ROTHENBURG OB DER TAUBER, Germany - 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 clever wit. 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 2.5-mile fortifying wall, the town is also known for its heavy Schneeball pastry, medieval crime museum and a hybrid saxophone-trombone instrument invented by a local innkeeper.
Christmas shops sell knickknacks year-round, but a seasonal Christmas market offers puppet shows, concerts and walks. 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. 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 axlike 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. The job was considered a lowly occupation, above only gravedigger and executioner.
"These two liked to work together because they had the same clients," Baumgartner quipped. *