For many foreign travellers “Bavaria” means essentially Upper Bavaria, that southern region of a German province which includes Munich, the sprawling capital, and alpine scenery dotted with fabulous castles like Neuschwanstein, once the bailiwick of Mad King Ludwig.
Less touristed but equally interesting are the more northerly regions of Lower and Eastern Bavaria, Franconia, etc., which geographically account for the greater part of the Bavarian Free State.
The Residenz in Würzburg.
One is tempted to use a word like “heartland” to describe this part of Germany. What it shares with an area like the American Middle West is a range of small cities amid rolling farmlands. The populace seems to largely consist of industrious folk who love family outings where arguments over local soccer clubs are fueled by generous supplies of bratwurst and beer.
What distinguishes Bavaria from the American experience, however, is a recorded history stretching back to Roman times. Bavaria’s venerable architecture — churches, royal residences, private homes — were fashioned by guilds of master craftsmen whose traditions were centuries in the making. Such admirable qualities in the Bavarians—both their feeling for past glory and a robust embrace of simple pleasures like food and drink—help make their towns so delightful.
Grand Staircase of the Residenz.
Three of the Bavarian cities I visited recently reflect these traits. The historic towns of Würzburg, Augsburg and Regensburg may lie within an hour’s drive of one another, but their distinctive cultures were formed centuries before the advent of either an autobahn or the modern Bavarian state itself.
The Stadtkeller in Würzburg.
Würzburg, which sits astride the River Main, is the capital of Lower Franconia. “Franconia” echoes the era of Roman conquest, when “Franks” were considered as one barbarian tribe before being divided into the “West Franks”, who ultimately became the nation of France, and the “East Franks” or Germanic peoples who populated the great river valleys including the Rhine, Main and upper Danube. The Latin name Franconia (German: Franken) survives today only in those regions of northern Bavaria which extend from Würzburg eastward to include the impressive historic towns of Bamberg and Bayreuth and southward to Nuremberg, the largest Franconian city.
Bavaria may be famous for its beer (the province features scores of local breweries) but Würzburg is wine country. Vines cover the steep hillsides of the Main valley, producing characteristic dry white wines marketed in their familiar teardrop bottle (the “Bocksbeutel”). Goethe was said to be so fond of Franconian wine that he would drink no other (!) and had it shipped by the wagon load to his home in Weimar. Würzburg also has the distinction of suffering near total destruction by British bombs. A 1945 air raid leveled the city center, killing more than five thousand civilians. In the twenty years following World War II all historically significant buildings and monuments were painstakingly restored.
The Old Main Bridge and
Of those buildings the most renowned is the Residenz, an eighteenth century baroque masterpiece meant to rival Versailles. It was fashioned by architect Balthasar Neumann at the behest of the powerful Catholic prince-bishops who ruled Würzburg for centuries. A good half day is needed to explore its treasures, which include a staircase reputed to be the world’s grandest, graced by frescos of the Italian master Tiepolo. Opulent apartments, manicured formal gardens, the subterranean Stadtkeller housing oaken barrels of some of Germany’s finest royal wines—all are worth examining at a leisurely pace befitting the era in which the Residenz flourished.
Although Franconia is historically the most Protestant part of Bavaria, domination by the prince-bishops in Würzburg and Bamberg meant that those cities remained staunchly Roman Catholic. St. Kilian’s, named for an Irish missionary, is the fourth largest Romanesque cathedral in Germany.
Augsburg Rathaus and Tower.
Just beyond the medieval Old Main Bridge looms Marienburg Fortress, which has protected Würzburg under the aegis of the prince-bishops since the thirteenth century. The walk up through vineyards to the Fortress provides charming vistas on the River Main and access to the important historical collections of the Mainfrankishes Museum. A bit further on lies the baroque Käpelle, a Catholic pilgrimage chapel well worth seeing. The entire Fortress complex reflects the power of the prince-bishops in an era when Würzburg was synonymous with the religious and political conservatism of many city-states in Germany.
A short stay in Würzburg should also include a boat excursion to one or more of the lovely wine villages along the River Main. A number of wineries within the city, like in ]uliusspital, provide the opportunity to sample their products and local cuisine on the premises.
Golden Room in the Rathaus.
The Renaissance face of Augsburg, eighty miles south of Würzburg along the Romantic Road, suggests kinship with its Franconian neighbor. But Augsburg is not part of Franconia. Nominally the principal city of Allgäu/Schwaben, the westernmost region of Bavaria, it has close ties to nearby Munich and a rich cultural history of its own.
Where Würzburg is traditionally Catholic, Augsburg is Lutheran. Where Würzburg is interwoven with vineyard and farmland, Augsburg moves to a more urban tempo. Its fame in the medieval world centered both on singular craftsmanship—the guilds of gold and silversmiths here were unsurpassed---and on the power of great banking families like the Fuggers and Welsers.
In keeping with predominantly secular accomplishments, Augsburg’s most impressive monuments are its city hall, merchant homes, and a pair of public hospices which reveal a surprisingly modern attitude toward social services.
Fugger palace in Augsburg.
The seventeenth century Rathaus (city hall) is one the grandest in Germany, a symbol of Augsburg’s status as a Free City within the Holy Roman Empire. “Free” in this context meant the opportunity to welcome debate over ideas of Martin Luther and the Reformation; to encourage the development of trade, innovation and scientific method. As Augsburgers never tire of reminding their big city neighbors, Augsburg was an important metropolis at a time when Munich was little more than a trading post.
