War-ravaged Bavarian cities rebuilt, medieval charm retained

  • Europe
  • Saturday, 07 Nov 2015

A print of the stained glass panels that were rescued during WWII and stored in a subterranean complex in Nuremberg, which were originally used to make and store beer.

Germany is known the world over for its luxury marques, bratwurst, sauerkraut and the Black Forest. But the country is more varied than its lederhosen choices and more layered than its dirndl (traditional Bavarian women’s costume).

With such a laden history, Germany’s many old (read: going back to medieval times) cities are shadowed by a sad story, as I learned during my six-day whirlwind tour of this western European nation.

Take, for instance, Rothenburg and Nuremberg in the state of Bavaria. They share the common thread of having suffered bombing in World War II but were rebuilt and their medieval façades restored.

Of the two, Rothenburg – with a current population of 11,000 – was the more fortunate as a good chunk of its original citadel was preserved. Its entrance is one of the most memorable I’ve seen yet of a medieval town in any country.

While my travel companions immediately began murmuring about how it looked straight out of a fairytale, I didn’t quite share their sentiment. Then we got past the gateway, and I stood corrected. The colourful buildings in pastel hues were thickly lashed with flowers.

A quiet contemplation of Rothenburg’s medieval town.
A quiet contemplation of Rothenburg’s medieval town.

Nightfall brings a totally different perspective to Rothenburg.

The town is famed for its Christmas market which takes place over nearly a month from end of November to Dec 23. The cherry on the yuletide icing is the Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas Village which also houses a Christmas museum. While it might seem all idyllic now, tourist guide Daniel Weber said Rothenburg went from being the biggest German “city” at its peak to being bankrupt after the 30-year war in the 17th century.

“The town didn’t have money to develop. But that turned out to be a blessing in disguise because some 200 years later, people from elsewhere loved the quaintness of the town and tourists started flocking here,” said Weber.

These days, according to statistics gathered by the Rothenburg Tourist Office, the biggest groups of tourists are Japanese, Americans and Europeans who crowd the streets in the day alongside the more than 2,000 locals who live within the fortress walls.

After sunset, though, when the residents retire for the evening, hordes of tourists are still hitting the brick alleys as they tail the Night Watchman on his “rounds” while he regales them with historical and other entertaining stories.

An hour’s drive away, Nuremberg looks like any other modern city and I couldn’t have guessed that between 80% and 90% of the old town was destroyed in World War II.

Our guide here, Margit Schmidt-Pikulicki, said the town took 30 years to rebuild, including three years spent just removing the rubble.

The main highlight for tourists is the Imperial Castle. It was a cool, clear afternoon when we headed up, so it wasn’t surprising that there were at least two bridal couples having their wedding photoshoot on the castle grounds.

More than just romantic-looking towers for snapshots, visitors at this elevation get a panoramic view of the city.

An apse like this is a fairly common feature in the historical part of Nuremberg.
An apse like this is a fairly common feature in the historical part of Nuremberg.

From the highest point, Schmidt-Pikulicki took us to the bowels of Nuremberg as we traipsed through a subterranean maze that was actually a complex of cellars used to make and store beer.

It was turned into a bunker during WWII where the people hid from air raids and kept valuable artworks and stained glass panels safe.

Speaking of art, our smiley guide pointed out that Nuremberg was the birthplace of Renaissance painter Albrecht Durer. His name doesn’t ring a bell? How about the image of a pair of hands clasped in prayer? Yup, that’s one of his innumerable famous works.

Another fact about Nuremberg – and this is a personal favourite – it’s just one hour by road to Ingolstadt, for some luxe shopping (think upmarket factory outlet).

From the shopping destination, it takes yet another hour to reach Munich. In the state capital, our group of eight journalists was given a tour of the uber-modern airport and its top-notch services. It is recognised by Skytrax as a five-star service airport.

It even has its own brewery, simply called Airbrau, which turns sweet 16 this year and produces 500,000 litres of beer annually!

The sizeable open space at the front of the airport is used for multiple events and purposes at different times of the year, including an ice-skating rink.

Coming soon is the new satellite building that, according to project team representative Karsten Schiz, will open in April 2016. It means by this time next year, those flying in for Oktoberfest will be disembarking at this eco-friendly terminal.

Finally, we returned to Frankfurt, the starting point of this media trip. While it is not the capital of Hessen state, Frankfurt is the financial capital of Germany. And although it has the most number as well as the tallest highrises, it is also acknowledged as the greenest city in the country.

A street exhibition in Frankfurt of miniature green men to mark the 25th anniversary of the German reunification.
A street exhibition in Frankfurt of miniature green men to mark the 25th anniversary of the German reunification.

It was a most opportune time as a 10-day wine festival is held in the early part of every September near Romerplatz. There was also a mini three-day celebration to mark the silver jubilee of German re-unification, symbolised by a miniature green man.

Among the places that should be on your itinerary is the Eiserner Steg, which was built by Russia as a gesture of peace to Germany. But the point of interest at this site are the thousands of padlocks secured around the metal grille along the length of the bridge, put there by couples to symbolise their commitment to each other.

We were fortunate to spend more than two days in the city that is home to the country’s biggest airport. What if you are on a layover and have only a day to see the sights? I asked another local, Anne Katrin Schreiner, for the top spots to visit. She recommended Romerberg (the historical heart of Frankfurt) and Main Tower which has a viewing platform 200m high.

And should you have a little more time, you might want to go where the locals shop – near Elisabethenstrasse. It’s unlikely you’ll find the dirndl here but chances are the items will be more authentic and at less touristy prices.

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