Modern art on an international scale, lots of good beer, a concentrated dose of romance as well as organic ginger and liquorice. Bamberg Old Town lies on seven hills and has a great deal to offer, including a trio of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Text und photos: Dietmar Denger
Discover Bamberg in a relaxed way
What might be the topic of whispered conversation among the red monks who squat in a circle on the grass of Schönleinsplatz? Perhaps they are complaining about the constant teasing they are subjected to by some local residents. This sculptural group called “Meeting” by the Chinese artist Wang Shugang located on Bamberg’s former grand square has long been known by an affectionate nickname that reduces the field of tension in contemporary art in public space to the lowest common denominator, albeit with Franconian charm: “Crappers”.
Crappers: public art must trigger debate
The artwork was originally sent here on loan but has recently been bought by the city. It inflames passions and delights minds in equal measure. Far better than art that is simply ignored. Next to the group of bright red men, a bronze Prince Regent Luitpold looks down from his horse and casts his bored gaze on the surrounding area through a thick layer of patina and pigeon droppings.
Another colourful contrast to the Old Town façades is created by Air-Earth by the Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, a sculpture on the Obere Mühlbrücke: a green plastic man sits high above the Regnitz river on a gleaming steel column.
Even at night, this artwork has a glowing charisma. The last vestige of an exhibition of Plensa’s work featuring illuminated large-scale sculptures in the city centre has been acquired by the city authorities.As you walk through Bamberg’s historic streets, you keep encountering contemporary art on an international scale. This is all part of an initiative by the International House of Artists Villa Concordia.
Boteros voluptuos piece of art
None are quite as colossal as Female Lying with Fruit by Fernando Botero. The voluptuous lady in bronze has found a permanent resting place on the cobblestones of the Heumarkt. Under the shade of the trees she is recovering from the shock of being dunked into the Regnitz from a swimming platform as part of an art event. Weighing almost a ton, she was only rescued with the help of a crane and the fire brigade.
Triple World Heritage Site: Like Rome, but completely different
It’s certainly slightly bizarre to compare this city with Rome, as some Bamberg residents do. After all, Rome has neither exquisite cellar beer nor hearty pork knuckle with cabbage - and nor does it have the melodious Franconian dialect that makes Italian sound like a pneumatic drill. “Wemma Fränggisch redn koo, dann waas mer a, wos g’mannd is!” (If you can speak Franconian then you’ll know what we mean!)
And yet there are parallels: like the city on the River Tiber, Bamberg is also built over seven hills, and as you stroll round you often feel as if you are in a museum. Instead of Classical and Neoclassical Monumentalism, Bamberg offers petite, half-timbered buildings and comparatively modest Bourgeois-Baroque.
Bamberg’s tranquility: you have to love it
Best of all, however, it is never crowded with visitors, apart from peak times in the Domplatz in front of the cathedral. Towards the end of the 1990s, city guide Sabine Krahé came from the tranquil city of Münster to study in the even more tranquil Bamberg and fell in love with the place.
Her passion has not diminished - quite the reverse: “What I find endlessly fascinating are the countless details that have been preserved from ancient times. The houses with their boot-scrapers and their Madonnas and their window aprons. I keep discovering new things. It’s all small scale, never completely perfect, yet at the same time you have plenty of space, even in the narrow streets of the Old Town.”
"Everything is small scale in Bamberg, never quite perfect"
It sounds good, and it is good. Since being first documented in 902 as Castrum Babenberch on what is now the Domberg, or Cathedral Hill, when the Eastern Franconian Babenbergers were still feuding with the Rhine Franconian Konradiners, it has grown into a small city, whose historic look and feel has been preserved almost in its entirety.
It was a stroke of luck for the city that the allied bomber pilots in the Second World War on their way to nearby Nuremberg and Schweinfurt had good navigators on board and seldom flew off course.
In the middle of the river: Gothic plus Baroque plus Rococo
The most beautiful part of town is around the Altes Rathaus, or Old Town Hall, which stands in the middle of the river. With its patchwork of Gothic, Baroque and Rococo elements, it looks like a highly playful moated castle, whose builder couldn’t quite decide which style to use. The city of around 77,000 inhabitants has more than 2,400 buildings under historic protection.
UNESCO did not take much convincing to award Bamberg World Heritage status in 1993. The special dedication is divided into three titles: the Bergstadt, or Hill Town, with the cathedral, the bourgeois Inselstadt, or Island District, and the Gärtnerstadt, or Gardeners’ District.
