I went to Bamberg by train, from experience I know that only big German cities have a tourist information office in the central train station, smaller cities and towns have it somewhere in the centre. This is silly because in order to find it, the tourist may pass sites without realising it or maybe realise it but not know what they are. If there are signs in the station and along the streets indicating how to get to the tourist information office as quickly as possible, the town council can be (partly) forgiven, the situation in Bamberg is so absurd, though, that it is unforgivable.
I’ll begin with the end of my stroll, half an hour before I had to get back to the station I found the darned thing, when I complained, the woman behind the counter looked as if she had heard the same words before. I said that I had come from the station and passed sites I would have liked information on when I saw them and not later. She replied unmoved, "Bamberg is so beautiful, it doesn’t hurt the tourists if they walk around on their own for a while and have a look. Moreover, the ones that find us are enough for us to handle." I insisted that there should be a sign at least near the bridge one has to cross, she said there was one, but the tourists didn’t see it. Going out I looked again, there isn’t one, the woman lies!
On the way to the centre I crossed a bridge spanning the Main-Donau (Danube) canal *and* the right arm of the river Regnitz as I could read on a plate. I was puzzled, either it was a canal or an arm of the river but not both. Later, when looking at a map, I learned the answer, Bamberg lies on the Regnitz, a tributary of the river Main (the one which flows through Frankfurt), the oldest part of the town is on an island formed by the two arms of the Regnitz, one of these was made into a canal which is used by small barges, the other is in its (more or less) natural state and not navigable.
The first site I came to was the Maximiliansplatz (Maximilian Square), named after King Maximilian I of Bavaria, the fountain on the square is dedicated to him. One side of the square is open, the three other sides have mainly baroque buildings from the 18th century, the New Town Hall among them.
A bit further on the street widens and forms ‘Green Market’, a rectangular place which had fruit and vegetable stalls when I was there. Imposing Baroque residences and the Jesuit church St Martin surround it, at the end there’s a fountain from the end of the 17th century sporting Neptune (no idea what he’s doing in Bamberg), cafés have their tables outside, it wasn’t term time but it was clear to me that this is where students gather and hang out.
Heading on I came to the Obere Brücke (Upper Bridge) leading to a miniature island with the Old Town Hall on it. Historically speaking, I approached it from the wrong side because the first settlement was on the other side. According to legend, Bamberg’s Prince Bishop did not want to give the burghers any land to built a town hall on, so they rammed tree trunks into the river, covered them with stone slabs and built themselves their own island onto which they then built the town hall, a brave deed and proud demonstration of civil power in the 14th century.
The Old Town Hall, it’s one of the most astonishing mixtures of architectural style I’ve ever seen. Facing upstream is a half-timbered house which was used by the town guards, the main building is Baroque but the tower has Rococo balconies on either side, both outside walls of the big building beside the tower are painted with Renaissance frescoes. As the whole ensemble is centuries old now, it somehow forms a unity which isn’t displeasing to the eye.
Looking to the right a row of low houses with coloured façades catches the eye, in the 19th century fishermen, sailors, dyers and tanners used to live there, it’s called Little Venice! Oh dear, poor Venice.
I wandered around, lost my way and asked a woman for directions, she couldn’t help me but told me that she was waiting for a small bus taking tourists on round trips across six of the seven hills Bamberg is built on. One can get on and off any time, the bus passes the stops every hour.
She wanted to take her grandchildren to the Altenburg (Old Castle) standing on the highest hill, first mentioned in 902 and between the 13th and the 16th century the residence of Bamberg’s bishops. People go there to admire the view and/or eat in the restaurant. I said, "Why don’t I join you?", I didn’t know where to begin with my sightseeing anyway not having a street map.
We passed the Carmelite Monastery, the greatest of the world, learnt that Bamberg is the largest archbishopric of Germany and also that nothing can happen to the town as the former Empress, Saint Kunigunde (980 - 1033) holds her coat protectively over it. Aha. We got off at the castle, wandered around a bit, admired the view, low undulating hills and a lot of green, and then got on the bus again. If you don’t want to eat in the restaurant or climb on the canons, which the children did, there isn’t much to do, I was glad I had come, though.
On our way back we moved up and down the hills, left the confines of the town occasionally to have more striking views of the townscape. Bamberg used to have vineyards until the pest grape phylloxera came and damaged the plants, nowadays there’s only one vineyard left, the wine can be bought downtown, but the driver warned us that it was acid.
Finally I got off in front of the Imperial Cathedral, the most imposing building of Bamberg with four 81m high towers, founded in 1004. Later it was partially destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1111, in the 13th century it received its present late-Romanesque form. I went in mainly to look at the famous Bamberger Reiter (Bamberg horseman), a less than life-size sculpture of a rider on a horse fixed to a column about three meters from the floor. It was created around 1235, it’s still uncertain who the rider was. He’s got a crown on his head, is unarmed and dressed in noble clothes. It’s a pity that the figure is a bit too high up to see the face clearly.
The other artefact I liked was the Prince’s Portal at the side of the Cathedral facing Cathedral Square from the middle of the 13th century which is only opened for certain services. Twelve prophets and apostles stand on columns on either side of the door looking at Christ in the tympanum (the part over the door) as the Last Judge. To his right we see the smiling faces of the saved and blessed, to his left the damned with crying and distorted faces. A devil has chained them and leads them away to hell, a merchant, a bishop, a king, and even a pope! Rather funny, kind of.
On the other side of Cathedral Square is the New Residence with four wings, two in the Renaissance, two in the Baroque style, where the Prince Bishops resided. Behind it is a symmetrically laid out Rose Garden with a small fountain in the middle, some baroque statues, a fine view of the town and, very important for a tourist, a nice café and restaurant. The townscape of Bamberg is unique, it’s a complete artwork which in 1993 UNESCO added to the world cultural heritage list. The town extends across seven hills, each crowned by a church, seen from above the churches form a cross. Bamberg has got the largest intact Old Town in Germany, about 2000 buildings are listed. Intact, because Bamberg was not bombed during WW2.
I walked downhill in the direction of the Old Town Hall, looking into picturesque alleyways, at baroque town palazzi, at the many antique shops (the greatest density in Germany) and into the courtyards I passed, some of which are used as beer gardens. Bamberg prides itself of being the only town in Germany with ten private breweries. The most famous brand is Rauchbier (‘smoked beer’), to produce it malt is dried over fires made from beech wood logs; I’m not a great beer drinker, I would have sampled this specialty, however, if I had stayed overnight in Bamberg, but I didn’t want to try it in the middle of a hot afternoon.