For the boost of energy needed to face the winter, this time we set off to discover what gluten-free Germany is like, choosing the enchanting town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria as our destination: an idea to go to Germany during the Oktoberfest that is about to start, looking for some gluten-free beer options.
Gluten-free Germany: parents’ escape to Rothenburg
When you walk through the arched gateway under one of the towers of the city’s high walls, you take a leap back of a thousand years amongst the intricate cobbled alleys and colourful houses with pointed roofs.
Wherever you look, vibrant flowers, gleaming wrought-iron signs, doors opening on cosy and unusual cafés appear, gradually leading us to the market square, Marktplatz, in front of the town hall, where history and legend merge.
The imposing building of the white Councillors’ Tavern towers over the square with its clock, which opens on the stroke of the hour, recalling the legend of how the city was saved from destruction during the Thirty Years’ War thanks to the Meistertrunk, or Master Draught, according to which if the mayor drank three litres of beer (or wine, according to other sources and a gluten-free legend) in one gulp, the city would be spared.
A breathtaking view of the town of Rothenburg
To get the full view of the city, its structure and the tangle of two-storey houses, you have to climb the tower of the town hall, which is open from 9.30 am to 5 pm. Unfortunately, the closing time does not make it possible to enjoy the sunset, so it is worth going up early in the morning to avoid the crowd of visitors that would make the climb up the steep, narrow wooden steps decidedly challenging, but the effort and a few shivers of fear are worth the spectacle that opens up once you reach the narrow tower.
After a pleasant break at the Café enzig Artig surrounded by the most varied items, all for sale just like food and drinks, you can also tackle the walk along the city walls rebuilt after the bombing that destroyed the city on 30 March 1945 thanks to the donations of benefactors from all over the world whose name are written on the walls.
From the city walls you can enjoy the jungle of steep roofs rising towards the city centre topped by the towers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. James.
The church located along the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago has been a destination for pilgrims for centuries and houses an imposing wooden altar with the saint’s relic, the only case of a Catholic relic being present in a Reformed church.
The city where it’s Christmas all year round
In Rothenburg, it is impossible to escape the allure of Christmas, even if the temperature in this unusual September is 30 degrees Celsius, so we are first attracted by a colourful carload of gift packages, then by the illuminated shop windows, Christmas trees and irresistible animations for young and old: this is where the magic of Käthe Wohlfahrt begins.
Christmas music, animated nativity scenes, lights, cuckoo clocks, decorations of every colour, shape and theme, despite resorting to all my willpower, at Christmas there will be snowflake-shaped biscuits on our table.
And for lovers of this festivity, Rothenburg is a must-visit destination in the weeks leading up to Christmas when its streets and central square come alive with one of Europe’s most popular Christmas markets.
The night watchmen
What happened during the Middle Ages when the city gates closed at sunset? To find out, just join the crowds of tourists who at 8pm, in English, and 9.30pm, in German, follow the night watchman armed with lantern and halberd as he recounts his adventures in carrying out his precious duties within the walls of Rothenburg.
And with the night watchman, also the sun sets colouring the sky and the walls of the houses with a pink aura that makes the stories of the unusual black-cloaked character frighteningly credible.
Gluten-free Germany: what to do in Rothenburg
In a Bavarian city that recorded 2.5 million visitors in 2019, the offer of gluten-free dishes certainly has much room for improvement. In the whole of the old city, I found only one Italian restaurant, Michelangelo, which offers a gluten-free menu (although it claims not to guarantee 100 per cent absence of cross contamination).
The food speciality of Franconia, the region where Rothenburg is located, is carp that is served grilled or with a white wine sauce in the months containing the letter R in their name, but in the restaurants we visited carp was not gluten free.
Meat dishes abound everywhere, although it is fundamental to check carefully with the restaurant staff who are not always well informed.
Rothenburg’s typical sweets, the so called snowballs, are not available in a gluten-free version, but I couldn’t but mention them because of their popularity: the dough is similar to the one used for Italian Carnival “Chiacchiere” and is deep fried using moulds that give it the characteristic round shape.
If it is true that in all the meals we had, we were never served bread, surely for our family needs this food cannot be missing. My advice is thus to visit one of the supermarkets of the many German retailers present in order to find a very wide selection of gluten-free products not to be caught unprepared.
Having bought bread, you can certainly enjoy the Villa Mittermeier hotel and restaurant where breakfast is a wealth of naturally gluten-free products, well insulated from possible sources of contamination. Furthermore, chef Christian Mittermeier is fully available to welcome guests with coeliac disease, possibly with prior reservation, and the menu proposal is decidedly exciting (although, to be fair, due to the quality of the raw materials and proposals, not within the reach of all budgets).
A full immersion in nature
that Rothenburg is 400 metres above sea level, but you only have to step outside the city walls and take one of the 12 paths marked on the hiking map to find yourself surrounded by greenery and to have an enchanting view of the colourful settlement.
Furthermore, Rothenburg lies along the Romantische Strasse, one of the most spectacular and famous tourist itineraries that starts in Würzburg and ends in Füssen on the German Alps covering a distance of 460 kilometres dotted by places of historic and scenic interest, including Rothenburg.
The Villa Mittermeier hotel provides us with the perfect picnic backpack: plates, cutlery, glasses, a full meal, as well as water and wine.
Path no. 2 is the one that follows the Tauber river, populated by mills that were used in the past both for milling grain and for chopping wood, but which unfortunately are no longer in operation, although this does not affect the pleasure of the shady forest trails with well-maintained paths that are accessible even to inexperienced walkers.
We walk for 11 km chatting, photographing and enjoying the peace that gives us the unexpected sight of a kingfisher, the turquoise bird I had only read about in fairy tales. Having found a table carved out of a log with respective benches, we can enjoy the Mittermeier treasure by setting a perfect picnic in the middle of the forest.
Also not to be missed is the walk that follows the city walls to see the 22 towers that surround the city, a route that allows you to enter and exit the city gates, sometimes getting lost to then get back on track or pick a different route.
For those who prefer cycling to walking, the choice of cycle paths and routes is equally wide and rewarding.
The museums you don’t expect
If we Italians expect to find a museum on the history of the city in just about every tourist destination (Rothenburg Museum), surely the Crime Museum and the Christmas Museum are unusual and opposite.
The Medieval Crime Museum features the most comprehensive (and chilling) collection of torture instruments used in the Middle Ages, one of the darkest moments of humanity and certainly a warning not to fall back into such barbarity, but still a visit I would not recommend to families with children.
Exactly the opposite is the climate of the Christmas Museum, opened in 2000 by the entrepreneur Harald Wohlfahrt, the creator of the famous Christmas shops that bear his name (Käthe Wohlfahrt), where the Christmas traditions of all German regions are recounted and valuable objects from its origin to the middle of the last century are collected.
How to get to Rothenburg
Rothenburg is located 80km from Nuremberg. The quickest solution from Italy is to fly to Nuremberg and rent a car or take one of the many regional trains to Rothenburg.
Trains are a convenient but rather time-consuming alternative, while the car can be a stimulating option if you plan stops at attractive locations along the way in both Switzerland and Germany.
For our trip, we chose an itinerary that involved meeting up with our fellow adventurers Ellen and Fred Gromann at Lake Constance and then driving to our destination. Once again, Lake Constance gave us memorable experiences to add to what I had experienced in my previous trip.