Within an hour’s drive east of Frankfurt are three of the most historical and attractive cities in central Europe: Wurzburg, Bamburg and Nuremberg.
They form a rough triangle within northern Bavaria, in the heart of Germany.
Separating them is a land of rolling hills, vineyards, ancient castles and picturesque villages in a region called Franconia.
None are promoted heavily as major destinations, yet these ancient cities are among the brightest jewels in the European experience. Bamburg is a university city known as the Rome of Franconia because of its seven hills.
Its fine medieval buildings and ancient street plan remain intact, carefully preserved by city politicians and planners.
East lies Bayreuth, home of the yearly Wagnerian festival. And Wagnerians, of course, know Nuremberg from Tannhauser and the Guild of the Meistersinger. Albert Durer, one of Germany’s greatest portrait painters, lived there.
But it’s in Wurzburg, 100 kilometres from Frankfurt, that one finds the architectural and historical heart of the region.
It held enormous power 200 years ago, when the region was ruled by princes who were elected through the See of Wurzburg after the area was Christianized in the late Seventh century. Today, it’s a much less powerful city that lies on both sides of the river Main. Y
et it still draws on its past and derives several advantages from it — the valley, the castle atop the hillside and the framework of nearby vineyards just outside the downtown area.
A place of tradition and art, this is a city that revels in its wine — Franconian wine easily recognized by its Bocksbeutel bottle, shaped like a fat pear with a short neck.
From downtown looking in almost any direction, you can see vineyards on the surrounding hillsides. The three largest estates — Staatlicher Hofkeller (state court cellar), the Buergerspital zum Heiligen Geist (the citizen’s Hospital of the Holy Spirit founded in 1319) and the Juliusspital (founded in 1516) all have cellars and historic vaults that can be toured — and tasted. T
he city rests at the head of the Romantic Road, the old highway south that winds past the ancient walled city of Rothenburg, past Augsburg and to the Bavarian Alps, ending at Fussen, near where King Ludwig II built his fairy-tale castle, Neuschwanstein.
Two places in the city of 128,000 citizens reflect its heart and the soul: the Residence and the Hof zum Stachel. The Residence — former home of the prince-bishops of Wurzburg — is a tribute to German Baroque architecture and has been declared an international monument by the United Nations.
The Weinhaus zum Stachel is the oldest surviving part of the original Hof zum Stachel building, with the inner courtyard and terrace built in 1675.
Everywhere you walk in Wurzburg, the past haunts you with its ongoing presence.
But, unlike Vienna or Paris, it does not impose its will upon its current residents. It’s very much a city of today, a place where conventions are big business.
And dominating it all — the many churches, museums, old buildings and small, winding streets — is the fortress of Marienberg, to which you can either walk or drive.
While the Marienberg dominates the town from its hilltop location, the town hall, university and art gallery — with its wonderful collection of artists from the past 150 years — and the market square, with its web-like alleyways, are all within easy distance from each other.
At the point where Theaterstasse meets Semmelstrasse stands the Burgerspital zum Heiligen, its biggest claim to fame arguably its large hillside vineyard.
Below the buildings are a wine stube (bar) and a restaurant.
Few cities have wine bars that combine such rich histories and bring yesterday into a contemporary context — old wine restaurants like the Hof zum Stachel that dates from 1413 or the Maulaffenback Stube on Moulhardgasse that allows you to bring your own food.
But try its typical Franconian dishes, such as Schäuferla (slow roasted pork shoulder).
Today, students and working people sit at the same places that others did centuries ago — and they enjoy the same wines with the same salutations.
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