The northern terminus of the Romantic Road, Würzburg is a surprisingly cosmopolitan Bavarian city filled with architectural and artistic treasures and exquisite Franconian wine.
By Jim Johnson
Würzburg has welcomed visitors for 1,300 years. It all started in 686 when three Irish missionaries urged the local duke to convert to Christianity. When his wife caught wind that getting rid of her was part of the deal, she got rid of them first. A few decades later, horses pawing a stable floor uncovered the bodies, which were found in perfect condition. In light of this miracle, the three were canonized as saints, and the pilgrims started pouring in.
Along with intersecting trade routes, a favorable climate, fertile soil and a primary waterway, this influx accelerated the city's growth, power and wealth, much of it in the hands of the ruling prince-bishops. Symbols of this wealth and the artistry it bought are what still attract visitors: the massive, medieval Fortress Marienberg that towers over the city; the Residenz, arguably the most ornate Baroque palace in Germany; St. Kilians Cathedral, with its Romanesque exterior and splendid Rococo interior; and Neumünster Church, built where the missionaries were killed in 689 and a destination for thousands of pilgrims every July 7. The prince-bishops hired some of Europe's finest architects, sculptors and painters, and their legacy can be seen on nearly every block.
Würzburg (and its visitors) also benefits from its prime location on the Main river. The promenade makes for delightful strolls, and riverfront cafés overflow in good weather. Sightseeing boats offer excursions to neighboring villages, and passenger ships plying the Rhine, Main and Danube make the city a prime stop. And there are few better views from a hotel room than of a river, a castle rising above it, and vineyards stretching beyond sight.
As the northern starting point of the Romantic Road, Würzburg is often overlooked by travelers who prefer the immediate gratification of nearby Rothenburg. Those who do make the trip are generally surprised by its warmth, charm and extensive variety of art, architecture and culture. Würzburg is a surprisingly cosmopolitan Bavarian city, due in great part to its citizens high appreciation of the city's cultural heritage. By some estimates, more than 600 classical concerts are held annually. Major events range from the Mozart Festival to the Africa Festival along with a lengthy list of wine festivals. Clubs, bars and bistros abound. Some of the worlds finest wines attract residents, visitors, and some of the towns 50,000 students, to wine cellars, courtyard restaurants and outdoor cafés that stay lively well into the night.
That the city is so alive and ripe with culture is especially noteworthy in that nearly 90% of if was destroyed in 17 minutes during Allied saturation bombing at the end of World War II. Thanks to extensive restoration, even the shortest walk reveals architectural masterpieces that span centuries. Many treasures were hidden outside the city during the war, however, and much of what visitors see inside the churches and palaces is original.
It is a substantial climb to the Marienberg Fortress. Those with limited endurance or time may wish to go by car (city buses also stop at the castle entrance), since the imposing structure is built high on a bluff overlooking the Main and the city.
Walkers can pass the 13th-century Romanesque Town Hall and cross the river via the Alte Mainbrücke, built in the 15th and 16th centuries and lined with Baroque statues of saints. Two routes lead to the castle, one directly up a steep series of stairs and paths, the other along a more gradual trail that winds through the vineyards surrounding much of the castle. The latter route may take twice as long (about 50 minutes at a good pace), but it's more scenic and easier on the knees and thighs.
The view from the fortress offers a good first stop to get ones bearings. To the east, across the Main, the Altstadt is bordered by a series of streets that (with a little imagination) form the shape of a bishops hat. To the north, the vineyards of the Steinberg climb terrace upon terrace up a craggy, rolling hillside.
The skyline is dominated by churches representing nearly a millennium of architectural styles: St. Kilians, Neumünster, St. Marys Chapel, St. Peters, St. Stephans, St. Gertrauds, Augustinerkirche, St. Johannis, Karmelitenkirche, and on a wooded hill to the south the pilgrimage church Käppele, significant not just for its impressive frescoes but for the stations of the cross life-size sculptures along the pilgrimage path.
Marked routes throughout the city make walking easy and match up with a free Visitors Guide and map available at the tourist office and elsewhere. The tour (about two hours, excluding time spent visiting buildings) passes most major sights and provides a good orientation and starting point for more individualized exploration. Watch out for streetcars, which seem to come out of nowhere.