Inside the Rathaus is the Golden Room, a marvelously decorated interior with walnut coffered ceiling and gilded reliefs. This artistic treasure was largely destroyed by bombs in 1944 and completely restored only in 1985. Walking south from Rathausplatz down Maximilianstrasse provides a look at Renaissance era town houses—many also restored after the War—built by wealthy merchants of Augsburg’s golden age. Most prominent of all is the palace erected in 1512 by Jakob Fugger, “banker to Emperors” and one of the world’s richest men. A contemporary of the Medicis, Fugger rivaled the Florentines both in wealth and patronage of the arts and sciences.
The renovated Synagogue of Augsburg.
Typical Regensburg beer garden.
The nearby Fuggerei, dignified lodgings for the poor of Augsburg configured by Fugger himself, represents one of Europe’s earliest attempts at social welfare and remains in operation to this day. One can walk among the cottages where still hundreds of the indigent and elderly reside for a rent of about one Euro per annum. Another emblem of Augsburg’s innovative spirit is the Kurhaustheatre, an Art Nouveau gem restored only in 1996. In lovely parkland of suburban Göggingen, the Kurhaus was originally a theatre within the Heilanstalt (Nursing Home) of Johann von Hessing, a famous practitioner of holistic medicine in the nineteenth century. The orthopedic clinic, where once czars and emperors came to be treated, continues its work while the theatre has become one of three major stage venues in Augsburg.
For a city of 300,000, Augsburg also offers an incredibly rich variety of historical museums, churches, a richly restored synagogue, plus a system of canals, waterways and parks that surpass many larger urban areas of Europe. On the well trodden face of Europe, Augsburg remains one of the least known jewels of the continent.
St. Peter's Cathedral in Regensburg.
If both Würzburg and Augsburg somewhat contradict the popular image of Bavaria—Würzburg with its viniculture; Augsburg with its industrial craftsmanship and mercantile accomplishments—Regensburg beckons us back into the beer-and-bratwurst gemütlichkeit many of us hold dear. Fortunately the medieval core of Regensburg, once the political capital of Bavaria, was spared the aerial bombardments which so devastated its sister cities. Thus the magnificent St. Peter’s Cathedral, a French Gothic wonder; the Altes Rathaus, where the Perpetual Holy Roman Imperial Diet sat in residence for nearly 150 years; the Goldener Turm, grandest of the tower-homes of wealthy merchants—all these buildings and scores of others retain intact their original character.
Regensburg has been labeled a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. To stroll through the old town and over the Stone Bridge spanning the Danube is to come closer to the spirit of the Middle Ages than perhaps anywhere else in Germany. In addition to Regensburg’s historic importance—more than 1000 monuments are protected under preservation status—the lively University city offers a cultural scene of concerts and film festivals. The restaurants specialize in stout Bavarian fare for every season and in fine weather the crowded beer gardens serve up a variety of local brews. Three memorable venues strike me as emblematic of Regensburg’s considerable charm.
Goldener Turm in Regensburg.
Most spectacular is the Palace of the Princes of Thurn und Taxis. Historically, the noble house of Thurn und Taxis is remembered as holding the monopoly on postal services throughout the Holy Roman Empire for 350 years! Once the Empire was dissolved by Napoleon, the princes returned to their home base at Regensburg to build a magnificent neo-Rococo palace which today is one of Bavaria’s most visited regal residences. Thurn und Taxis still represents one of the major breweries of Eastern Bavaria. Next door to the Palace, at the Fürstliches Brauhaus, one can sample the princely brew in a sumptuous beer hall with outdoor garden.
While on the subject of Bavarian food and drink, I must also mention the ancient Würstkuche (sausage kitchen), a humble shack beside the Danube which Regensburgers claim as the oldest bratwurst cookery in Germany. Sit outdoors on wooden benches to munch fresh grilled sausages on a bed of sauerkraut with Bavarian mustard. Wash it all down with a stein of helles or pils. Heaven on earth!
The Danube Bridge and St. Peter's.
Biking or hiking the trails along the Danube—Regensburg was originally built as a fort by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius at the river’s northernmost point—allow one to discover a countryside which has become a Mecca for outdoors enthusiasts. Also available are boating excursions upriver to the Danube Gorge and downstream a few miles to Walhalla, a nineteenth century marble hall modeled on the Athenian Parthenon and dedicated to the memory of great Germans past and present.
One can readily utilize any of the three highlighted cities as a base for further exploration of Bavaria. From Würzburg south toward Augsburg lie enroute the wonderful castles and towns—Rothenburg ob der Tauber is only the most famous—of the Romantic Road. East of Würzburg and not to be overlooked are the UNESCO protected medieval town of Bamberg and also Bayreuth, host city to the famed annual festival of Wagnerian operas. Of course quite nearby are the two larger cities of Bavaria, Munich and Nuremberg.
Courtyard of the Palace of Turn und Taxis.
But they are another story for another day.
Walhalla near Regensburg.
For further information on travel to any of the three Bavarian towns featured in this article, consult the following websites.
Würzburg: www.wuerzburg.de and firstname.lastname@example.org
www.augsburg-tourismus.de and email@example.com
Regensburg www.regensburg.de and firstname.lastname@example.org
Another excellent source of information for these and other smaller cities of Germany can be found at the website for Historic Cities of Germany at www.historicgermany.com
— Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Jetsetters Magazine European Editor.