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March 2001

The Great Divide

Bamberg — a town split into two glorious halves

In Bavaria, beer and bishops have always seemed to get along rather well. So it will come as no surprise that the Franconian city of Bamberg, which is divided into a bishop’s town and a burghers’ town, should be to beer what Silicon Valley is to computers. The number of breweries within its administrative borders ranges from 99 to 112, depending on whom you ask. But though beer in Bamberg is plentiful and excellent — the dark and smoky Rauchbier is certainly worth a pilgrimage for the adepts of zymology — it’s the bishops and their legacy that attract visitors today from far and wide.

Bamberg was one of those towns that had the great fortune of coming away from allied bombing during World War II unscathed. When the devastating attack was to take place, the town was blanketed in fog and the squadron dropped its deadly load elsewhere. Bamberg was thus spared destruction by the Wirtschaftswunder architects who left their mark on so many cities across the country after the war, replacing traditional elegance with functional austerity. For this reason, the Old Town looks much as it did 150, 250 and even 350 years ago, depending on the street. In 1981, some 2000 buildings became listed — many of them breweries — a fact that also made Bamberg one of Germany’s most conservation-minded towns. In 1993, UNESCO even declared Bamberg a World Heritage Site as an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble illustrating a significant stage in human history, to paraphrase the given criterion.

Bamberg’s history goes back to a fortress owned by the Babenbergs, hence the name. Civitas papinberc, as Emperor Otto II knew it, was given to Henry the Quarreler, Duke of Bavaria, in 973, when the Babenberg dynasty died out. His son, Henry II, elected Holy Roman Emperor, made the town an important bishopric at the center of his sprawling Empire and a rival of Rome. In 1012, he and the bishops of the Reich gathered to consecrate the new cathedral, built on the site of the old Babenberg fortress. A few years later the Benedictines settled on Michelsberg. Finally, at Easter 1020, no lesser a political figure than Pope Benedict VIII made his way to Bamberg to meet the Emperor and conclude a deal on the distribution of power in Europe. The canonization of Henry II in 1146 and of his wife, Kunigunde of Luxembourg, in 1200 attest to the success of these negotiations.

One of Henry II’s first efforts as Emperor was to build the Bamberg cathedral, which was dedicated to St. Peter — the Roman connection — and St. George. Fires and fashions over the centuries certainly modified its appearance, but all styles, even the oldest, are still visible. The ground plan, for example, still includes the odd two apses from the days of Henry II: St. George’s Apse in the east exudes Romanesque calm, whereas the windows in St. Peter’s Apse in the west are clearly Gothic. The main entrance, the Fürstenportal (Prince’s Portal), dating from 1225, is an exuberant Gothic masterpiece consisting of ten recessed arches that culminate in a tympanum, depicting the Day of Judgment. The entrance that is used most frequently, however, is the more restrained Gnadenportal, the Portal of Mercy, featuring a relief of the Virgin Enthroned, flanked by St. Peter and St. George.

The interior radiates a simplicity that belies the exquisite works of art it contains. These include a reredos by the renowned German woodcarver Veit Stoss (ca. 1450-1533), the tomb of Henry II and Kunigunde by his contemporary Tilman Riemenschneider (ca. 1460-1531), Germany’s most celebrated Renaissance sculptor, and the tomb of Pope Clement II, formerly Bishop Suidger of Bamberg (1040-1047) and the only Pope to be buried north of the Alps. What has spread the fame of the cathedral, however, is the equestrian statue of a plainly clad knight as the embodiment of medieval chivalry. The “Bamberger Reiter,” whose artist is unknown, is thought by most experts to be a representation of Hungary’s first king, St. Stephen, Henry II’s brother-in-law.

The cathedral’s treasury is housed in the adjacent Diocesan Museum (Diözesanmuseum), including six original stone figures from the cathedral’s Adam Portal, the “star cloak” of Henry II, the gift of an Italian prince, papal vestments and the skulls of Henry and Kunigunde.

Power, political and ecclesiastical, collected around the cathedral. Henry had his court set up here in what is today a rambling and somewhat ramshackle row of half-timber houses built around a large, uneven courtyard, which, today, is used for theater productions in the summer. Work is currently underway to restore the so-called Hofhaltung for the millennial celebrations of Henry II’s coronation. In the 16th century, apparently, Bishop Veit II wasn’t satisfied with the accommodations, so he had the small Renaissance building erected near the entrance. Bamberg’s Museum of History will be located in its basement, which is currently being used for exhibitions.