Gärtnerstadt: liquorice a speciality
From onions to UNESCO World Heritage Site - this is the potted history of Bamberg’s Gardeners’ District. However, its 400-year tradition deserves a little more detail. This is how it all came about: back in the 17th century, Bamberg was a thriving hub of market gardeners. Crops grew well in the fertile Franconian soil and were successfully exported. Most popular of all were onion sets, seeds and, the star of the show, Bamberg liquorice, which satisfied the sweet tooth of contemporary gourmets long before the era of sugar cane and sugar beet.
At that time, the district we know today lay outside the Bamberg city gates, and the term “Gärtnerstadt” has remained in use to this day. It is only a two-minute walk from the city centre. And yet you get the feeling that you have travelled to a very sleepy village.
The dwellings of the vegetable growers, packed tightly together along relatively broad streets, seem tiny by modern standards. Behind them lie the plots of land, some hundred metres long. The medieval structure of these market gardens has been preserved, but, alas, not the booming trade: where there were once hundreds of companies, now there are only 19.
With Bavaria-Insider Sebastian Niedermaier
These include the market garden of the Niedermaier family. Sebastian Niedermaier, the youngest scion of the family, has travelled much in his life but now lives in the here and now of the Gardeners’ District, the eleventh generation to maintain the family tradition. With his young family and cat Chobi, he preserves his earthly inheritance in the true sense of the word.
Back to the city centre and the Italian comparisons: with 20 bridges connecting the Regnitz Island with the mainland, the district along the river with its old fishing settlement and crooked, narrow houses was christened “Little Venice” by local residents. “Look, the old wooden boats there resemble Venetian gondolas,” says city guide Krahé in an attempt to explain what feels more like a marketing term.
Hmm. There’s no denying that Little Venice is very pretty and a worthy highlight. Especially in the evenings, when the locals arrange to meet up on the Untere Brücke, just round the corner from the Dominikanerstraße with its many bars, cafés and restaurants.
Going out: to the Bierkeller or below the cathedral?
The beer in Bamberg is particularly delicious, and the range is extensive. None of it is mass-produced: eleven family-run breweries in the Bamberg city district alone, plus 60 breweries in the Bamberg region produce 400 different varieties, including Rauchbier (smoke beer), Bockbier (strong beer), Franconian Kellerbier (cellar beer) and “Ungespundetes”, which is given a particularly smooth taste by being fermented without pressure.
People prefer to drink their beer outdoors. That preference is evident on this summer evening in the Dominikanerstraße, where - if you’ll excuse me - there is an almost Italian atmosphere. Even more popular are the 25 beer cellars in and around Bamberg with their Biergärten.
Bamberg is small enough for visitors to explore it by themselves. But it is also confusing enough to miss the occasional highlight. The know-how of an enthusiastic city guide is a fine addition. “Come with me, I’ll show you one of my favourite places,” suggests Sabine Krahé the next morning.
In an unprepossessing side street, we enter a world of wonder. The fact that the beautifully silent courtyard of the former Jesuit College is almost entirely filled with a giant tree is spectacular enough.
But the real highlight is inside: the Natural History Museum is worth a visit anyway, but it is also home to the famous Bamberg Bird Hall, with thousands of colourful specimens that feel anything but morbid. In this light and airy classical hall, condors and albatross soar overhead.
The Gothic Banksy: Cathedral and Residence
“Hey, hey, hey, I was the Bamberg Horseman!” Historians and locals have been trying to identify the person behind the stone rider for about as long as this notorious equestrian statue has been in existence. The young man in his smart cloak is now even available as a Playmobil figure.
The emblem of Bamberg simply appeared at some stage, possibly around 1230. Like a thunderbolt, one of the first sculptural representations since ancient times, it is even seen as the catalyst of the Gothic movement. Who put it there? A king? Is it a symbol of the world itself? Even its creator is unknown. The Banksy of the Middle Ages.
The unknown horseman is set against the backdrop of the Imperial Cathedral of St. Peter and St. George with its four towers, a building that dominates the Old Town. The Imperial Cathedral is the legacy of Emperor Heinrich II. The builders in charge of Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport may well turn a reverential shade of green: this giant of a building was completed in 1012 in just ten years. Unfortunately, the cathedral burnt down, as did its successor. The second replacement building, which exhibits elements of Late Romanesque and Early Gothic, has survived to this day.
The 'Alte Hofhaltung'
The Alte Hofhaltung (Old Court) next door, accessed through the “Schöne Pforte” gate is also beautiful. The bishop lived here from the founding of the bishopric in 1007, but it was later replaced by a vast Renaissance building. Between the Residence and the Domplatz, an ancient alleyway with plastered walls winds its way through the historic complex. The Bamberg Horseman would fit right in. Instead, a group of tourists on Segways is passing through.