The Romantic Road, a 350-km route which runs through scenic rural Bavaria, is dotted with pretty towns, many with half-timbered houses – and some even with the ancient medieval wall still surrounding them. The most popular of these, Rothenburg, is a tourist honeypot, and rightly so. But there is an alternative, just as pretty, just as immaculate, but without the bus tours, an hour to the south, Nördlingen.
There’s something more authentic to this place, which may be to do with absence of crowds of tourists. Here, as at Rothenburg, the medieval wall still has its covered sentry’s walk, although in Nördlingen’s case it goes all the way round, with 3km completely intact.
If you climb to the top of the Danielturm, from where you can look out across a sea of ochre roofs to the town-girdling wall, beyond which where the fertile fields of Franconia begin, you get the impression that this little gem of a town hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. Not surprising, then, that it has been used as backdrop in fantasy films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The Danielturm, which is part of the late Gothic 15th century Georgeskirche, is something of a symbol of Nördlingen, not least because of its nightly watchmens’ call. Every half hour, from 10pm to midnight, the cry rings out: So G’sell so, an old Franconian expression which literally translates ‘hey buddy hey’ but has come, over the centuries, to mean ‘All’s well’.
Inside the church itself, the highlight is the soaring baroque altar topped by a highly decorative carved and painted wooden crucifixion by the great fifteenth-century Dutch sculptor Nicolaus Gerhaert von Leyden.
The streets outside (many pedestrianized) are lined with overhanging half timbered houses, pillared and gabled and with terraced cafes on the cobbles in front. The Marktplatz in particular, just on the north side of the church, is surrounded by buildings of competing antiquity and architectural styles from the renaissance to the baroque, including the 14th century Rathaus, which has a rare roofed and fluted stone staircase. During December, the Nördlingen Christmas market is one of the best and most beautiful advent markets in the whole of Swabia.
For visitors arriving via Munich or Stuttgart who want to see one of the best cross-sections of the Romantic Road, Nördlingen is also more easily accessible than its more celebrated cousins further north.
Nördlingen has another, completely unexpected, claim to fame, which dates back a great deal longer than any of its architecture: it is in the middle of a giant crater created 15 million years ago when a huge asteroid came crashing through the atmosphere. The high-speed impact made a crater 25km wide and 1,500 metres deep, which in the many years since has filled with rich and fertile soil.
If you know what you are looking for, you can make out the crater edges from up on the Danielturm, but you get a much better insight into the geology of the impact from the Riesenkrater Museum, in a converted 15th century barn in the centre of town.
One of the unlikely consequences of that impact is the presence of compacted quartz in the rock formations around Nördlingen. Having mined that rock for building material, the town can safely say that extra-terrestrial action is partly responsible for the way Nördlingen looks today!