Christmas card comes alive

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Rothenburg in Bavaria combines a Middle Ages look with yuletide stores, museums

For stoking the Christmas spirit, the Bavarian village of Rothenburg ob der Tauber stands out with year-round Christmas decoration stores, a doll and toy museum, and a German Christmas museum harking back to the 1600s, when the family tree was hung with apples, paper roses, cookies and sausage.
Bolstering the mood, the village itself resembles a romantic Christmas card with its half-timber-framed houses, winding cobblestone streets and city gates topped with watchtowers. The local government preserves the look by limiting commercial signs to forged-iron creations. No non-resident car traffic is allowed inside the city walls after 7 p.m.
The combination of a Middle Ages look and Christmas orientation has made a tourist mecca of Rothenburg, helped by its location on Germany's romantic route of medieval towns from Wurzburg (east of Frankfurt) to the Alps. Rothenburg gets 2.5 million visitors a year, said tourist director Sven-Olaf Bruggemann, who stresses in publicity that the village boasts 42 towers, though it only has a population of 6,500 within its walls.
I visited in November, a quiet time before the Christmas market period (Nov. 27 to Dec. 23), when villages of wooden huts selling handicrafts, gingerbread and mulled wine spring up in many German cities. Rothenburg's market is unusual for using locally produced white wine in its mulled wine instead of the usual red.
My first stop was the Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas Village, the main outlet of a family business that claims it pioneered year-round Christmas stores. Coming to Rothenburg around 1980, it added Christmas sentiment as a tourist draw and attracted many smaller year-round Christmas stores to the village.
"We pick cities that look nice, without steel and glass buildings," explained Kathe Wohlfahrt's spokeswoman, Felicitas Hoptner. Small cities without much competition from sightseeing are also favoured, so shoppers have more time in the store.
Time is clearly needed; we took almost two hours in the cozily lit store, poring over traditional German Christmas items such as nutcrackers, incense smoking figures, music boxes, pyramids (carousals powered by the rising candle heat hitting a rotor blade) and much more. Picking out the cutest "smoker" figure from an impossibly cute selection took 15 minutes.
Among the 30,000 items in the store, 10 per cent are imported from China and the rest are authentic German-made, said Hoptner. Prices are high, but she points out the intricate painting on the wood figures. Certain items are limited edition, numbered like prints; others are indicated as "new for 2009."
Many wooden items come from the Erzgebirge mining region of southeastern Germany, where miners took to carving when the ore ran out. Wohlfahrt's own designers create some figures.
The German Christmas museum, also a Wohlfahrt endeavour, is upstairs from the store. Displays track the evolution of tree ornaments made of paper, cotton and glass. An early artificial tree with branches made from ruffled goose feathers is there, along with an Art Nouveau silver and white tree of the early 1900s incorporating a new invention: tinsel.
The changing image of Saint Nick culminates with a stern-faced Father Christmas figure; our present-day jolly Santa Claus was a creation of the Coca-Cola marketing department, Hoptner said.
Around a corner from the Wohlfahrt store is the Doll and Toy (Puppen und Spielzeug) Museum. Based on private collecting by Katharina Engels, who was on site preparing a nativity display, it displays more than 1,000 French- and German-made dolls from the last 200 years.
Even if you don't play with dolls, the museum is a striking show of miniaturist art: tiny dolls with intricate dress in their houses and kitchens with tiny furnishings and pots and pans, toy trains, barnyard scenes with cows, geese and farmers drawing hay, tin soldiers, merry-go-rounds and more.
An English printed guide is available to describe the exhibits, and little dolls, tiny furniture and postcards are on sale at the museum shop.
Back on the street, a "night watchman" tour gives a sense of Rothenburg history. Dressed in black hat and cape, holding a halberd, lit lantern and cow's horn used to warn of fires, the hirsute watchman gives nightly English tours with an amusing speech cadence evoking Johnny Depp's famous pirate, Jack Sparrow.
We gathered on the marketplace at 8 p.m. in time to see tiny figures appear on the tourist information building to play out a local legend from the Thirty Years War (1618-48) between Catholics and Protestants. One is a Catholic general who had Protestant Rothenburg at his mercy. The other is a local who drank a 3.25-litre tankard of wine in one long gulp on the general's dare and saved the city from destruction.
The legend is recalled in an annual pageant involving residents in period costumes. But the war's main impact was to leave Rothenburg too impoverished to renovate and rebuild. "The town fell asleep for 250 years, and this is why it is so well preserved," said the night watchman, played by Hans Georg Baumgartner.
Its slumber ended only in the 1880s, when painters came and produced images of romantic Rothenburg that attracted tourists.
From the market square, the watchman led us down the Herrngasse, the town's widest street, lined with the houses of rich families. Rich agricultural lands, textile making and a location on trade routes made Rothenburg wealthy before the Thirty Years War. The walk took a spooky turn as we passed through the Castle Gate, where the watchman pointed to a mask of two eyes and a frowning oval mouth embedded on the tower wall. "Boiling oil was poured from the mouth on to unwelcome guests," he said.

BEGINOPTIONALTRIM
We continued walking in misty darkness along a city wall before terminating the outing at a comfortable restaurant named Zur Holl (meaning "hell" and leading to smart remarks about seeing you in hell). According to the menu cover, it is the oldest house in Rothenburg. My waiter said it was built in 1475, but the foundations go back 900 to 1,000 years.
Other Rothenburg points of interest are described on a walking tour leaflet available at the tourist office. The most curious is a medieval "crime and justice" museum that displays instruments of torture and humiliation, including a spiked chair, iron maiden and grotesque metal masks worn by executioners or offenders.
Rothenburg's leading church, St. Jacob's, is notable for its altar created to hold a relic that attracted Middle Ages pilgrims: a drop of Christ's blood. The Gothic structure was consecrated in 1485.
For a break from cobblestones, the castle gardens offer peaceful green space with views of the Tauber River below. Named for a castle built around 1100 and later destroyed by an earthquake, the park holds surprises, such as a memorial plaque to a 1298 pogrom against local Jews - erected 700 years later, in 1998.
Bakeries also belong on any tour. In Rothenburg, they produce the local culinary specialty called snowballs. Baker Walter Friedel, a fifth-generation snowball maker with a shop by the market square, showed me how thin strips of dough are skilfully crumpled into a ball and covered with icing sugar or chocolate. At the peak, he turns out 3,000 a day.
Oddly, the baked balls have been all the snow Rothenburg gets until January in recent years, due to global warming, they say. It's the only thing missing in the Christmas scene.


IF YOU GO:
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is 2 1/2 hours southeast of Frankfurt by the fastest train connections, with changes at Wurzburg and Steinach. For a rail pass or individual tickets, go to www.raileurope.com.
Where to stay: Hotel Eisenhut (www.eisenhut.com) amalgamates several patrician houses in the village centre. Common areas are decorated with old woodwork and oil paintings. Rooms are individually decorated. Rates from 100 to 200 euros (about $160 to $320 Cdn).
Night watchman (www.nightwatchman.de) has English one-hour walking tours nightly at 8 p.m. from March through December. Cost is 6 euros ($9.50).
Toys: Kathe Wohlfahrt store (www.bestofchristmas.com) and Doll and Toy Museum (www.spielzeugmuseum.rothenburg.de, in German).
For more information: www.rothenburg.de.

Organizations: German Christmas museum, Coca-Cola, Doll and Toy Museum

Geographic location: Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, Frankfurt Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas Village China Castle Gate Tauber River Steinach

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