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A playground for royalty

The imposing castle in Nuremberg. Photo: Niklos Uwe

The imposing castle in Nuremberg. Photo: Niklos Uwe

After a week in the southern part of Germany, Ray Bugeja could only agree with Queen Victoria who, after marrying her cousin, Prince Albert, in 1840, declared: “If I were not who I am, this would have been my real home...”

A century ago, King George V proclaimed that the British Royal Family’s official name should no longer be House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha but the House of Windsor. The houses of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and Windsor have provided five British monarchs to date, including four kings and the reigning Elizabeth II.

The House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha came from the House of Wettin and had succeeded the House of Hanover as monarchs in the British Empire following the death of Queen Victoria, wife of Albert, Prince Consort.

Victoria and Albert, who were first cousins, had been born within three months of each other and were even delivered by the same midwife. Their marriage took place on February 10, 1840 at St James’s Palace, in London.

Queen Victoria evidently had a soft spot for Coburg. Not only did she visit it six times during her 64-year-long reign but she also famously said: “If I were not who I am, this would have been my real home but I shall always consider it my second one.”

The monarch was speaking about Rosenau Castle, where her husband was born, but the same could be said of the whole town located in Upper Franconia.

Rosenau Castle in Coburg. Photo: <a href="www.coburg-tourist.de"><a href="http://www.coburg-tourist.de">www.coburg-tourist.de</a></a>Rosenau Castle in Coburg. Photo: www.coburg-tourist.de

It was not only Queen Victoria who was first attracted to Coburg by love. When the Catholic Church refused to allow Johann Strauss to divorce his second wife, he changed his religion and nationality, becoming a citizen of Coburg.

Neither was the ‘Waltz King’ the only controversial figure to seek refuge there. Reformer Martin Luther spent six months in Veste Coburg, one of Germany’s biggest castles, in 1530.

Having sustained little damage during World War II, Coburg, 230 kilometres east of Frankfurt, still has many historic buildings.

Augsburg, just 60 kilometres from Munich, was not so lucky. In 1944, allied bombers destroyed 60 per cent of the city, the third oldest in Germany and third largest in Bavaria. Its fortunes have changed since and it now faces a bright future and enjoys a high standard of living.

Its ‘Golden epoch’ was between 1490 and 1560, also known as the era of the Fuggers and the Welsers. So wealthy and prominent were the two families, they had even replaced the Medicis as Europe’s leading bankers.

The most important member of the Fogger family, Jakob, or Jakob Fugger the Rich, in 1521 founded what is considered to be the oldest social settlement in the world – The Fuggerei, which continues to be financed to this very day through a private endowment. There, the most needy residents of Augsburg find very decent and comfortable shelter for a mere 88c a year, just like the first residents used to pay. They have one other obligation, a condition imposed by the founder who wanted to save his soul and that of his family: Jakob Fogger decreed that all residents had to say three prayers every day: the Hail Mary, Our Father and the Apostles’ Creed.

Walking past the 67 buildings that house 140 apartments and 150 residents gives you a good feel of life in days gone by as, indeed, many parts of the city itself would. Though, perhaps, not as much as in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a well-preserved medieval town not too far from Augsburg.

Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth. Photo: Bayreuth Marketing &amp; TourismusMargravial Opera House in Bayreuth. Photo: Bayreuth Marketing & Tourismus

What Voltaire said about Bayreuth gives a very good indication of what it must have been like

A fierce battle in mid-October 1631, during the Thirty Years’ War, left the place impoverished and practically empty. Many of those that remained died when the bubonic plague hit three years later. The town thus stopped growing and remained much as it was in the 17th century.

Rothenburg sustained serious damage during WWII but it was also lucky in that a top US politician, aware of its beauty and historic importance, ordered the general commanding the American forces in the area not to use the artillery in taking the town. A message was sent to the major in charge of the German garrison saying the town would be spared from shelling if they decided not to defend it. The German officer must have risked a lot when he ignored Adolf Hitler’s orders to fight to the end and surrendered, thus saving Rothenburg from being razed to the ground.

Rothenburg is one of those very few places around the world where Christmas is all the year round. Right in the centre of town is Käthe Wohlfahrt, a Christmas museum and village that opened in 1964 and never closed its doors since.

If you have to see the Vatican when in Rome, so too a visit to Käthe Wohlfahrt is a must when in Rothenburg or anywhere near, say, the university city of Heidelberg.

The University of Heidelberg, founded in 1386 (by an emperor who could not read or write), is Germany’s oldest and one of the best in Europe. Heidelberg is also popular for its castle, with its commanding view of the city and a mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles.

When visiting the castle, ask for Perkeo, the wine drinker. The former button maker consumed so much wine he was given the keys to the castle’s wine cellar and became a sort of its custodian. It is thought he could drink so much wine because he suffered from diabetes insipidus. He was called Perkeo because he always replied “perché no?” (why not?) whenever he was asked whether he wanted another glass of wine.

The Christmas museum and village at K&auml;the Wohlfahrt.The Christmas museum and village at Käthe Wohlfahrt.

In his cellar is what is claimed to be the world’s largest wine barrel, which has a capacity of 228,000 litres and took 100 old oak trees to build in the 1600s. There was an even larger wine barrel in Saxony, which could take 10,000 litres more.

If Perkeo had his fulfilment in the wine barrels of Heidelberg castle to the west of Germany, Richard Wagner found not only his home but also his love for beer in Bayreuth, on the other side of the country. Bayreuth is located in the heart of Upper Franconia, which has the highest density of breweries per inhabitants worldwide.

But more than beer, it is music that attracts so many visitors. Every year, in July and August, thousands of opera fans from across the globe travel there to watch and listen to Wagner’s works.

Bayreuth had its ‘Golden Era’ during the reign of Margrave Frederick and Margravine Wilhelmina between 1735 and 1763. What the great philosopher Voltaire said about the city gives a very good indication of what it must have been like: “Once poets and artists went on pilgrimages to Naples, Florence or Ferrara. Today they come to Bayreuth.”

Just to the south of Bayreuth, Nuremberg – the city that lent its name to the 1945-1946  trials of former German officers charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity – had its golden epoch earlier.

In 1356, Charles IV issued a Golden Bull decreeing that new kings of Germany had to hold their first imperial diet (the highest assembly) there, making it one of the three most important cities in the empire.

When speaking of Nuremberg, bratwurst (fried sausage), lebkuchen (spicy gingerbread) or the Christkindlesmarkt, its world-famous Christmas market, will probably come to mind. There are many vibrant cultures living together in Nuremberg and the lively mix of history and modern times is palpable throughout.

Nuremberg suffered badly in the war. More than 90 per cent of the medieval city centre was destroyed in just one hour of bombing on January 2, 1945. Only 40 old houses remained standing. Further fighting, bombing and shelling meant that a substantial part of the old Imperial Free City was lost forever, though most of the wall that surrounded the city remained intact.

Reconstruction started in 1952. The planners laid stress on a careful synthesis of the old and the new. Ground plans and street patterns remained largely unchanged. Important buildings were reconstructed in their old form and, thus, the city’s historical heritage is still very much visible today.

If the region attracted royalty and the elite, is it any surprise that it is Germany’s top tourist destination?

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