As soon as I set foot in the fairy-tale Old Town of the Bavarian city of Bamberg, one thought consumed me – this was the Germany I had come to see. An evening spent over beer, pork and dumplings in a centuries-old, wood-paneled restaurant sealed the deal.
I’m happiest when exploring the ancient core of European cities, poking around alleyways, peeking into churches, perusing the produce at open-air markets. In Bamberg, with a whole afternoon to roam footloose and fancy-free in the old pedestrian zone, I wanted to take a picture of everything I saw – every steeple, every half-timbered house, every cobbled lane, every cabbage. It took a while to calm down.
Bamberg is so fun to wander because it boasts one of Europe’s most fully intact Old Town centers. Crammed within the well-preserved heart of town are more than 2,400 protected buildings, most from the 14th to 18th century. The oldest house dates from the 1100s. Architectural styles range from Romanesque and Gothic to Renaissance and Baroque. Unlike some other German cities, Bamberg sustained little bombing damage during World War II. In 1993 it made UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. Located in a part of Northern Bavaria known as Upper Franconia, Bamberg rests on the River Regnitz, about an hour north of Nuremburg. The thriving city of 70,000 attracts two million tourists a year. Many come to sample the beer. Indeed, Bamberg is the “Beer Capital of Germany,” claiming the country’s densest concentration of breweries, with nine inside the city limits and about 70 in the immediate area. (German beer is my favorite, so I was always thinking ahead to the next meal or tavern stop.)
Offering few “must-see” attractions to check off a list, Bamberg suits those who prefer to casually explore, frame pictures and soak in the atmosphere. With little in the “required” category, the pressure is off. The centerpiece is Old Town Hall, a gem adorned with frescoed and half-timbered decoration. Plopped in the middle of the left branch of the Regnitz and connected to shore by twin bridges, the landmark was built when citizens in the 1300s were denied even an inch of the bishop’s land for a town hall, so they created an artificial island. From one bridge you can see a row of mostly medieval houses known as Little Venice. Built flush with the river, the geranium-decked, timber-framed houses provide a prime photo op. Boat cruises offer a closer look at the tiny docks and gardens of this former fishing settlement. Gondola tours best capture the romance of Little Venice. Just steps from the petite arched bridges, on both sides of the river, are car-free lanes lined with shops and outdoor cafes. (A favorite souvenir: beer-filled chocolates.) Walk a little farther and you’re in another pedestrian area, the Grüner Markt (Green Market), a weekday market brimming with flowers, produce and bakery goods. Nearby is the town’s largest square, Maximilianplatz, site of the present-day town hall built in the 1700s.
This pulsating “bourgeois district” of shop-lined streets is called the Island City as it is clustered on an island between the right and left branches of the Regnitz. Rising above the warren of cozy little streets is the Seven Hills district. Described as “Franconian Rome,” it was the center of power for the diocese of Bamberg from the 11th century to 1802 and the location of some imposing edifices. The top draws here are awe-inspiring baroque churches and other ecclesiastical buildings, not to mention sweeping views of Old Town’s red-tiled roofs. The Cathedral, or Dom, was originally built by Heinrich II, the Holy Roman emperor who founded the diocese in 1007 and made Bamberg the seat of his empire. Dominated by four spires, the majestic church (dating from 1237) contains the tomb of Pope Clement II, the only papal tomb north of the Alps; the tombs of Heinrich and Queen Cunigunda; and a sculpture of a horseman known as the Bamberg Rider, one of the town’s symbols. Across the square is the New Residence, the former prince-bishop’s palace, where you can tour the grand apartments and enjoy panoramic views from the Rose Garden. More than 40 flower beds are surrounded by boxwood hedges and boast around 4,500 roses and 48 species. Linger in the garden’s cafe for cake and coffee. For better vistas, trek up the hill to the former St. Michael’s Monastery, now a retirement home, and look down from the garden terrace. Perhaps have lunch at Cafe am Michaelsberg. Altenburg Castle, in a green residential hill district reachable by car or public bus, provides the ultimate vantage point for taking in the spire-dotted Bamberg skyline. The city’s beer-making history began in 1122 at St. Michael’s Monastery, and you can learn all about it at the Franconian Brewery Museum, located in the vaults of the former brewery of the Benedictine monks. The museum and eight breweries are stops on Bamberg’s Brewery Trail.
For 20 euros, beer lovers can hook up with a Brewery Trail package that includes vouchers for a beer in four Bamberg brew pubs, a visit to the brewery museum or a beer city bottle opener, a Bamberg rucksack, Bamberg beer stein, a booklet on beer and brewing history, and beer mats from the eight breweries. Bamberg’s best-known brewery is Schlenkerla, a tourist favorite in Old Town and famed for its Rauchbier (smoke beer). This dark beer is made with malt roasted over an open beechwood fire, an old-fashioned technique that gives beer a smoky taste. (The beer itself is not smoked.) Nowadays the malt for most beers is dried with hot air. Schlenkerla, a real slice of Bavarian life, serves up tall glasses of the coffee-colored beer along with plates piled with meat, dumplings and sauerkraut. Part of the tavern, a series of rooms, was a Dominican monastery founded in 1310. There’s no better place to absorb Bamberg traditions than under these vaulted and wood-beamed ceilings. Some drinkers detect a hint of smoked ham or bacon in their smoke beer. Brewed by the sixth generation of the Trum family, Schlenkerla’s beer is produced at a plant about five minutes up the hill from the rustic restaurant. Though most of the Rauchbier is consumed locally, you might find it in select taverns and specialty stores in the U.S. (like Whole Foods in New York) and Germany. Finland is actually the largest importer of Schlenkerla’s Rauchbier. Schlenkerla also makes a smoke wheat beer and Urbock, a sweet, sticky smoke beer with a higher alcohol content and more malt and hops in proportion to water. The menu at Schlenkerla includes the Bamberger Zwiebel, an onion stuffed with minced pork and pork belly in a smoke beer sauce. Other choices: pork kidneys, roasted pork knuckle (pork leg), meatloaf and venison sausage stew. I was happy with slow-roasted shoulder of pork that fell right off the bone. The fat on top was deep-fried to a crisp. Spezial Brewery also produces smoke beer, though it is less smoky than Schlenkerla’s. Klosterbräu Brewery, the oldest of Bamberg’s breweries, has a nice beer garden outside and traditional tavern inside; beer has been brewed on the premises since 1533. Mahr’s Bräu Keller is probably the best example of a traditional beer cellar. But in Bamberg, going to a beer cellar actually means enjoying beer outdoors in the summer—in a leafy beer garden on top of a hillside cellar where beer is stored. For centuries, caves in the hills of Bamberg have been used by breweries to keep beer cool in warm weather. Bamberg also is home to two large malting companies and the oldest brewery equipment and machine factory. Weyermann, the world’s leading producer of specialty malts, exports to more than 100 countries. One customer is Ireland’s Guinness Brewery. The beer never stops flowing in Bamberg, and the physiques of many beer lovers are proof. It’s obvious why they call Bamberg, in the words of our local tour guide, the “town of pregnant men.” For more information on Bamberg, log on to www.bamberg.info.