‘Preserving and revitalising the past’ – this is the motto of the Imperial City Festival.
Set in the picturesque olde worlde German town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in the heart of Bavaria, this annual 3 day festival in September brings together 30 historical groups (and over 1000 participants) who re-enact scenes from Germany’s ancient past. From medieval craftsmen to Imperial warriors and Franciscan monks, you never know which historical character you are going to meet around the next corner. Time travel at its very best…
The festivities begin with a dramatic torchlight procession through the town at night, with singing, chanting, juggling, jousting and fire eating. The first evening ends in a spectacular fashion with glittering fireworks over the town hall, complimented by haunting classical music, light shows and live performances by a brass band. The festival is visited by tourists and locals alike and participants range from young children to grandparents, making it something the whole family can enjoy together.
You can see the magnificent torchlight opening procession in this video.
The celebrations take over the whole town and bring the local area to life. Every building feels like a theatre, as you meet costumed locals still in character in restaurants and shops, as well as marching along the main market square. During the second day, there is a full schedule from morning until night, including dancing, medieval arts and crafts, cooking, singing and even rope and basket making.
The most famous part of the festival is the Shepherd’s dance (Der Meistertrunk) on the market square on the final day. According to one of the legends of the Middle Ages, the shepherds of Rothenburg saved the town from the Black Death. In return, they were given the privilege to dance on the central market square and people feel honoured to be chosen to take part in this dance and wear ribbons to remember this.
The festival is loved by the locals as it’s a chance for them to have reunions with relatives and friends, and perform special routines just once a year.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Rothenburg itself is a wonderful place to visit – famous for being one of the most beautiful towns in Germany and attracting over 2.5 million visitors each year. Located on the romantic road in Bavaria, it’s the perfect place to stop off on a German road trip. It’s just over an hour on the train from Nuremberg in the heart of Franconia. There’s a small train station that’s only 10 minutes walk from the Old Town or if you fancy travelling by bus, there is a Romantic Road coach that operates daily. The town is surrounded by the best preserved medieval wall in Germany and has immaculately restored architecture from the Middle Ages.
It’s known as Germany’s ‘Christmas town’ as it has a Christmas shop and museum open all year-round – so it never loses its festive spirit. The town is picturesque and unspoilt and surrounded by the Tauber River Valley so it’s well worth renting a bike and exploring the countryside. Climb to the top of the Town Hall Tower for the perfect photo opportunity of panoramic views of the valley.
It’s a great place to come throughout the year with regular festivals and of course the famous Christmas market. The town is so small that it’s easy to walk around and you do not need to take a taxi. It’s the sort of place where everyone knows each other and the locals welcome tourists with open arms.
If you have time to step away from the festival, be sure to visit the Medieval Crime Museum (Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum) which has thousands of artefacts revealing the laws and methods of punishment from medieval times. It even has the famous ‘The Iron Maiden’ statue – so you’ll learn that this is in fact more than just the name of a rock band.
Money Saving Tips
- For a tasty inexpensive snack that Rothenburg is famous for – try ‘schneeballen’ (snowballs) which are giant balls of sweet deep-fried dough covered in icing sugar, nuts or chocolate (not good for the waistline but extremely tasty!)
- To learn about the history of Rothenburg and life in the Middle Ages, go on the Night Watchman tour which costs a very reasonable €7 and lasts for 60 minutes.
Did You Know?
- In 1274 Rothenburg became a free imperial city. The knights of King Rudolf handed over the Imperial City Privilege document to the city.
- The scenes in many films and animations have been based on Rothenburg, including Disney’s Pinocchio and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
- Raymond Unwin designed Hampstead Garden Suburb (Greater London) with inspiration from architectural design in Rothenburg.
Visiting the medieval campsite and watching local craftsmen making beer, ironsmiths creating trinkets and bands performing folk songs around a camp fire. There’s something really special about seeing old traditions kept alive.
Here is a video of the festival highlights.