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April 1996

Where Kings and Emperors Roamed : Follow the path of history through Franconia

Travelling around Bavaria to see all the historical sites.

When Charlemagne left his capital, Aachen, for Regensburg to survey the borders of the fledgling Holy Roman Empire in 803 A.D., the road he traveled consisted of a pair of bone-jarring wagon ruts that on bad days yielded thick, clinging mud and on good days, dry, throat-tickling dust. In subsequent centuries, his route, which followed the Main river on its way into Austria, developed into one of the most vital commercial routes of the Middle Ages. The 600-km journey took up to two weeks to complete, and the poor state of the road meant generations of monarchs suffered silently inside their carriages. In 1994, the federal tourist boards of Germany and Austria recognized this route, known as the Straße der Kaiser und Könige, as a historic site extending all the way to Vienna. Surrounding the road is a landscape drenched in history, where churches and palaces crown the hills, and forests and hamlets grace the valleys. The eastern part of the route showcases some of Germany's most splendid medieval cities: Würzburg, Bamberg, Nürnberg, and Regensburg. During the Middle Ages, Germany was a patchwork of territories loosely controlled by the Holy Roman Empire. Some areas were owned and governed by nobles, others by Catholic bishops, and still others were directly accountable to the Emperor; among these, the bishops' territories were able to use some of the Church's wealth to attract and commission notable architects and artists. Among these, Würzburg is the best example; the skyline is dominated by the Marienberg Fortress, home to the ruling bishops from 1253 to 1750. Würzburg remained faithful to the Catholic Church throughout the Reformation, evidenced by its seventeen churches and more than 100 statues of the Virgin Mary. In the 18th century, Balthasar Neumann designed the Residenz for prince-bishop Karl Philipp von Greiffenclau, whose penchant for self-promotion is apparent in a colossal fresco that portrays him ascending triumphantly to heaven. The road from Würzburg rides the rolling limestone hills of wine-rich Franconia on its way to Bamberg. Built where the river Regnitz flows into the Main, Bamberg was fortunate enough to escape destruction during World War II. The city's varied architecture results in a delightful jumble of locks and waterways, winding medieval streets, cobblestone squares, and towering churches and mansions. Bamberg offers one of Germany's richest arrays of sculpture, including the renowned "Bamberg Rider," a 13th-century statue of an idealized Christian king in the magnificent Bamberger Dom. Altes Rathaus in Bamberg In addition to its locally produced wine, the city boasts the highest per-capita beer consumption in the world. Nine Bamberg breweries brew more than 25 beers, including the local Rauchbier, in which Beechwood smoke produces a slightly burnt flavor. A large stretch of land bound by the Regnitz, Pegnitz and Main rivers on the road to Nürnberg is worth a detour. The hilly region, -popularly know as Franconian Switzerland, -is a sparsely forested, thinly populated landscape with more than 150 castles dotting 60 square kilometers of storybook villages and valleys. Nürnberg was of such importance in medieval times that Charles IV christened it the Schatzkästlein, little treasure chest, of his empire. The city's glory days were the 15th and 16th centuries, when it became a leading center of art and science and the unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire. The first pocket watch, the first globe and the first clarinet were produced there. In the 19th century, Nürnberg came to symbolize the German national ideal for a generation of Romantics before Germany was actually united into a country. One hundred years later, Nürnberg's Germanic character attracted the National Socialists, who saw the town as the epicenter of their "1,000-Year Reich," and used it for their rallies. Nürnberg paid dearly for this association when, on January 2, 1945, British bombers razed the city. Through a massive rebuilding campaign, modern Nürnberg recaptured some of its original splendor. The Albrecht Dürer house near Tiergärtner Tor is a notable shrine to earlier days, while the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, the largest and most varied collection of German art and culture in existence, is the city's most popular museum. Romantic Regensburg The next stop on the Straße der Kaiser und Könige is Regensburg, which looks exactly the way you've always imagined a German city should and, with more than 1,400 medieval buildings, vies with Bamberg as one of Germany's most historically intact. Once the capital of the Duchy of Bavaria, Regensburg blossomed between the 13th and 16th centuries as a Free City within the Empire, and the Altstadt is dominated by buildings from this period. Leaving Regensburg, the traveler passes through the region known as Gäuboden, where the Danube flows through some of the most fertile land in Bavaria; this is still one of Germany's main grain-producing areas. King Ludwig I commissioned two monuments along the banks of the Danube: the Befreiungshalle, or Liberation Hall, near Kehlheim, which honors the Bavarian dead in the war of liberation against Napoleon; and, on the opposite bank, Walhalla, which is modeled on the Parthenon and honors famous Germans the king admired. Tourist brochures promote Passau as the Venice of Bavaria-, which is almost criminally misleading. Like Venice, the city is defined by water: Passau is tightly packed onto two peninsulas between the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers. But any similarity ends there. Nevertheless, the colorful houses sheltered under a large mountain bluff add a magical quality to Passau that is charming. The German leg of the Straße der Kaiser und Könige ends in Passau, but the road continues through Linz to Vienna, where the Austrian end of the road begins. For the road-weary, however, the Danube has gathered enough force at Passau to carry commercial ships and barges, and the journey can be finished in royal style with a luxury cruise down the river to Vienna.

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