Romans, Imperial City, Renaissance. The romantic little town of Weissenburg is the purest of all time machines. The pretty old town delights those among us who adore half-timbered houses, while the pre-baroque Wülzburg Fortress is a rarity and the Roman treasure is unique. Text: Markus Stein, Photos: Bernhard Huber
One last time. The cavalry soldier, Mogetissa, enters the battlements of the north gate in Fort Biriciana. In the background, there are soldiers’ voices, the neighing of their horses. The 500-man garrison is stationed at Raetian Limes and secures the newly conquered territory north of the Danube.
Mogetissa looks into the distance – before him, the endless forests of Germania. He firmly holds the diploma in his hands, 16 by 13 centimetres in size and made of metal. It confirms his honourable dismissal after 25 years of service and grants him Roman citizenship. Others are now tasked with keeping the barbarians at bay.
He will finish work early today, relax in the thermal baths and later celebrate in a pub in the “Vicus”, the civil settlement.
It could have been like that or something similar. What is certain is that it is the year 107 AD, and cavalry soldier Mogetissa is about to take his well-deserved retirement. It is also certain that, 150 years later, “Alemanni” will destroy the fort and push the Romans back to the Danube. Grass will grow over the foundations and only much later will the small town of Weißenburg emerge around it.
“Lukanerwurst” and Garlic Cheese
As is well known, all roads lead to Rome. But to enter the world of Antiquity you don’t have to travel that far. Bavaria also has traces from Roman times.
Weißenburg, for example, situated between the Altmühl Valley and the Franconian Lake District, offers a wide range of testimonies with the Limes Info Centre, Fort Biriciana and the Roman Baths. The highlight is the Roman Museum with its unique Roman treasure.
It’s best to fortify yourself in the museum café before your antiquities trip. Guests sit comfortably on the small “piazza”, the Doktor-Martin-Luther-Platz, under the orange parasols or in the shade of the church of St. Andrew.
Those who climb the 178 stairs of the church tower are rewarded with a panoramic view of the town. If you order in advance, the café serves Roman snacks in style, such as “Lukanerwurst”, a traditional sausage (with rue and pine nuts), moretum (garlic cheese) or mulsum (spiced wine). To the west, the old Latin school, a beautiful half-timbered house with ochre-coloured beams, catches the eye.
Weissenburg – A Melting Pot
The café is run by Mathias Meyer, a long-established Weissenburg resident, bookseller and cultural event manager. His museum tip: “You should definitely pay attention to the military diploma of Mogetissa, a rather inconspicuous bronze tablet that hangs on a wall in the museum. It’s crazy when you consider that you can read the biography of a simple soldier from Roman times just from that. Mogetissa is virtually the first Weissenburger we know by name! The diploma is already something special because of its well-preserved condition.”
Incidentally, the cavalry soldier was descended from the Celtic Boians, and his cavalry unit, the “Ala I Hispanorum Auriana”, came from Spain. Well, the world was already quite small back then.
Precious Gems from the Asparagus Patch
In the museum, the 114 bronze pieces of the Roman treasure collection are particularly fascinating, and mysteriously illuminated. Three equestrian masks greet the visitor with impenetrable expressions – an eerie encounter of the ancient kind! The seventeen elaborate statuettes of the gods are truly fantastic.
The finest of God's rich tapestry presents itself here with striking dignity despite shrinking to about 30 centimetres, the ladies with togas thrown over, the men with well-toned bodies: Apollo, Juno, Minerva, Mercury, Hercules and Venus; the latter as Zeus created her. In addition, silver votive tablets as well as everyday objects: wine jugs, table candlesticks, frying pans and even a folding chair made of iron.
The treasure was found in 1979 by a citizen of Weißenburg when he wanted to enlarge an asparagus bed in his garden. Which deity had an almighty hand in this?
A Dream of Half-Timbering and Old Walls
Leap into the Middle Ages. The name “Weißenburg” first appears in 867 as the Carolingian royal court “Uuizzinburg”. In the 13th century, Weißenburg became a town in the legal sense, and in 1338, it was named an imperial town: Weißenburg was thus subject only to the emperor and was largely autonomous. Its heyday was in the 14th century. There is a lot of building going on, including St. Andrew’s Church. 1530 saw the introduction of the Protestant confession. Looting and pillaging in the Thirty Years’ War. Finally, in 1802, thanks to Napoleon, annexation to Bavaria!
