Soaking up the festive spirit in Germany's Rothenburg, where Christmas reigns supreme

This Bavarian town is steeped in holiday cheer thanks to winter markets, a museum dedicated to Christmas and quaint artisanal shops

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Walking through the medieval gates of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, in the Franconian part of Bavaria, feels like stepping onto the pages of a fairytale.

Overlooking the Tauber Valley, with its rolling hills and vineyards, Rothenburg is home to half-timbered houses with sloping red-tiled roofs, cobblestone lanes, well-preserved city walls and 40 towers. The town on Germany’s so-called Romantic Road has, unsurprisingly, served as the location for a number of Hollywood films, including Walt Disney's Pinocchio.

Rothenburg was once the second largest city in Germany and, sitting at the intersection of major trade routes, was an important one. But in the 17th century, after a siege in the Thirty Years' War, it lost much of its stature. Today, the patrician homes of the city’s former traders have been converted into charming hotels and restaurants.

Peeking into the shop windows of every bakery in town, I come across one of Rothenburg’s specialities — delicately rolled snowballs. At Konditorei Walter Friedel, the cafe’s fourth-generation owner shows me how they are made.

He crafts strips of shortcrust pastry out of eggs and flour, before rolling them into dainty circles and deep frying until golden brown. They are then dusted with powdered sugar. “Don't bite into them like an apple, instead just crush them lightly into pieces and have them with tea or coffee,” he advises.

Delicately rolled snowballs are a Rothenburg speciality. Kalpana Sunder for The National

Like many German cities, Rothenburg has a great tradition of celebrating the festive season, with a 500-year-old Christmas market called the Reiterlesmarkt, where decorated stalls are set against the backdrop of medieval houses.

As we walk through town, I am entranced by the displays in store windows, which are lit by fairy lights and animated with Christmas scenes. I become a child again as I watch monkeys carrying buckets and teddy bears cleaning windows in a moving toy village at the entrance to the “mother of all Christmas stores”.

Kathe Wohlfahrt's Christmas village, which is open throughout the year, started with a music box that German couple Kathe and Wilhelm Wohlfahrt bought their friends for a belated Christmas gift.

They started their year-round Christmas shop in 1964, selling traditional products made in Germany, including hand-painted decorations and gifts made out of glass, pewter and wood. Today, the third generation of the family runs the shop and its various branches around Germany and the world.

Taking centre stage at Kathe Wohlfahrt's is a gargantuan white Christmas tree, decorated with 2,000 baubles, silver tinsel and more than 12,500 LED lights. The shop is also the site of more than 4km-worth of Christmas garlands and traditional carols play on a loop.

I browse through alcoves and shelves stacked with Christmas decorations — from nutcrackers, gingerbread men and snow globes; Christmas pyramids that rotate; wooden incense burners in all shapes and forms; and lit arches called Schwibbogen, which can be placed behind windows for an added dose of festive cheer. One section of the shop also sells typical souvenirs from Germany, including cuckoo clocks and steins.

Taking centre stage at Kathe Wohlfahrt's is a gargantuan white Christmas tree, decorated with 2,000 baubles. Kalpana Sunder for The National

The Christmas Museum on the top floor offers a journey back in time, tracing the history of the religious festival back to the first Christmas trees, which were fir or spruce and decorated with fruits. It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that the custom of placing small decorated trees in parlours became common in German-speaking countries.

There are glass cabinets featuring antique decorations — from animals to fruits to mushrooms made from cardboard and painted cotton wool. Other displays include miniature Christmas trees sent to soldiers during the First and Second World Wars, vintage Christmas cards and advent calendars, as well as representations of Santa Claus through the ages.

There are glass baubles produced around 1900 in Thuringia, which the glassblowers' wives had to lug along a 15km-long trail to traders in Sonneberg — as well as 3D figures laminated with mica or gold foil, called Dresden cardboard, which was used to decorate Christmas trees circa 1875.

Franz Weber at Sweet Company. Kalpana Sunder for The National

Next up is a visit to confectioner Franz Weber at Sweet Company, which is filled with the rich aroma of fruit. I watch engrossed as Weber expertly melts, stretches, pulls and rolls sugar into sweets and lollipops. “During this season we make as much as 80kg of sweet a day and use 1,200kg of sugar a month,” Weber says as he rolls out a striped, heart-shaped lollipop and hands it to me.

At Leyk, a local shop founded 30 years ago, Ursula and Bernd Schulz create candlelit clay cottages that are painted to resemble Rothenberg Old Town’s half-timbered buildings, as well as structures from other German cities. Many of them are miniatures of real buildings, while some are created from their imagination. The tiny structures are made by an all-female team — from designing, cutting, firing, glazing and painting to shipping the finished product.

That night, as I walk around town escorted by a guide dressed in a black cape and broadbrimmed hat, like a nightwatchman from medieval times, I am further bewitched by this fairy tale town — with its lit-up window displays and towers and gates looming in the background. The spirit of Christmas reigns supreme here.

Updated: December 22, 2022, 7:05 AM