Regensburg: A Walk through Germany’s Most Beautiful City
Story & photos by Marlene Fanta Shyer
If Maximilian, the former King of Bavaria, declared Regensburg to be the most beautiful city in all of Germany, who are we to argue?
Of course, he last visited the place some time in the nineteenth century and I arrived there last week, but really, one senses not that much has changed. With its 150,000 population that swells to over a million during the summer months, this is still considered the most significant and dazzling city and gate to the Bavarian Forest. It’s a good first stop to the Bayerische Wald, which spreads its bucolic self through the southeastern part of Germany, and continues over the border into the Czech Republic. The first sixty German acres of the European National Park are scenic forests and villages that like Regensburg are reminiscent of charming illustrations in old children’s books. Get to Regensburg by flying to Munich, renting a car, taking a convenient shuttle directly from the airport to Regensburg or entering a high–or low–speed train. Rail service that meanders through this unspoiled part of Germany is a good way to stop here and there and explore the villages and towns along the route.
In less than two hours, you can meander across Regensburg’s bridge, the oldest stone bridge in Germany, built in the 12th century. It separates the city into two halves, and a friendly competition exists between them. “Never marry anyone from across the bridge,” is a playful local saying (as centuries ago there was an important boundary) but now there does not seem much obvious difference between them.
Left almost untouched during the Second World War, the Old Town on the other site of the bridge was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2006. It is crowded with historic structures like the Gothic St. Peter’s Cathedral. The church is famous for its smiling statue of Gabriel, its fourteenth century stained glass depiction of St. Peter, its Nativity altar accompanied by the largest hanging organ in the world. Except during summer vacation during August and half of September, mass at ten on Sundays includes the world´s oldest boys’ choir, the Regensburger Domspatzen, (cathedral sparrows.)
Near the cathedral, find the oldest hot dog shop in Germany, the Wurstküchl, a humble hole-in-the wall with a few unpretentious picnic-type tables outside. It overlooks a tributary of the Danube, whose whirling currents are called Strudel. Fishermen throw lines into it as perhaps other fishermen have done for centuries. Short and longer sightseeing cruises along the Danube are another way to take in the shoreline sights, but walking will best get you to the heart of the city. That leads to the main square, with its offshoot narrow streets, its stone fountains and towers built by rich Patrician families centuries ago, seemingly simply for ostentation.
Despite billing itself the best preserved medieval city in the country or perhaps because of it, construction machinery is not an uncommon sight among these ancient and often degenerating treasures. Cranes, supports and scaffolding deter a photographer ‘s best intentions. Yet, here’s the eleventh century Scots Monastery, the opulent eighteenth century Thurn und Taxis palace, and the enticing Händlmaier shop. That’s where sweet mustard has been sold for over a hundred years, and the shop is as intact as the cobblestones underfoot. The mustard comes in jars or tubes and with worldwide distribution, actually has its own fan club in Cincinnati, Ohio.
It goes without saying that Regensburg, like all of Bavaria, is awash in beer. The Spital Brewery here is distinctive. Its function is not simply to make the very pure dark wheat lager (available only locally) but also to help support a group of eighty-eight elderly neighbors. These residents live in the adjoining building and are provided for by the St. Katherine’s Foundation. St. Katherine’s church is adjacent and prayer is very popular here. So is charity; part of every euro spent on Spital Beer goes toward the residents’ maintenance. With a doctor’s approval, each of these retired citizens gets a daily allotment of half a liter of free beer. Prost!
Most everyone has heard of Munich’s Oktoberfest, but in Regensburg, as in most Bavarian villages and towns, all sorts of festivals are common, especially during the warm months. The local beer festival, Regenbsurg´s mini version of the Oktoberfest, is even celebrated twice a year, in May and at the end of August/ beginning of September. During “Dult,” the festival weeks, locals abandon their jeans for the traditional costumes of Dirndls and Lederhosen, which are seen everywhere, including on toddlers in carriages. Picturesque, yes, but be aware that throughout these charm-filled cities, air conditioning is virtually nonexistent. Even four star hotels depend on open windows and breezes when the temperature climbs.
Regensburg may represent the best of antique Bavaria, but is it the most beautiful? Maximilian the king was not the only one who thought so. A second opinion came from a tourist from Kentucky who was there on business with a group from his company. “It’s the best city in the country. Of course it is. My mother was born here,” he said.
Author of eighteen books of fiction and one memoir, Marlene Fanta Shyer has also been traveling widely for over twenty years. Her travel stories have appeared in American and Canadian newspapers, including the Boston Herald, Commercial Appeal, Lowell Sun, and NY Post. Her trips have also inspired essays that appeared in Passport, Saveur and German Life magazines. When not writing about destinations, she’s likely packing for her next trip.