Preserving Another Era Along West Germany's Romantic Road

Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

Of the two dozen or so delightful medieval towns strung out along this country's Romantic Road, from Franconia's Wurzburg 217 miles south to Fussen, deep in Bavaria, this one is surely the most colorful, renowned and popular.

Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber (its full name) had been a stronghold of the Franks since the 10th Century. Its magnificent city walls and towers, along with the Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture, had survived fire, flood and earthquakes through the ages.

But it was two developments from the Thirty Years' War in the 17th Century that contributed most to Rothenburg's almost pristine beauty.

A conquering general, smitten by the marvelous local wine, offered to spare razing the town if a Rothenburg citizen could quaff a three-quart tankard in one draft.

A former Burgermeister mastered the toper's task and the town was spared. Alas, the same war reduced Rothenburg to just another poor market town, languishing in its poverty while others modernized and expanded.

So it was that a sympathetic general, hardy drinker and hard times combined to preserve a near-perfect medieval city for us to visit today.

Here to there: Take Lufthansa's daily nonstop to Frankfurt. TWA, Delta, Pan Am, Northwest, American and several foreign carriers also fly there, with changes. Two luxurious Europabuses leave Frankfurt and Wurzburg every morning (also Munich and Fussen in the south) for runs along the Romantic Road, stopping at most towns on the way for sightseeing and/or lunch.

A stewardess aboard gives regional history and highlights of each town. Your ticket is good for four weeks and you may get off and on anywhere along the way. Eurail pass and German Rail pass holders ride free, the perfect way for a hassle-free holiday.

How long/how much? Give Rothenburg a day or two and, if you have the time, spend a week in towns along the Romantic Road. Even with our weakened dollar, lodging and dining costs are moderate in all but the very finest places.

A few fast facts: West Germany's mark recently traded at 1.64 to the dollar, about 61 cents each. It's lovely here in the springtime, when the many flowers, rolling farmland and birch and pine forests are at their best. July and August can be crowded, but it's probably most crowded in gorgeous September.

Getting settled in: Hotel Sonne (Hafengasse 11; $47 U.S. B&B; double) is a neat and simple place at town center. It has small rooms with pine furnishings, lacy curtains, thick down comforters. There's a little restaurant there (more on that later). Upstairs rooms take a bit of climbing, so you may want to ask for the first floor.

Gasthof Zur Schranne (Schrannenplatz 6; $55 double B&B;) is a 17th-Century patrician home right beside the city walls. There's plenty of parking, which can be a problem in compact Rothenburg. More small rooms with pine furniture giving off a wondrous aroma, each with huge bed and down comforters. More: a large dining room, simply furnished, and a convivial bar hosting locals for a beer or schnapps.

Zur Glocke (Am Plonlein 1; $67-$85) could very well be on the most photographed intersection in Germany, the Plonlein, which has a remarkable backdrop of a city gate and tower to go with its cobble streets. Rustic appeal and Gemutlichkeit (good spirit) top to bottom, moderate-size rooms with a few more amenities than those above, some with TV. Excellent dining room.

Regional food and drink: Schaufele mit Klossen-- roast pork shoulder with dumplings--is a local favorite, along with trout and the cherished carp. When fried, the latter is served with potato salad; boiled, it comes with hot butter and boiled potatoes. Wild boar, venison and other game appear in season. Local bratwurst is said to rival that of Nuremberg's.

Schneeballen --snowballs made of cake dough and dusted with sugar--are a favorite dessert. The best wines come from the Wurzburg region. Tucher, a Pilsen from Nuremberg, is the beer of choice here and excellent.

Moderate-cost dining: Baumeisterhaus (Am Marktplatz) is in a marvelous old building dating from 1596, its walls covered with antlers, ancient crests of patrician families and portraits.

Several rooms and a courtyard each have a distinct atmosphere of old Rothenburg, but the superlative local dishes are the stuff of memories. Landsknechttopf , a thick lentil ragout with three kinds of sausage and homemade spatzle, is a house specialty.

But the venison goulash with mushrooms and Preiselbeeren (similar to cranberries) gets our vote as the menu's best.

Hotel Sonne's little dining room has a simple menu that lets you choose from Franconian-Bavarian dishes, all prepared well and inexpensive. The thick soups are delicious; wurst and cutlets really stick to your ribs. And don't forget to try the homemade apple cake.

Zur Glocke hotel's menu is much more extensive and leans toward game, fish and fowl. We had a spread of rich and hearty soup, roast goose, red cabbage, nudeln (noodles) and Preiselbeeren, topped with dessert, for $18. Informal Franconian atmosphere and furnishings, beautiful porcelain stove and a house-owned vineyard supplying the wine list.

Going first-class: Eisenhut (Herrngasse 3; $128-$174 double B&B;) sits right in the center of everything, steps from the main square. Originally a wine house more than a century ago, Eisenhut's four floors of meandering rooms and hallways are crammed with antiques, statues and art work. Bedrooms, however, have their full measure of flounce and chintz. Excellent dining room and service.

Hotel Markusturm (Rodergasse 1; $98-$146 B&B; double) is a member of the Romantik Hotel group, an enchanting former customs house built in 1264 and converted to an inn in 1488.

This is a very cozy, friendly place, probably the town's most spirited inn. Lots of beams, old chests and carvings, four-poster and hand-painted beds. Every possible amenity in bedrooms, plus sauna, solarium and a dining room that does wonders with fish from the hotel's dozen fish ponds.

Wine is served from their 700-year-old cellars. Beguiling is the word for Markusturm; you'll love it.

On your own: Rothenburg is really a town for just walking aimlessly, savoring the melange of centuries-old architecture around every turn of its cobbled streets and lanes. Strolling along on top of the old city walls and ramparts is a must, while a visit to St. James Church with its masterful 16th-Century altarpiece should not be missed.

The town hall is particularly interesting--one part Gothic, the other Renaissance, a most formidable building. Rothenburg is roughly midway along the Romantic Road, the perfect base for day trips to Wurzburg, Dinkelsbuhl, Feuchtwangen, Nordlingen and other charming towns and villages in one of Germany's loveliest regions.

For more information: Call the German National Tourist Office at (213) 688-7332, or write 444 S. Flower St., Suite 2230, Los Angeles 90071, for a brochure on Rothenburg, another on the Romantic Road, maps of the country and information on the German Rail pass. Ask for the Rothenburg package.

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