Miracle of Survival
Germany, when it comes to tourism, divides the British into two camps. There are those who love its many historic gems, its leafy beer gardens and, yes, its food. And there are those who harbour an impression of grey technical efficiency, humourlessness, dreary cooking and indifferent weather. To disabuse the latter, I can think of few better places to show them than Regensburg.
On a warm summer evening, with the city bathed in a golden light, I would take them across the Danube on its Stone Bridge and get them to look back at the harmonious rank of old waterfront buildings and, behind them, the twin Gothic spires of its cathedral.
The 350 metre long bridge was built in the twelfth century, to enhance the city’s prominence as a hub for trade, notably that between Venice and northern Europe. Much of that business was in salt, a hugely important commodity for preserving meat, fish and leather. At the bridge’s southern end is the Salzstadel, the building once used to store it, which now houses a tourist information centre and a small museum. Building began during an exceptionally dry spell, when the river was low. It was an architectural sensation at a time when most bridges were still wooden and subject to the whims of weather – and it served as a model for others, including London Bridge.
Next stop would be Stadtamhof, on one of the islands in the river, for dinner beneath the trees in the waterside Spitalgarten. This was originally part of St Katherine’s Hospital, the city’s main infirmary for some 600 years until the nineteenth century. As they take their first cool, deep draught of beer my companions will be intrigued by the thought that brewing began here around the time the institution was formed. I might suggest they try Resche Bierhaxe (crisped pork knuckle in dark beer sauce with a dumpling and Sauerkraut). The meat is juicy and delicious. It falls off the bone. My companions would have to be very hungry. But even if it defeated them they could hardly regret parting with the modest €12.50 it cost.
Regensburg has much to boast about. With Stadtamhof, its entire Old Town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2006. The organisation describes it as an exceptional example of a central European trading centre with a number of buildings of outstanding quality, representing two millennia of structural continuity. There are churches too numerous to visit in a single short stay, some preserving ancient features even though they have been bubble bathed in a froth of rococo or baroque. It is understandable, perhaps, that it should place little emphasis on its more recent past, so I would show my fellow travellers a few things they might easily miss. Though its Messerschmitt 109 factory and an oil refinery were bombed, Regensburg largely escaped damage during the Second World War. A stone’s throw from the beer garden prisoners forced into labour were housed in disgusting conditions until they were evacuated on a death march as American troops advanced from the north. You may read the harrowing details on tableaux nearby. Next day, back in town in St Peter’s cathedral, I would point out the grave of Dr Johann Maier, who became a preacher there in 1939. On April 23, 1945, with US tanks already on the Danube, he hushed a crowd on what is now Dachauplatz and called for the peaceful handover of the city. He was seized by plain clothes police, sentenced to hang and executed next day. As wasteful a death as you could imagine, for the Wehrmacht and SS soon fled south without putting up a fight.
That would be only be a brief dalliance with modern history. We would soon be back among the riches of a more distant past: the cathedral’s stained-glass windows from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, for example; the wonderful statues on the western pillar in the crossing. Next to the cathedral garden is St Ulrich’s, one of southern Germany’s earliest gothic buildings. It was closed for restoration at the time of writing. Pity, but just around the corner- and open – was the Niedermunster, or Lower Minster, which originated as a convent for high born ladies some time before the ninth century, and where Romanesque elements defy the later baroque. Next to the Alte Kapelle. It’s not much from the outside but even if, like me, my companions preferred Protestant moderation, I would challenge them not to marvel at the white and gold exuberance of its rococo interior.
The old town has many traces of the former Roman camp, a stronghold against the Germanic tribes to the north whose history is brilliantly set out in the city’s excellent Historical Museum. There are sections of exposed defensive walls. But most impressive are the remains of the great gate, the Porta Praetoria, which is now built into the structure of the Hotel Bischofshof am Dom. The hotel is a fine place to stay. Plumb in the centre, its accommodation is in the former Bishops’ residence. In warm weather you may take breakfast, dinner or just a beer or two in its lovely garden, where, as we arrived on a summer Sunday, a typical Bavarian band played.
I would try to make time for the Imperial Hall. At the Old Town Hall, seat of a parliament (The Permanent Imperial Diet) of the Holy Roman Empire from 1663 until that great patchwork of territories was dissolved in the political maelstrom of the early nineteenth century. There would also be a strong case for walking to the southern edge of the Old Town, to the complex that was once St Emmeram’s Abbey, a mightily influential centre of learning from the tenth century until the monastery buildings were handed over to the Princes of Thurn and Taxis, whose wealth was founded largely on speeding up the imperial mail network. You may tour their palace but be warned, unless your German is fluent you may have to put up with a less than satisfactory English audio guide. Our flesh and blood guide guide suggested a last night dinner at the Kreuzschänke, a restaurant to the west of the centre, beyond Arnulfsplatz. She was clearly not its only local fan. When we arrived, its beer garden was so full we had at first to share a table. There was scarcely a foreign tourist’s voice to be heard and the Wiener Schnitzel, though I doubt our fellow diners would have got the joke, was almost the size of Wales.
Walking back to the hotel, past a long row of young people enjoying the night air on the riverside parapet, I might apologise for failing to fit in lunch at the Historische Würstkuche which, in its various guises, might be the oldest continuously open eaterie in the world, and which has certainly been serving sausages for over 200 years. But it’s been hot and each time we’ve passed it the outside benches have been full of Danube cruise passengers.
I would certainly advise my companions to spend more time in Regensburg. My wife and I left after only two and a bit days so my credentials as a guide haven’t been impressive – because that’s not nearly long enough.