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Medieval Meets Modern

German town retains its antique charm - and wires for cable

ROTHENBURG exudes the kind of charm one expects from Germany's ``Romantic Road.'' Cobbled streets. A 600-year-old apothecary. Churches and fortifications that date from the Middle Ages.

But hold onto your lederhosen. Even medieval walls can't stop all progress. Rothenburg ob der Tauber - the city that Frommer's calls ``the finest medieval city in Europe'' - now has a McDonald's.

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When the restaurant applied to set up shop three years ago, ``we couldn't find any reason not to have a McDonald's here,'' says Johann Kempter, director of the local tourist office. The restaurant followed the city's exacting rules about the exterior of the restaurant. Because the apothecary it took over had an outdoor wrought-iron sign, McDonald's was allowed the same. (No neon. This is Rothenburg, after all.)

And somehow, it works. Even golden arches can't diminish the awe that Rothenburg inspires.

The starting point for any visit to Rothenburg is Marktplatz. It's the site of the Rathaus or City Hall, which combines a Gothic tower and German Renaissance facade, the Lowen Apotheke (``with service since 1374''), and the gabled Councillor's Tavern. The tavern sports a golden clock and, since 1910, mechanical marionettes.

For two deutsche marks (about $1.30), tourists can climb the 197-foot Rathaus tower and contemplate the city's long history. The earls of Rothenburg began building here late in the 10th century. Portions of the city wall date from the 13th century. Construction of one of Rothenburg's most famous churches - St. Jacob's - started in 1311.

Tourists move on from the Marktplatz to see the city's ramparts, the small streets with half-timbered houses that sport colorful window boxes, and tiny shops that sell everything from horn-handled carving sets to original Steiff bears. They can visit the Imperial City Museum, the Doll and Toy Museum, or, for a darker view of the Middle Ages, the sometimes gruesome exhibits of the Criminal Museum.

Most of the visitors here are day tourists. Some 2.5 million people pass through each year. By night, most of the tourists leave. What little traffic there is in the day dribbles to nothing, and the city quiets. There's only the occasional strains from street musicians or the patter of a tour guide.

Night-watchman tours are a popular way to experience Rothenburg after dark. Donning shapeless black hats, and long black cloaks, and hoisting miniature halberds (axes on long poles), the guides look more like make-believe executioners. The candle lanterns they wield lend an eerie glow to the historic streets.

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It may be that Rothenburg has reached its economic peak. Besides the tourists who come during the summer months or the special Christmas season, Rothenburg has attracted new industry outside the walls of the old city. With the addition of East Germany, the city now sits near the center of the newly unified Germany. In the last decade, the population has grown from about 1,000 people to 12,000.

Rothenburg's last peak - right around the year 1400 under Lord Mayor Heinrich Toppler - lasted only a few years before the city began a long economic slide. By the mid-17th century, after occupation by French troops, Rothenburg became an insignificant rural town. Tourism began to pick up in the 19th century. But it was in 1945 that the city reached its most important crossroads. Bombed a few months before the end of World War II, city officials had to decide whether to rebuild as a modern city or as a medieval town. They voted 13 to 11 to preserve Rothenburg's medieval character.

Now, ``the biggest challenge is that we should not become a museum,'' Mr. Kempter says. Some 3,000 people live inside the wall. ``That's a compromise between the tourism business and a good standard of living,'' he says.

For example: The old city is being wired for cable TV. Workers are digging up the street around the Rathaus to link up the city's computers. ``You have an ancient building but you need a modern standard of living,'' Kempter says. ``It's a very fine line.''

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