Any visit to Würzburg must include a few hours at the Residenz, built between 1720 and 1744 and now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. The center entryway is big enough for a stagecoach to turn around and leads to a massive grand staircase. Halfway up the stairs, eyes are drawn upward and overhead to "The Four Continents" (only Europe, America, Asia and Africa were known at the time), reputedly the worlds largest fresco. It fills a vast, unsupported vaulted ceiling, which critics of the time said would surely collapse. Not only did it out-last the critics, it was the only part of the Residenz left standing after the 1945 bombing. (Open daily 9am-6pm, tours in English on Sat., Sun. and holidays at 11am and 3pm; admission with tour d6 /$5.65.)
Tours show off just a fraction of the more than 300 Baroque and Rococo rooms, many of which are still under restoration.
The Summer Palace
Of course, any self-respecting prince-bishop needs a summer palace and Veitshochheim just a few miles north of the city limits (40 minutes by boat; departures from the Alter Kranen for 88/$8 round-trip) is well worth the trip. Though the palace is charming, its extensive Rococo gardens appeal most. Their formality is buffered by a strong sense of whimsy. Wooded boulevards branch off to hedge-rimmed pavilions. Statues of gods and mythological beings mingle with those of peasants and shepherds. A winged horse spouts water from an island fountain in an artificial lake. (Bring some bread and watch the giant carp and ducks fight over it). Perhaps most interesting: a grotto inhabited by creatures formed entirely from seashells, like a hideous, razor-toothed monkey. Benches are placed every 50 feet or so for reflection or relief. (Open daily until dusk, no charge.)
This is wine country. Wine and wine-making are central to life in Würzburg. Since nearly 80% of Franconian wine distinguished by the pear-shaped bottle, the Bocksbeutel (goats bladder) is consumed within the region, overseas visitors are often surprised by its quality and variety.
In autumn, the hills surrounding Würzburg and throughout Franconia are dotted with pickers, who fill baskets and dump their grapes into waiting trailers. At the end of the day, tractors tow the trailers to wineries from family operations in the villages to more elaborate facilities in the cities. Even the massive Baroque Residenz, once home to the prince-bishops, still has its own winery, and it is somewhat incongruous to see farm tractors pull up to this ornate masterpiece to unload their grapes.
Würzburg provides the perfect launching point for exploring the delightful towns and villages of Franconian wine country: such as the medieval market town of Dettelbach with its intact medieval wall and 19 towered gates; Ochsenfurt with its ancient fortifications; and Gemünden, the "Three-River Town," where the Sinn and Salle Rivers meet the Main. Culinary delights, hiking and bicycling paths, quiet inns and remarkable architecture abound.
Under the careful supervision of its young owners, Christoph and Sabine Unckell, the Hotel Rebstock recently completed a four-year renovation project with major upgrades to all 72 rooms and suites. The result is a hotel with charm and tradition, more than comfortable accommodations, and an extremely service-oriented staff. An 18th-century building, the hotel attracts visitors who stop by just to see its exquisite Rococo façade. Although it's just a five-minute walk to the center of the Altstadt, the hotel feels relaxed and somewhat separated from the hustle and bustle of downtown.
Daily Rates: Rooms €98 ($98). Discounts for guests over 60. Garage parking €7.67
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 18/20
Nichtrauch-Hotel Till Eulenspiegel
Behind its ivy-covered walls and through its arched entryway, the Nichtrauch-Hotel Till Eulenspiegel provides a casual and friendly environment to a somewhat eclectic clientèle. It's on a street filled with bistros and cafés and itself has both a wine bar and beer cellar.
Its 15 guestrooms are comfortable with most modern features (showers, no baths). As the name states, this is a Nichtrauch no-smoking hotel, opened in 1993. The better rooms are 24 and 34, facing the courtyard, and 25 and 35, with balconies overlooking the street. The street becomes a pedestrian zone at night, eliminating traffic noises.
At most a seven-minute walk to the heart of the Altstadt, it's also convenient to catch the trolley, which stops virtually at the door. Though the cost is comparable to the Rebstock, the level of pampering and luxury is lower a trade-off for a much more familiar and intimate environment.
Daily Rates: Rooms €98-118. Parking €7.67. Cars can still access hotel when street closed.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 14/20Daily Rates: Singles €80-90, doubles €120-150, suite €150 ($150). Sauna €8 per person. Garage parking €6
Rating: Quality 18/20, Value 16/20 Daily Rates: Singles €44-55.50, doubles €88-111. Free parking, free bicycle use.
Contact: Vier Jahreszeiten Haupstr. 31, 97080 Würzburg, tel. +49 09381/8484, fax +49 09381/8484-44.