Veit II’s successors also disapproved of the “old” abode and decided that what Bamberg needed was a new residence. Some 100 years later the huge Neue Residenz, on Domplatz, was completed by Leonhard Dientzenhofen. The Emperor’s Hall on the second floor bears witness to the prince-bishops’ growing concern with secular wealth: it is a consummate marriage of architecture, painting and stuccowork. The palace also houses the Staatsbibliothek (State Library), which contains a splendid collection of books and illuminated manuscripts, including prayer books belonging to Henry II and a fifth-century codex of the Roman historian Livy. On the first floor of the oldest tract is a small painting gallery devoted to the works of such German Masters as Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) and Hans Baldung Grien (ca. 1484-1545). Behind the Neue Residenz, overlooking Bamberg, is an attractive rose garden.

No visit to the bishop’s town would be complete without a 15-minute walk up to the old Benedictine monastery on Michelsberg, which now houses a retirement home, a restaurant serving hearty and inexpensive meals in a very pretty conservatory and a large beer museum with somewhat restricted opening times. Part of what makes the church so special is the herbarium painted on the Late Gothic vaulting of the choir, in which some 600 medicinal and decorative herbs and flowers are depicted. One of the most active supporters of the monastery was Bishop Otto, who was buried in the church and later canonized.

While the bishops and prince-bishops were building and rebuilding their district, down along the Regnitz River the burghers of Bamberg were also getting along rather well. Thanks to the river and the north-south trade route, Bamberg’s economy flourished in the Middle Ages, first at the foot of the cathedral, then on the island in the river, where the patrician Geyer family built its town palace, Geyerwörth, whose tower affords a fine view of the Old Town. Related guilds were established in close proximity to each other, as was customary at the time. The tanners built half-timber houses on the east bank of the river (Am Kanal), with large balconies and oriels to provide enough air for drying leather and ventilating the rather unpleasant odor of wet skins. The fishermen settled downstream from the pungent townies into long, narrow and picturesque houses with steeply pitched roofs. This area is known as Klein Venedig, Little Venice. Of the many water mills that were used to grind flour or pound wool into felt, only part of one survives today. It is located near St. Nepomuk Hotel at the Obere Mühlbrücke.

The affluence of Bamberg’s burghers brought a great deal of culture to the town, notably book printing in 1460, right after the press was invented in Mainz. It also meant fairly regular conflicts with the bishops, however, who preferred having the common folk in its place, that is paying taxes. The conflict took on odd forms: Not being infidels, the people were willing to contribute to the construction of the Church of Our Beloved Lady, the so-called Obere Pfarre, which boasts the glorious The Assumption of the Virgin by Tintoretto. The architect tried to sneak in a spire that would be higher than the cathedral’s, but the bishop was watching and now the tower, ending in a peculiar boxy construction, is a town hallmark.

But of all architectural treasures in the burghers’ town, none is quite as special as the Old Town Hall, the Altes Rathaus, perched on the Obere Brücke (Upper Bridge). It was erected in the 15th century, but was remodeled in the 18th and now consists of an eclectic mix of styles: a Rococo balcony on the east facade, a Gothic arcade below it and a quaint half-timbered house literally hanging on the southern side. The building now houses a collection of fine 18th-century porcelain. Rumor has it that the Rathaus owes its unusual location to either the burghers not wanting to pay the bishop any property taxes or to the bishops scrimping on land. A more plausible explanation is that it served to connect the city, which was increasingly sprawling to the east of the river.

In the short term, it was the bishops who won. In the 1620s, they went on an obsessive and horrid witch hunt, which filled their coffers with the money of their many victims and broke the local spirit. Then came the Thirty Years’ War, which devastated Bamberg several times.

Bamberg is not a museum. It’s a place where generations have lived and that has been spared most of the sins of progress. Its houses all have the look of innocent bystanders caught in a time warp. They quietly tell stories of their inhabitants. Hofrat Böttinger’s house (Judengasse 4), for example, is all done up in yellow Baroque ornamentation. Böttinger had climbed up the ladder of success and was eager to show it. His aristocratic neighbor, a member of the renowned Stauffenberg family, on the other hand, built himself a very subdued palazzo, whose shield over the door bears the family coat of arms. Mr. Böttinger’s does not. Some things never change.

If you have a car and the time to visit the region around Bamberg, drive north to Vierzehnheiligen overlooking the Main River, one of Bavaria’s most beautiful Rococo churches. Banz monastery is a Baroque splendor, albeit only the church may be visited. Finally, on the way south again, stop into the little blue-and-white half-timbered house in Buttenheim (18 km from Bamberg) for a multimedia tour of the birth house of Löb Strauss, who emigrated to the United States and made a fortune as Levi Strauss. When the 17th-century house was restored, incidentally, workers found that its original color was stone-washed blue.

>>> By car:
approximately 225 km north of Munich. Take A9 to Nürnberg, then A 73 to Bamberg.
>>> By Train: regular train service takes about 2 hours and 40 minutes.
Bamberg Tourist Office
Tel. (0951) 87 11 61
Fax (0951) 87 19 60

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