You can feel the breath of history at every turn. The old town of Weißenburg is well-preserved and manageable. So you can walk around the city wall in just one hour – in May, lilacs and cherry trees blossom in the moat. The sunlight glistens on the lake pond, the only section filled with water. Then through the beautiful “Ellingen Gate”, decorated with coats of arms, into the city.
In the city, you can let yourself drift along. You pass magnificently rendered half-timbered houses, the beams in many colours, grey, brown, yellow and ochre to red, often arranged in elaborate patterns. There is a constant stream of new views of a tower, romantic corners or alleys.
The many ornate booms are striking: wrought-iron signs jutting from the walls of the houses into the streets. Here, a pretzel, there a crown, rose or bell. You can hardly miss the market square with the Gothic town hall and “Luitpoldstraße”, with its town houses. Then a break in the green monastery garden with a fountain.
Sweet Start-up and Roman Tea as a Souvenir
A coffee stop is surely long overdue now? In “Café Retiro”, “a coffee shop in Spanish-Italian style”, says barista Christian, home-roasted coffee is brewed. If you are looking for a souvenir, you will find it in the tea and spice corner “Lux”. How about Roman tea? “It is a strong red colour in a cup and contains a lot of hibiscus and berries,” says the young chef Anna-Katharina.
Regional offerings include elderberry products from Franconia, or pasta and walnut specialities from the Altmühl Valley. And if you also want to do something good for your hair: barber Arben Lumi, winner of the International Barber Awards and owner of the men’s salon Schneider near the Roman Museum, beautifies every man without fail. “The Romans didn’t wear moustaches, they only knew chin and cheek beards,” he reveals regarding the beauty style of Roman men.
Weißenburg can also do Gingerbread
Master baker, Frank Schiesl, creates special treats just for you. A househusband of many years, he started baking Elisen gingerbread in the cellar years ago. “We only use a machine to mix the dough, everything else we do by hand.” Elisen gingerbread contains at least 25 per cent nuts and no more than ten per cent flour.
“As to which spices we use remains a secret, of course,” says the master baker with a smile. “The most important thing is to use high-quality chocolate coating, not cheap chocolate” This is how extraordinary delicacies such as date, macadamia or sea buckthorn gingerbread are created. His start-up, originally conceived as a hobby, is booming so much that Schiesl is now constructing his own building for the manufactory.
Wülzburg Castle: Top Address for Bats
When walking through Weißenburg, you occasionally catch sight of the walls of the Wülzburg (“wild castle”). Georg Friedrich the Elder, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, had the “bastioned castle” built at the end of the 16th century on a hill, three kilometres to the west and about 200 metres above the city. At that time, his domain extended as far as close to Weißenburg.
The layout of the fortress with five bastion-fortified corners was the pinnacle of fortress construction at its time. However, their actual military utility was questionable. Quote from an officer: “The fortress is not a key or passport to the country, (but) a narrow stone heap ...”
Fortress, Prison, Bat Paradise
Wülzburg later transitioned to Bavaria, where it served as a prison, prisoner-of-war camp – one famous inmate in 1918 was the young officer Charles de Gaulle – and after 1945 as a refugee camp. In addition to the 143-metre-deep well, the classicist rainwater cisterns built later under King Ludwig I are truly noteworthy.
The complex is one of the best-preserved Renaissance fortresses in Germany. And it is also a bat sanctuary. A huge array of bat species hibernate in the vaults where prisoners used to languish.
Tip for non-flyers: the most beautiful view of Weissenburg and the countryside can be enjoyed from the “Kaltes Eck” bastion, and more so from recently installed benches ..
When the evening arrives, and you dream of bratwurst and fresh beer, the hour of Franconian hospitality strikes. For example, in the time-honoured half-timbered inn “Der Schwarze Bär” on the market square with home-brewed beers – Helles, Weizen, Rotbier – and stunning cuisine.
Or in the long-established inn “Zur Kanne” in Bachgasse. You can sit in front of the neat classicist house under sunshades or inside in the rustic brewery tavern.
“Our dishes are traditional with international influences,” is how Marius Bansemer describes his cuisine. The 29-year-old chef comes from the region and recently took over the inn after years abroad. His classics are “Schäufele”, shoulder roast or steaks, while creations such as “Franconian bratwurst” in wan-tan batter provide a touch of the exotic.
The beer is supplied by the small, traditional Schneider brewery. This place has also set up a brewery museum in the cellar. Even if it doesn’t contain any Roman gods and masks, the museum is still a small treasure in itself.