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 17/20
Schloss Steinburg Hotel
For centuries, the Steinberg has been covered by the terraced slopes of Würzburg's preeminent vineyard, Stein. At its crest, the Schloss Steinburg Hotel looks down on a stunning scene: the vineyard, the Altstadt, ships plying the Main, the Marienburg and beyond. Although the turreted Schloss looks authentic, it was in fact built barely 100 years ago as a villa for a local businessman. Today, as a sumptuous hotel, it continues to play the role of a medieval castle, with marble staircase, parquet ceilings, and period antiques and decor, including multiple suits of armor. The staff is extremely attentive and the Weinrestaurant a destination unto itself.
The hotel has 52 guestrooms, an indoor pool with a view to the city, a relaxing sun terrace and a newly remodeled sauna area. Each room has its own personality, and many have four-posters and canopy beds. The most charming rooms are in the original building (be sure to ask) rather than the expansion wings. Room 15, a spacious suite with a large balcony, overlooks the vineyards and city. Room 14 is smaller, but with the same view. Room 12 is a medium-size corner room with both a city view and a more extended view of the vineyards. Note: The hotel has no elevator.
A delight for some, a drawback for others, the hotel is a circuitous three miles from the city center. Cars and public transport travel along the mountain ridge and then through farmland and vineyards for the 10-minute ride to the city. Walkers can go more directly along the scenic Stein-Wein-Pfad, 30-minutes through the vineyard terraces into the city.
Rooms are spacious and modern, with plush carpeting, matching Laura Ashley upholstery and bedspreads, and soothing colors overall. Room location is not an issue, since windows are soundproof, and views are pretty much the same throughout (courtyard or streetside). The Restaurant Rebstock has been given high marks by Gault Millau, and the quality and care are obvious in the extensive breakfast buffet.
Volkach, about 20 minutes by car or 40 minutes by bus (leaving from the main train station), is especially charming. At dawn, in the morning mist, it's easy to imagine this wine village as it was 400 years ago: the only sound is the tolling of the bells in the Gothic Bartholomäuskirche. The steep, red-tile roofs of half-timber houses are topped with wooden gables and brick chimneys. Vines form leafy walls on the buildings, where clouds of pink and violet belladonnas explode from carefully tended flower boxes. During the harvest, grape-laden wagons squeeze through the medieval gates, clatter over cobblestone streets and disappear into half-hidden courtyards of family wineries. At Weingut Max Müller (Haupstr. 46, 97332 Volkach; phone 49 093 81/12 18), Rainer and Monika Müller will happily show you their cellar filled with nearly a century of family vintages. Monika also leads four-hour bicycle tours (advance booking required) through the vineyards, followed by a tour of the winery and a wine tasting including a bottle of wine (€30).
In the charming village of Volkach, the Vier Jahreszeiten (Four Seasons) is a peaceful place with character, charm and a strong sense of history. A small but friendly staff welcomes guests with open arms.
In earlier times, "guests" weren't treated with such warm attention. The 1605 Renaissance building once housed the towns courthouse and jail. (To stay the night in one of the refurbished and enlarged cells ask for Numbers 5 or 6.) Each of the 20 rooms is spacious, with hardwood floors, writing table and antique furniture, rugs and paintings, as well as phone, television and other conveniences. Bathrooms are modern. The top-story rooms reached via a winding staircase in the former tower have slanted ceilings, the original wood beams and gabled windows that look out on the steep roofs of equally old buildings. Rooms 106 and 109 are especially nice, with large sitting areas and four-poster, canopied beds. A cheery breakfast room is the site of a generous buffet. The inn also operates a splendid, intimate restaurant two doors down, the Weinstube-Torbck. The Max Müller Winery (see page 4) is immediately across the street
Würzburg restaurants feature hearty and down-to-earth Franconian specialities like blaue Zipfel, sausages simmered in sweet-and-sour broth; Knudeli, blood sausages served with bacon and sauerkraut; Gerupfter, camembert cheese blended with onions and spices and served on dark bread; Schnickerli, a sweet-and-sour fricassee of calf stomach-lining; and Meefischli, a deep-fried, finger-sized fish eaten whole. From May to June, most restaurants serve a seasonal delicacy white asparagus in as many incarnations as possible.
