Temple of Hercules with Alpine glow: 2,000 years ago Romans fell in love with the pretty Iller valley and settled in the place where Kempten stands today. A southern sense of ease has been preserved in this dual city to this day. Along with a number of surprises above and below the ground! Text and photos: Dietmar Denger
In Kempten, it rains even when the sun is shining. On a warm summer’s day like today, that’s a fine thing: every half hour, the large, white cloud that sways on its wires above the small square in front of the theatre dispels a cool shower of glittering water droplets. The two pugs below are visibly enjoying the installation by artist Stephan Huber, as they snap at the jets of water and emit a series of excited yelps.
This Baroque-style objet d’art in front of the mirrored glass façade fits well in this city, which is noted for its contrasts. For Kempten is made up of two independent cities. And that’s not counting its Roman origins. But let’s do things in order…
Cambodunum: small Romans, big impact
The Allgäu is a great place to live, as people realised in ancient times. On a steep slope high above the Iller, the Romans built the settlement of Cambodunum, which was far more than the usual bastion against barbarians.
The Romans came here and stayed
The small people from ancient Italy - the average height in those days was just 1.65 metres - came here and stayed: 2,000 years ago, in the best possible location with panoramic views of the Alps, they built dwellings, a forum, a thermal bath and a temple.
The reconstruction of the latter is now the spectacular centrepiece of the Archaeological Park. After strolling through the arcades, you arrive at the Altar of Hercules, accompanied by celestial music and singing.
Things are rather more down to earth in the nearby large, white tent, where researchers are still delving layer by layer deep into Kempten’s early history. “The research is a long way off being completed,” states Professor Salvatore Ortisi, as he carefully brushes specks of mud off a small shard of pottery, The archaeologist hopes to change that with his team from the University of Munich. Digs have been ongoing in Kempten since the end of the 19th century.
Watch as the archaeologists dig
An elaborate project was launched in 2019, designed to unlock the final secrets of this ancient Roman town. They have been able to uncover the main square of Cambodunum, which Ortisi calls “an ideal of imperial town planning”.
As the dig is open to the public, visitors can be there when trowels, shovels and brooms reveal dwellings from the 3rd century, and as more and more everyday utensils are unearthed.
One thing has already become clear: “Cambodonum, as one of the most important cities north of the Alps, was of great significance for the Empire,” according to the researcher. And the detective story will continue next summer.
On the search for the oldest city in Germany, Kempten is well in the running alongside Cologne, Mainz, Xanten and Trier. After all, Strabo the Greek mentioned Cambodunum as the Rhaetian provincial capital in 18 CE in his description of the world.
Pitstop on the way to the Old Town!
On the way from the Römerhügel (Roman Hill) to Kempten’s Old Town, it’s well worth making a visit to another Italian: the sweeping sun terraces, palms and lounge furniture on the banks of the Iller make the “Fiume Sommerbar” one of the town’s most popular meeting places. The establishment, run by café operator Antonio Gennaro, plays relaxed jazz from its speakers, making you almost forget that you are in Bavaria.
However, the view across the river to the Burghalde takes you straight back to the town’s history. This hill has housed a Late Roman fort, then a castle in the Middle Ages, which was incorporated into the city defences in the 15th century.
What remains is the Gothic castle tower. Anyone who loves battlements can visit the Allgäuer Burgenmuseum in the castle’s former guard house.
Double take! Kempten, the dual city
One thing is certain, Kempten is as old as the hills. Yet in 2018 it celebrated its 200th anniversary. This is where things get interesting, and also a little complicated: “You will have noticed that the air suddenly smells very different,” says the city tour guide in a nod to historical animosities, as we cross the boundary from cramped Protestant Kempten, with its narrow streets and towering town houses, and see before us the wide expanse of the Hildegardplatz - in the “Catholic part” - resplendent in Baroque opulence.
With respect: I can’t smell anything except bakeries and kebab shops. Kempten has definitively arrived in the here and now. Until 1818, it really was a dual city. In medieval times, two cities rose up on the banks of the Iller, in the form of the Free Imperial City of Kempten and a monastic city ruled by a Duke-Abbot.
Neither of them tolerated the other particularly well, which leads to many a joke today. Secularisation meant that both cities lost their independence. They grew together, as was only right and proper.
The result looks fantastic, is perfectly easy to run and, given it has around 70,000 inhabitants - of which one in ten are students - generous in its dimensions. The turbulent city history has left some attractive legacies.
The Hofgarten, with its low box hedges and ancient trees, is the perfect place to chill out, enjoy a picnic or stroll about in splendour. Today, the city library is housed in the pretty orangery at the end of the park.
Modesty? No way!
Beyond the fountain, beautiful vistas open up towards the twin towers of the Basilica and the vast Duke-Abbot’s Residence. There is not a trace of modesty; quite the reverse. While today’s symbols of wealth are luxury cars and yachts, back then it was staterooms.
Rococo was taken to the extreme
Ostentatious Rococo was taken to the extreme in the Kempten Residence. The original, almost frenzied decoration, has been preserved and is unique in Southern Germany. It almost makes you dizzy.
There’s only so much of it you can take. The public rooms of the church dignitaries are today a popular photo location for newly married couples - a bride and groom are already waiting their turn this afternoon.
Old Town: such a pretty sight!
The imposing facades of the patrician houses in the Marktstraße have been refurbished several times over the years. They convey an impression of a time when you could make a tidy fortune by trading in salt and linen.
Nowadays, the main asset in this city is an intellectual one: the comparatively small university enjoys an excellent reputation, with Kempten one of the main places in the country to study tourism management.
The three students lounging around the Rathausbrunnen fountain with ice creams are all signed up for this course. Jonathan Strauß has even moved here from Bremen. “Funnily enough, I could have studied this at home too. But the university here is superb, but not too huge, and Kempten has a lot to offer,” he says. “Great Biergärten and bars, for example. But not so much of an excessive night life”.
The Rathausplatz as living room
When you agree to meet someone in Kempten, it tends to be by the fountain. That has probably been the case for centuries. The square in front of the Rathaus, the former corn exchange from the 14th century, is Kempten’s living room.
Under Rococo and Baroque façades, locals and tourists relax here in the cafés of an afternoon between palm trees and oleander bushes. Those who prefer an even quieter spot can go behind the Rathausplatz to the high tower of St. Mang’s church on the square of the same name.
St.-Mang-Platz: the village in the city
Gleaming metal sculptures point to the underworld: a set of steps leads down to the underground display room of the former Erasmus Chapel. St.-Mang-Platz is like a village in the heart of the city. Rimmed by houses from the Late Middle Ages, which were painted in bright colours in the 18th century to suit the style of the time.
With a Jugendstil fountain, which is noted above all for its playful sculptures: children riding on ibex and unicorns. The relaxed atmosphere is reminiscent of an Italian piazza. This may be in part due to the fact that the restaurant on the square is called “La Isola Bella”. The ancient Romans would certainly have loved the modern city of Kempten. And the young Romans too.