Cloaked in black and brandishing a deadly medieval weapon, Hans-Georg Baumgartner strides purposefully into Market Square at dusk. The crowd parts — not out of fear, but fascination. Cameras flash.
Meet the Night Watchman, a lowly figure in this town centuries ago, but in Baumgartner's incarnation a tour guide with a rock-star aura and a wit so calculatingly clever he's been called a medieval Jerry Seinfeld.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Baumgartner's Watchman tour has helped make Rothenburg — Germany's best-preserved walled town and the jewel of the medieval trade route known as the Romantic Road — one of the country's most popular tourist sites.
Rick Steves, the ubiquitous Europe travel impresario savvy in what American tourists will pay to see, calls the watchman tour "flat-out the most entertaining hour of medieval wonder anywhere in Germany."
While Baumgartner is at the top of the tourist food chain, he's by no means Rothenburg's only attraction. Besides its 2 1/2 mile fortifying wall, the town is also known for the heavy — some might say leaden — Schneeball pastry, medieval crime museum and a hybrid saxophone-trombone instrument invented by a local innkeeper with a passion for Dixieland. Christmas shops sell knickknacks year-round, but a seasonal Christmas market offers puppet shows, concerts and walks during the holiday season. There's often a line to get in to the Kaethe Wolfahrt Christmas shop, an ornament and cuckoo clock emporium popular among U.S. military personnel.
Though 1.5 million tourists visit each year, there's little schlock. Rothenburg's cobblestone streets are spotless, its storefronts neat and charming, its 12th century towers well-preserved. The town is frozen in the Middle Ages splendor that came from a rich textile trade and prime location along the trade route now known as the Romantic Road, which links more than two dozen picturesque German towns and historic sites.
The town is also known for its Jewish history, with Judaica in the Imperial City Museum; and Judengasse (Jews' Lane), a street billed as Germany's only intact ghetto from the Middle Ages.
Perched high above the Tauber River, Rothenburg, offers stunning views, especially for those who climb atop its 20-foot-high covered wall to walk the circumference of the town, officially known as Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
But the real star is the dashing Baumgartner. Tall and lanky, with a billowing midnight cloak, tricorn hat and black boots, he stages a masterful entrance, emerging from an alley into Market Square, the town's center. He hoists a hellebarde, a long, hooked spear with an ax-like blade the watchman carried for protection.
Centuries ago, Baumgartner explains, the watchman made rounds while everyone else slept. His job was to light lamps and check for fire, a grave threat to medieval towns. He sang a song on the hour to remind townsfolk to take precautions against fire, and he carried a horn to sound the alarm. In spite of the job's importance, it was considered a lowly occupation, above only the gravedigger and executioner.
"These two liked to work together because they had the same clients," Baumgartner quips. The line, undoubtedly well-used, nevertheless gets a laugh from the crowd.
Because the watchman was a creature of the night, some viewed him with dark superstition, which doesn't hurt Baumgartner's image one bit.
"I'm real," he promises, with a wink, to those who reach out to touch his cloak.
Dozens of tourists, a majority Americans, are here for his English-speaking tour. He will do another tour in German 90 minutes later. The Americans crowd around and pose for photos with him. The Germans on the next tour are more reserved and stand at a respectful distance.
Baumgartner seasons his historical presentation with sly puns and a comic's timing, never lapsing into the excessive earnestness that can afflict some museum docents and role-playing characters
As he leads the way through town, Baumgartner points out evidence of the harshness of medieval life: the protruding attic pulleys residents used to haul up the year's supply of food they kept to guard against famine, the windows through which they tossed household waste down onto the street. That in turn fostered plague and other illnesses, not to mention a pervasive unpleasant odor, especially in hot weather.
"It wasn't romantic at all in the summer in the city," Baumgartner tells the Americans, many old enough to remember the Lovin' Spoonful hit of the same name. "There were no good old days."
He did a riff on how salt came to be the currency of the land in olden times. His "Please don't pay ME in salt" produced chuckles.
It's clear that Baumgartner, 53, is in tune with his audience. He has been at this for 16 years. He lives here and has a shop with his girlfriend that sells fancy clothes, jewelry, gifts and the Night Watchman DVD, produced by Baumgartner and Florida-based Europe tour company.
In the offseason, from the end of December until mid-March, Baumgartner and his girlfriend travel to Thailand and other spots to vacation and buy items for the shop.
He claims not to tire of the watchman tour, though he does vary it. The version I heard, for example, didn't include the town's claim that its Gothic St. Jacob's Church, with magnificent carved altarpiece depicting the 12 apostles, has a rock crystal containing a drop of Christ's blood said to have magical healing powers.
There are other legends — like the 1631 drinking contest, in which a town official supposedly saved Rothenburg from being destroyed by the Catholic army in the Thirty Years War. It's said that he downed three liters of wine in one gulp, besting the conquering general. That victory aside — it's a centuries-old story, but almost certainly untrue — the town was occupied repeatedly during the war and emerged impoverished.
It was rescued a couple of hundred years later by — what else? — the tourist trade. Tourism surged in the 19th century as romanticism, with its appreciation of the past, swept Europe, but the town suffered a setback in World War II, when U.S. bombing destroyed about 40 percent of its buildings and 2,000 feet of its wall.
To pay for reconstruction, Rothenburg began a worldwide fundraising campaign in the 1950s, inviting people to "buy" a 3 feet of its wall; in return, their names and hometowns were carved on it. Eighty Deutschmarks paid for 3 feet then; now it costs more than $1,400, and yes, there's plenty of space for more names.
Visitors walking the wall today can peer through narrow slits through which townsfolk fired arrows at long-ago attackers and a huge stone mask with gaping eye and mouth holes through which residents poured down boiling oil and pitch "to welcome the enemy," as Baumgartner puts it.
Baumgartner makes no apology for the fact that tourism is the town's — and his — lifeblood.
"We just had to wait long enough until the tourist business started, and now we are back, world-famous, rich again, because of you," he tells his appreciative audience.
His tour typically ends near a pub where part of the building is more than 1,000 years old. The pub's name, Zur Holl, translates as "to hell," and a golden devil cavorts on the sign out front. It's one of the few restaurants in Rothenburg open late at night.
"There's a devil and it's hell, but it's still a nice place," Baumgartner said. "When you walk around our streets and someone tells you go to hell, it's a good recommendation."
Predictable, perhaps, but that line got a laugh, too.