Of course, all dishes must be accompanied by a fine Franconian wine, available in every restaurant and wine bar. Or, for those who prefer to focus on the wine alone, wine bars abound. The scenic, riverside Haus des Frankenweins (House of Franconian Wines) is one of the few establishments that offers wine tasting. Operated by the Franconian Viticulture Federation, it pours as many as 100 different regional wines. A favorite for locals is Riemenschneider Weinstuben, hidden away in a narrow alley in the Altstadt. Der Schelmenkeller (The Rogues' Cellar) is a typical Würzburg pub and one that makes a point of making visitors feel welcome. English is spoken - in fact, Thursdays at 6, some of the regulars sit down to take English classes. It's a cozy, somewhat rustic setting, with as much appreciation of beer as of regional wines.
Contact: Haus des Frankenweins, Kranenkai 1, 97070 Würzburg, tel. +49 0931 390110; Riemenschneider Weinstuben, Franziskanergasse 1a, 97070 Würzburg, tel. +49 0931 571487; Der Schelmenkeller, Pleicherschulgasse 6, 97070 Würzburg, tel. +49 0931 50700
Zum Stachel is one of the oldest restaurants in Germany, dating back at least to 1413. The nondescript façade of the entrance doesn't hint at the medieval character inside: leaded windows, dark wood furniture, plank flooring and stucco archways. Vine-draped walls surround an exquisite garden courtyard.
Equally exquisite is the food. Seafood is a speciality, and the grilled fish plate with a variety of fresh fish is especially tasty. Meat dishes abound, like the grilled sampler plate with fresh vegetables and mushrooms. Bolder diners may try Schnickerli (see above) in a white wine sauce. The courtyard is the perfect setting for wine with a cheese platter or for a typical Franconian dessert, pancakes filled with poached plums and cream. The most expensive entrées top out at less than €20, with many like the Schnickerli in the €7-10 range. During asparagus season, Zum Stachel prepares a seemingly endless variety of dishes: asparagus with carpaccio and arugula, with hollandaise sauce, in a ragout with dumplings, with parsley potatoes, and so on.
A delightful, historic setting with extremely reasonable prices.
Contact: Zum Stachel, Gressengasse 1, 97070 Würzburg, tel. +49 0931 52770, fax +49 0931 52777.
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 18/20
The Julius-Spital Weinstube is a pleasant, traditional and relaxed setting in a 1699 Baroque building. Like Bürgerspital, Julius-Spital is a charitable institution endowed by the wine industry. (The menu declares, "With every bottle, the buyer does a good deed.") Service is attentive and cordial.
A typical four-course dinner might start with a fresh salad garnished with turnips and dill, followed by Franconian Mostsuppe, a creamy soup made with wine that's just started to ferment and flecked with cinnamon crisps. Then a pork cutlet, pounded thin and tender, lightly breaded and pan fried, followed by a stunning dessert, Weinapfel: an apple poached in wine, filled with cheese, baked briefly and topped with berries. Not bad at all for €28 ($28), excluding wine.
Contact: Julius-Spital Weinstube, Juliuspromenade 19, 97070 Würzburg, tel. +49 0931 54080.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 17/20
Although the food at the Bürgerspital primarily Franconian specialities is excellent, it's the choice of quality wines and a strong sense of history that make the visit.
The Bürgerspital was established in 1319 as a home for sick and elderly and now covers a huge campus of buildings in the Altstadt. Much of its endowment comes from the nearly 200 acres of vineyards it owns throughout Franconia (including on the Steinberg) and 750,000 liters of wine stored in oak barrels in its massive cellars (themselves worth a visit). Dining is in the wine cellar, with its centuries-old vaulted ceilings.
Plan to spend €18-25 per person for food and reasonable prices for fine wines. Its late hours are also noteworthy: open daily until midnight.
Contact: Bürgerspital, Theaterstr. 19, 97070 Würzburg, tel. +49 0931 352880, fax +49 0931 352888
Rating: Quality: 15/20, Value: 14/20
The Ratskeller is charming and historic. The various rooms carry different Rococo and Baroque themes, and all have high, arched ceilings, frescoes and statues. There's also a delightful inner courtyard with fountain a great place to relax with wine and cheese or to escape the summer heat with a cool beer and a snack. Baked Camembert with berries is super, as are the trout with wild rice and the grilled pork with roasted onions. Although the meal bill could run as high as €25, a hearty snack might cost €8 or less.
Contact: Ratskeller, Beim Grafeneckart, 97070 Würzburg, tel. +49 0931 13021, fax +49 0931 13022.Rating: Quality: 14/20, Value: 15/20