice in Rothenburg when it comes to visiting museums and ancient churches.
In my cosy mystery The Night Watchman of Rothenburg Dies, I feature the Crime Museum, not only because I found it an intriguing place, but also because of its rich display of “shame masks”. The murderer – for some mysterious reason – has a tendency to place one of these curious masks next to each corpse he or she leaves around the town.
But what is a shame mask in the first place? You may well ask!
They are wrought iron masks, each representing a human weakness. For example, a long tongue signified the blabbermouth, vine leaves on the ears were for those too inclined to overindulge in alcohol, and a pig-shaped nose punished those who were dirty. There was even a flute shame mask for off-key musicians.
You see, during the Middle Ages, the town’s authorities had to avoid things getting out of hand within their community. If someone’s behaviour was, let’s say, morally lacking, then a judge would condemn the guilty person to wear a shame mask for a day, or maybe a week, according to the gravity of their actions. All passers-by would recognise both the sinner and the sin, and they’d be allowed to mock and tease the guilty party. Hopefully, the public shaming would embarrass the sinner to such an extent that they would mend their ways.
And there are more things to do in Rothenburg
There are countless nooks and crannies to discover in Rothenburg. Walking along the city walls will give you a birds’ eye view of the carpet of red roofs, spires and towers (best done at sunset), and over the countryside and its vineyards. The charming Plönlein, sitting halfway between the city centre and the Spittal tower, is so picturesque that Dora, one of the sexagenarian heroines of The Homeswappers Mysteries, stops there every time she passes, much to the irritation of the impatient and less romantic Etta.
Dora stopped, unable to move on. She opened her eyes, then closed them for a few seconds.
“Are you feeling sick?” Etta asked her.
“No,” she protested. “I’m trying to imprint this image upon my memory. I want to remember it forever…”
“Can’t you do that tomorrow, when we’re in less of a hurry?”
“I want to do it now, before we get so used to it that we no longer notice.”
“Can’t you do as we all do?” Etta shrugged impatiently. “Shoot it with a camera and have it impressed in your memory card? It takes two seconds, and if it works for the Japanese, it will work for you too.”
“It’s not the same, I want an internalised picture.”
“And I recommend having an external back-up, just in case.”
Rothenburg ob der Tauber by night – The Watchman Tour
As the sun sets, the adventures in Rothenburg are only just beginning.
At night, the atmosphere becomes dreamy, maybe even a little eerie. Can you hear him? The Night Watchman, a halberd in one hand, an oil lamp in the other, is leading tourists to discover the hidden corners and forgotten secrets of this historic town.
And it’s at this moment of darkness and whispered legends that my story begins…
Attractions around Rothenburg ob der Tauber
You might decide, like my sleuths Etta and Dora, to take one of the many hikes around the town. Perhaps you’ll be drawn to discover the Toppler Castle – spoiler: it’s not what we’d normally call a castle, especially after a visit to Neuschwanstein – and the village of Detwang, which is even older than Rothenburg. It’s also quieter and features its own masterpiece by the woodcarver Riemenschneider. And don’t worry if you feel tired after all that walking. In the evening, the numerous beer gardens will offer you a warm welcome, a tasty bite to eat and a good local beer (or wine) to revive you.
Accommodation in Rothenburg
You will find plenty of hotels, B&Bs and guesthouses in Rothenburg. We stayed at the Gasthaus Spitaltor (which takes its name from one of the town gates). The owners were very kind and the room (behind a small, ancient door that seemed more suited to welcoming gnomes than humans) was delightful. All done out in dark wood, it had two comfortable armchairs where I could sit and write in the evening, breathing in the air of the past. We opted for the convenient half-board option so we could enjoy tasting the local dishes.
The strange thing was that every time we sat down to order our meals, the first one to be served (with both fresh food and water) was Frodo, our golden retriever. As a result, it was relatively easy for me to imagine how Rothenburg folk would behave towards Napoleon, the lovably disobedient Basset Hound who helps his two biped sleuths in their Homeswappers Mysteries.
The Watchman of Rothenburg Dies – A Cozy Mystery set in Rothenburg
A holiday is a time to relax, unwind and see the sights. But for two adventurous sexagenarians, the sights have a tendency to include dead bodies.
Etta and Dora, both newly retired teachers, travel from their home in Southern Italy to a fairy-tale German town for their first home swap holiday, delighted by their neighbours’ warm welcome. But the welcome turns sour when the Night Watchman of Rothenburg is brutally murdered while his tour group takes photographs nearby, a halberd buried in his chest and a peculiar iron mask by his side.
When the murderer claims a second victim and the son of their hospitable neighbours becomes the number-one suspect, Etta’s analytical mind goes to work. Why was a shame mask left at the scene of each murder? Is there a clandestine trade going on behind the scenes of apparently upstanding local businesses? And why does every lead take her back to the sinister Devil’s Ale pub and the terrifying gang who lurk within?
Meanwhile, Dora has a puzzle of her own – how can she persuade Etta that a loveably disobedient Basset Hound called Napoleon is now a permanent part of their lives?
◆◆◆ Pack your bags, jump into the backseat of Etta and Dora’s old Fiat 500, and join them on their travels around Europe. There’ll be mystery, murder and mayhem aplenty wherever they go. ◆◆◆
The Night Watchman of Rothenburg Dies is the first book in the riveting Homeswappers Mysteries a new travel mystery series from Italian author Adriana Licio.
Other Cozy Mysteries set in Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Elizabeth Peters Borrower of the Night
The novel features art historian and amateur sleuth Vicky Bliss, who discovers a document hinting that an unknown masterpiece by the German Renaissance sculptor Riemenschneider is hidden somewhere in the town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
There’s very little she can do from her home in the United States, except jump on the first flight to Germany and book a long stay in the quaint medieval town to carry on with her research. Trouble is, she’s not alone in her quest, and unearthing dark local secrets might lead her into deadly peril.
The mystery was written by Elizabeth Peters, one of the pen names used by Egyptologist and author Barbara Mertz. It’s a clever whodunit, and I recommend reading it if you want to linger in Rothenburg just a little longer.
This, however, is the only mystery novel I could find in English set in Rothenburg – apart from The Night Watchman of Rothenburg Dies, of course. If you come across any more, then please drop me a line.
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