On my Great Easter Break Adventure I planned only a brief, day and a half stop in the town of Würzburg. I had come for one reason and one reason only: to see the Residence, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pictures on Pinterest were so stunning; I just knew I couldn’t miss it. And I’m not above admitting that Pinterest inspired this part of my journey. It turns out, Würzburg was a lovely town, with much more than just the magnificent Residence to offer. I’m so glad I decided to visit.
Spring weather had finally come to Bavaria for my stay in Würzburg, so I spent my first afternoon wandering around town. It isn’t a very large place, so I covered most of the historic landmarks in the city. I saw the Juliusspital, a Baroque pharmacy built by Prince Bishop Julius Echter. It has a courtyard and garden, with statues of blue sheep. They somehow represented the old commons area of the town.
Würzburg is home to a whole host of historic churches. I passed the Augustinerkirche from 1741, and the famous Marienkapelle from 1480. There was also the Neumünster basilica with its ornate Baroque façade from 1716. Next door was one of the symbols of Würzburg, Dom St. Kilian. It is the principle work of 11th and 12th century German architecture. Construction on the cathedral began in 1040!
The last church I saw wasn’t as famous as some of the more centrally located ones, but it was my favorite. Simply listed as St. Peter, there was something really striking about it for me. It was probably due to the fact that I had the place to myself. Everyone else was off celebrating Easter Monday, so I got to enjoy a few minutes of quiet reflection alone.
I also passed the Alt Universität (old university) with its tall tower. The same Julius Echter as before founded it in 1582. Since then 14 Nobel Prize winners have come from the University of Würzburg. So, I guess it’s a pretty good university. Honestly, Würzburg was one of the most delightful towns I have ever had the pleasure to wander through. The buildings were beautiful and the atmosphere was so welcoming. I easily lost several hours strolling down the cobblestone streets.
My walking tour was, fortunately, not quite over. The next day I set out to walk over to see the main attraction: the Residence. This Baroque palace was built from 1720-1780 as a new home for the Würzburg Prince-Bishops. What on earth is a Prince-Bishop? Well, let me tell you the story I heard on my tour of the Residence.
In the 12th century, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was the Holy Roman Emperor. He had a wife, but he didn’t like her very much, and they had no children. He wanted a divorce. But the Pope was not really supportive of Emperor Frederick’s wish to get rid of his wife. So, the Emperor asked the Bishop of Würzburg if he could talk to the Pope, and get him to grant the Emperor a divorce. The Bishop did, and he succeeded in getting the Emperor not only a divorce, but also a beautiful, young, new wife. His new wife was somewhere between 12 and 14 years old. This caused a stir, but the marriage went on as planned. The new couple was very happy and had 11 children together. As a thank you for all of his help with the Emperor’s marital troubles, he gave the Bishop of Würzburg another title and some land. Thus, the Prince-Bishop was born.
The Prince-Bishops were pretty powerful. They had land, money, and the full weight of the Catholic Church behind them. It follows, then, that their home was a display of this power. The Würzburg Residence was certainly not short on showmanship. When you enter the grand staircase there is a huge fresco above you. At 18 by 30 meters, it is the largest painting on earth. Painted by Venetian painter Giovanni Tiepolo, it depicts the entire world, as it was known at the time. There are some pretty obvious gaps in knowledge, since there are only four continents. Many of the exotic animals are also clearly new to the painter. My favorite was an ostrich with human legs.
What follows the Grand Staircase is room after room of increasing splendor. Only two of these rooms, plus the staircase, are original: the White Hall and the Imperial Hall. The rest, along with 95% of the town, was destroyed in 1945, when the city was bombed during World War II. All of it has been amazingly rebuilt. There were a few rooms that detailed the process of reconstruction. The work and time that went in was astounding. I’m just glad that it was decided that these landmarks were worth rebuilding, because visiting them was incredible.
Since it was such a nice day, I wanted to stay out and enjoy the sunshine. The hostel receptionist had suggested that if I enjoyed hiking, I could walk up to the Marienburg Festung (fortress) across the river. I don’t enjoy hiking, but it was more of a walking trail, and I wanted to see the fortress.
My walk began with crossing the Alte Mainbrücke (old bridge). It was quite crowded with people out enjoying some regional wine in the sunshine. The bridge is also full of statues of Saints from around 1730. From the bridge I also got a nice view of the fortress.
Somehow, while following the marked trail through town, I got quite lost on my hike. What I ended up finding was the vineyard trail that led me to the fortress. I thought the trail was closed, so I felt fortunate to get to see some of it. The rolling hills, filled with green grapevines were very peaceful.
Eventually, I reached my destination: the Marienburg Festung. They believe the first fortress was built on this site in the 8th century! The Würzburg bishops built the beginnings of what stands today around 1200. This large fortress/castle was their home until the Residence was built. Much of it also had to be rebuilt after the destruction of WWII.
The complex was sprawling, full of towers, walls, and gates. One if the best spots in the fortress was the Prince’s Garden, with a panoramic view of the city across the river.
While I was there, I visited the Prince’s Building Museum, to see some of the inside of the building and learn a bit of the history. The decoration here was much more sparse than at the Residence. Seeing the former home of the Prince-Bishops made the opulence of the Residence even more remarkable. The museum was a bit text-heavy for my liking, but they did have a large tapestry of the Echter family, which I found fascinating. Julius Echter was the most famous of the Prince-Bishops ruling from 1573-1617. There was also an exhibit of the elaborate robes worn by the Prince-Bishops, and an exhibit about the history of Würzburg as a town. But no pictures allowed :(.
I had worn myself out hiking up to and exploring the fortress. Luckily, the bus to town had started running just the day before. I bid goodbye to the imposing fortress, and rode back into town for one last look around. Full of history and charm, Würzburg was one of the highlights of my trip. I’ve always loved big cities, but sometimes small, enchanting towns are absolute jewels. The main highlights of the city did not disappoint, and there was so much more to discover. I hope I can come back some day.