The Imperial City German Festival; Why you've probably never heard of it
It's coming up to Oktoberfest, the time of the year at which the whole world suddenly seems to find itself caught in the grip of a Germanic mania. Everywhere you turn you'll find a German Festival. Hardly surprising when you consider all that great beer is being consumed in gorgeous quantities by all and sundry. I myself had the pleasure of visiting Berlin during Oktoberfest, and currently I can honestly say that I can barely remember a thing about the experience. I do know that I had a hell of a good time though, so there's always that.
Yes, donning your Bavarian lederhosen and finding a good street stall or market in which to soak up the atmosphere is one of those parts of the autumn season that most of us look forward to. Indeed, for many people it's one of the biggest priorities when visiting Germany.
But if you're heading to Europe this year and want to enjoy something different, yet with a distinctly Teutonic spirit, then you could certainly do a lot worse than Rothenburg's Imperial City Festival, a more obscure public carnival that makes you feel like you've jumped in a time machine and journeyed back to the middle ages. Much like other towns such as Venice or Bruges, Rothenburg ob der Tauber (translation "red fortress above the Tauber river") has been almost perfectly architecturally preserved to resemble a medieval German community, and the historic buildings look much like they would have in the 15th century.
The Imperial City Festival takes place annually in Rothenberg. Weirdly enough, even though most people outside of Germany have never visited this picturesque town, it probably looks oddly familiar, with its narrow cobbled streets, gingerbread-style roof tiles and Grimm's fairy tale aesthetic. That's because the town of Rothenburg has been a feature of numerous movies and pop culture references for years. It was the inspiration for the village in Disney's Pinocchio, and the filming location for Vulgarian village scenes in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Certain scenes from Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows were also filmed there.
The motto of the Imperial City Festival is "Preserving and revitalising the past", and that's exactly what it aims to do. The annual three day festival in September is a collaborative effort between more than 30 separate historical reenactment societies, as well as over 1000 participants who aim to bring Germany's past to vivid life. There are soldiers and guardsmen, cobblers and fletchers, blacksmiths and costermongers, and all manner of other characters wearing authentic period garb.
The festivities start with an impressive torchlight procession through the town under cover of darkness, where participants sing old world songs and hymns and engage in medieval street performances, like jousting, juggling and fire eating. The first night ends with a fireworks show over the town hall, as well as multiple light shows and live performances by a brass band.
During the second day usually consists of a combination of dancing, and medieval arts and crafts, such as rope and basket making, weaving, embroidery and falconry. But the most famous event in the festival's schedule is arguably The Shepherd’s Dance (Der Meistertrunk) which occurs in the market square on the final day of the festival.
According to local folklore dating back hundreds of years, the humble shepherds of Rothenburg allegedly ensured that nobody in the town suffered from the bubonic plague when they used their sheep-dogs to attack rats and other vermin in the vicinity. In return for their forestalling the Black Death, the shepherds were allowed to dance in the central market square every year. Although actual shepherds are few and far between these days, nowadays local citizens are chosen by ballot to take part in the traditional jig and wear ribbons in honour of their heritage.
There are a number of other reasons to visit the town of Rothenburg - which attracts over 2.5 million visitors annually. Situated by the famous Romantic Road in Bavaria, the town is surrounded by a well-preserved medieval wall and the old stone buildings have been immaculately restored to resemble their prime during the late Middle Ages. Rothenburg is also known as Germany’s "Christmas town" since it boasts its own Christmas shop and museum, and the top of the Town Hall Tower offers panoramic views of the valley.
If you're in the mood for something a little bit more creepy, then you could do a lot worse than the Medieval Crime Museum (Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum) which contains thousands of disturbing artefacts from a more Draconian age of crime and punishment. It's most famous exhibit is undoubtedly the "Iron Maiden" statue. The original grisly torture device was lost in the allied bombing of Nuremberg in 1944, but a copy from the Royal Castle of Nuremberg was made for the sake of public display.
It's amazing to see such old traditions kept alive in 21st century. So maybe, just maybe, as an alternative to the usual vacation experience, you might consider travelling back in time, as well as to Germany. Just mind your hangover isn't too bad.