Würzburg is situated in Franconia, the northern part of the Land Bavaria, on the river Main (which later passes Frankfurt). Two years ago I visited the town for the first time, and because I liked it I visited it again last week.
I went by train. The train station is small which means in Germany that the Tourist Information isn’t in it but somewhere in the centre. One can follow the tram tracks starting in front of the station for about a quarter of an hour up to the Market Square. The Tourist Information is in the Falkenhaus, a pretty Baroque building with Rococo stucco work.
I had a whole afternoon for a sightseeing tour and asked for advice what to see and how to get there. I got a leaflet with a map (also available in English) with a dotted red line drawn through the historic centre connecting all sights of interest for short time tourists, just what I needed.
The Market Square is nice to look at, especially when the sun is shining. If you’re lucky, you can find stalls there selling, fruit, vegetables and flowers. Several cafés have tables outside. To the left of the Falkenhaus is the Marienkapelle, a late Gothic chapel begun in 1377 and completed in 1480. Imagine a building begun this year and finished only in 2114! People are so impatient nowadays. The interior doesn’t impress me much, I only find the statues of Adam and Eve in the portal arches remarkable, they’re by the famous sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider*. The ones at the Marienkapelle are copies, the originals are in the Mainfränkisches Museum. What is interesting is that the whole Market Squares exudes age although more buildings are post-war constructions than old ones. More of that later.
Crossing the Market Square diagonally to the left I get to a street running parallel to the river Main and to the Old Bridge replacing a destroyed bridge from Roman times and later a ferry. It’s 180 m long, on either side stand several big statues of saints making the bridge look like a smaller sibling of the Charles Bridge in Prague. Every tourist with a camera *must* take a photo there, the figure of a saint and the stone railing of the bridge in the foreground, the river Main in the middle, maybe with a white passenger boat or a barge, and the Festung (fortress) Marienberg in the background sitting majestically on a wide hill covered from top to bottom with vineyards. The Franconian wine is not to everyone’s taste, I find it a bit too acid, ‘it pulls the holes in one’s socks together’ as the Germans say. Yet other people like it, for them are the wine bars in the centre.
I turn back and walk straight up to the Cathedral St. Kilian, not more than five minutes away. I pass the town hall also built in the Middle Ages with an impressive tower (pic at the top of the site). I enter and walk up all floors looking as if I had business there. Nobody is minding me.
The Cathedral is one of the largest Romanesque churches in Germany, begun in 1040. As is the case in many German churches also Gothic and Baroque elements can be found, not surprising considering how long it took to finish a building. Inside one has to admire an impressive row of bishops’ tombstones, some of which were made by the afore-mentioned Tilman Riemenschneider.
To the left of the Cathedral is the Neumünster, a Romanesque basilica built on the burial site of St. Kilian. This Kilian and his mates Kolonat and Totnan were Irish missionaries who came to Würzburg in the 7th century where they were rather successful. 46 churches in and around Würzburg carry the name of Kilian. Catholic Würzburgers still celebrate the missionaries with an annual week of pilgrimage. The three men were killed in 689. I’m sorry for them, nobody should be killed, but I have to admit that I’m not in favour of missionaries in general.
More to my liking is Walter von der Vogelweide, the most famous minstrel singer of the German tongue in the Middle Ages. It’s assumed that he lived from 1170 to 1230 and was buried in Würzburg. True or not, there is a tombstone for him in a small garden behind the Neumünster, an ugly, dirty concrete building block of about 1mx1mx1,5m, a real shame. How touching to see bunches of flowers lying on it, a heart of rose petals and a pebble stone with the word Danke (Thank you) written on it. After about eight centuries! .
From there it’s about ten minutes straight on to the Residence of Würzburg, since 1981 part of the Cultural World Heritage of UNESCO. It’s one of Europe’s most outstanding Baroque palaces, built from 1719 to 1744. The inner rooms and decorations were completed in 1781. This is record time considering that the front is 167 m long and the two wings 97m long! From the 300 rooms 40 can be visited on a guided tour. The most famous feature of the Residence is the enormous entrance hall with an impressive staircase and a cantilever cupola with the largest fresco worldwide (670 m²) showing the continents and their flora, fauna and inhabitants painted by the Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and his sons.
Another highlight is the Mirror Cabinet, reopened in 1987 after nine years of reconstruction. Let me stop here for a while and tell you why Würzburg touches me in a special way. With few exceptions all German towns suffered during WW2, however, what happened to Würzburg is on a special scale. Together with Dresden and Pforzheim it belongs to the three German towns which were nearly completely destroyed. The war ended on 8th May, 1945; Dresden was bombed on 13th February, Pforzheim on 23rd February and Würzburg on 16th March 1945. 500 aeroplanes from the Royal Air Force assembled at Reading and flew to Würzburg, after the raid lasting for 25 minutes about 90% of Würzburg were in ruins, only six houses remained intact, about 5000 people died. Governor Wagoner, head of the American military administration in Bavaria, suggested that Würzburg should remain as it was, it should serve as a ‘museum of wartime devastation‘. He suggested Würzburg be rebuilt anew on a different site. This did not happen, the surviving Würzburgers cleared away the rubble and started to rebuild their hometown. Of course, not all buildings were rebuilt in the original style, this is why we see so many ugly box-like constructions everywhere, but a surprising number looks just as it did before the war. On the whole Würzburg gives the impression of an old town.
But what do we see now? The uninformed tourist sees Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Rococo buildings and artefacts - but they aren’t older than half a century or, as it is the case with the Mirror Cabinet only 24 years old. Are they the real thing? Or are they fake? What about the aura genuine pieces of art have? I don’t know the answer. But the aura seems to be a fickle thing, sometimes it attaches itself to fake things as well. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t happen that renowned art experts lose their reputation because they guarantee that a piece of art is genuine when in fact it isn’t.
From the Residence I take Bus No 14 to the Fortress Marienberg which houses the Mainfränkisches Museum. It is a small museum with collections of prehistoric finds, Franconian viticulture, porcelain and silverware, baroque sculptures, arms et al. I walk through the rooms barely glancing at the exhibits - not that they aren’t worth looking at, but I haven’t got much time and want to use it to take in the works of Tilman Riemenschneider who didn’t only make stone sculptures but also worked with wood. Most statues are small and look rather funny, the way many Gothic figures look, the heads too big, the bodies too small and not anatomically correct. But there is also the life size, perfect figure of the Mourning Maria carved from lime tree wood in 1505 which is so wonderful that I started my second visit to Würzburg with her and then did the town afterwards. Faint traces of colour remain which is rare, most wooden sculptures don’t show any paint any more. She doesn’t hold Baby Jesus in her arms, she just stands there with such a sad face that her pain is palpable. She can be seen for any woman anywhere in the world mourning a loved one.
Full of new impressions and many thoughts I return to the train station and go home. If you ever find yourself in the vicinity, go and visit Würzburg, it’s worth it.
*Other famous Würzburgers:
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, who discovered X-rays
Werner Heisenberg, theoretical physicist, best known for asserting the uncertainty principle of quantum theory
Dirk Nowitzki, NBA Champion, currently playing for the Dallas Mavericks