23 December 2009

Day 7: Regensburg

I got up early in the morning to take the S-Bahn to Munich Grand Central Station (Hauptbanhof), and then transfer to a regional train to the city of Regensburg in eastern Bavaria, near to the border with the Czech Republic. Regensburg is one of the great historic cities in Bavaria, and one of the best preserved. It is far older than Munich, and the age seeps through in the narrow, uneven streets and close clustering of buildings untouched with modern renovations . . . except in the stores built into their foundations.
The city entered a deep economic decline after the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in the early nineteenth century. It was because of its economic unimportance that the city was mostly spared from bombing during World War II. Regensburg is extremely proud of the perseverance of its medieval architecture.

A short history of the city: Regensburg has been settled since the Stone Age, and sits on the meeting place of the Danube and the Regen Rivers—the northernmost bend of the Danube. During the second century C.E. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius placed a fortification here (Castra Regina) that is the basis for the modern city. Regensburg was the seat of an early Bavarian dynasty, the Agilolfings, who ruled with permission from the Merovingian kings. From the sixth century until the fourteenth, Regensburg was the capital of Bavaria. It served as an important center of the Holy Roman Empire because the Reichstag met here from the seventeenth century until Napoleon abolished the empire in 1803. As an Imperial Free City, Regensburg was not under the control of any local prince, duke, or elector, but answered to the direct suzerainty of the emperor. Unusual for a Bavarian city, Regensburg converted to Protestantism in 1542. It is therefore an important part of Czech history as the base from which much of that country converted to Protestantism.

The richest family in Regensburg was (and remains) the Thurn & Taxis, who raised their money through a monopoly on the postal service. The family lives in Fürstlisches Schloß Thurn & Taxis, a large palace with extensive gardens.

Because of its historic importance and the survival of medieval buildings, Regensburg is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, putting it on the same level as the Great Wall of China and the pyramids of Giza.

At Munich Grand Central Station, we met up with two other riders who shared our Bayern ticket (access all day on any public transportation in Bavaria). It’s common for travelers to wait at the station to find other riders with whom to share tickets, since five people can ride on one ticket for €30. For my father, brother, and I to ride the hour and a half train to and from Regensburg ended up only costing €20 when we shared the fare. The train was a sleek, modern one with a beautiful upper dome car that provided a pleasant view of the eastern Bavarian countryside under a light blanket of snow.

After we arrived at the train station, we moved into the center of town, the Domplatz, where we took a forty-five minute tram ride around the city with an audio-visual tour in English. The weather was warm compared to last week (not that this stopped my father and brother from complaining; they are new arrivals in the German winter) but this also meant sporadic rain.

The video tour’s narration did an extreme hard sell on the importance of Regensburg, prompting my brother to remark: “This city is really impressed with this city.”

After the end of the tour, we went into the second famous landmark of Regensberg: St. Peter’s Cathedral, which was built in the French Gothic style after the first cathedral burnt down in the 12th century. The tops of the towers were not added until the nineteenth century, when King Ludwig I of Bavaria sponsored their completion.

We went to the main public Christmas market, located in Neupfarrplatz near the Dom. Aside from drinking Glühwein, we also consumed the enormous half meter Feuerwurst, a specialty sausage of Regensburg. Yes, a half meter.
I mentioned that the cathedral is the second famous landmark of Regensburg. The first is the medieval stone bridge crossing the Danube, the Steinerne Brücke. Legend tells that the builder of the bridge was competing with the construction of the cathedral to see who would finish his project first. The bridge builder, afraid of losing the wager, made a deal with the Devil to help him finish his project first. The Devil demanded the souls of the first three people to cross the bridge as the price for his aid. The bridge builder tried to trick the Devil by sending three barnyard animals across the bridge first, and in anger the Devil tried to break the bridge—but only managed to create a bulge in the center. This is a fine way to explain a stone-working defect. At the center of the bridge stands a statue of a gnome, facing toward St. Peter’s Cathedral and covering his eyes—apparently a reference to the legend.

We moved along Ludwigstraße, a “wide street” where the wealthiest people of medieval and early modern Regensburg lived. (“Wide” compared to the tiny streets of a medieval city; tight compared to Wilshire Blvd.) We passed the Altes Rathaus and entered Arnulfsplatz. A man who knows Regensburg from visiting his parents here directed us to the oldest traditional restaurant and beer hall in the city, Brauerei Kneitinger, founded in 1530. Its special beer, Bock, is an excellent Dunkel (dark), and I usually don’t like Dunkel.
After this stop at a beer hall, we went to the principle attraction in Regensburg during the holiday season: The Romantic Christmas Market at the Thurn & Taxis Castle, converted from the thirteenth-century Abbey of St. Emmerman (the oldest cloisters of the abbey are still preserved). This is the first Christmas Market I’ve encountered that charged an entrance fee, but it is worth the €4. It lies around and inside the courtyard of the castle, and is especially beautiful at night with its torches and fire pits. The three of us agreed that this was the finest Christmas market (of many) that we’ve seen in Germany. With enough Glühwein in our bellies and outdoor fires to warm us, we found it easy to forget the cold winter weather.

After some slight confusion about direction (I blame four mugs of Glühwein for this) we returned to the central station at Regensburg to go back to Munich. So far, this has been the most enjoyable day on the trip; but I’m also a lover of history, and therefore biased. (Just between you, me, and the rest of the world that has Internet connections, I really dislike spending a day in a place like Starnberg, a modern suburb with nothing to show for itself but contemporary stores. I need my Holy Roman Empire!)