They arrive here from the Rhine as they make their way towards the Danube, and most can’t resist the opportunity to take in the picturesque surroundings of the Main Valley. Cruise ships moor up at Würzburg’s dockside four times daily, which equates to some 1,000 tourists a day according to city guide Michael Spangenberger. Once on dry land, most head up to the city’s Marienberg castle, before paying a visit to the opulent Residenz (City Palace) in the city centre and trying the tasty tipple from the region’s winemakers.
Wine as far as the eye can see
Three of Germany’s four largest winemaking estates are situated in the Würzburg region, with only Eberbach Abbey in Rheingau boasting more hectares of vineyards. Günther Schulz of the local tourism office proudly reels off the three Franconian record holders: top of the pile is Weingut Juliusspital with 180 hectares, followed by the Staatlicher Hofkeller – a real institution with a history dating back as far as 1128, making it one of the world’s oldest winemaking estates – and the almost as stately Weingut Bürgerspital with 700 years of winemaking under its belt. Surprisingly, large vineyards do not equate to large profits here, as the proceeds from these local winemakers are traditionally invested in social work, for instance to fund care for the needy.
The local vines have also yielded another delightful tradition: Every Friday after finishing work, the locals flock to the city’s Old Main Bridge to savour a glass of wine above the soothing waters of the river. It’s hard to imagine a better way to leave the stresses of the working week behind you. Clear views of the surrounding vineyards abound from this venerable old bridge. It’s said that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was once so impressed by the wines from the Steinwein estate, which was originally located across from the bridge, that he ordered no less than 800 bottles. Indeed, the receipt for this bumper purchase, apparently still in existence today, proves as much. Cheers!
The view downstream and to the right is dominated by vineyards while the city of Würzburg sprawls to the left – a city that was almost wiped off the map in recent history. It took only 19 minutes of Allied bombing to reduce Würzburg to ashes on 16 March 1945. Only 11 buildings emerged unscathed, while the rest were in ruin. Some considered rebuilding the city in nearby Randersacker, but art historian John Davis Skilton wouldn’t hear of it. The American Second Lieutenant stationed in Würzburg from June to October 1945 wanted to save the city and the Residenz (palace) in particular. Fire had destroyed much of the building, including the roof structure, which meant that the remaining intact vaults, designed by Balthasar Neumann, were left exposed to the elements.
Skilton and his team wasted no time in organising wood, roofing felt and cement, and provided temporary shelter for the historic works. This quick thinking managed to save not only Neumann’s art, but also the famous frescoes by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in the Imperial Hall and staircase. The Venetian painter was one of the most important of his guild during the Baroque period, and his ceiling fresco above the staircase remains a superlative work of art. Covering 677 square meters, it is one of the largest contiguous frescoes in the world. Indeed, the Residence as a whole is unparalleled: Prince Friedrich Karl von Schönborn requested 360 rooms and Neumann, the master Baroque architect, was more than willing to oblige in his designs. The prince-bishop was served by 500 servants at this time and 200 of them were permanent staff at the Residenz. Napoleon, who visited the World Cultural Heritage site three times, called it the most magnificent parsonage in all of Europe.
Imposing Hall of mirrors
Napoleon was particularly impressed by the frescoes, of course, but also by the White Hall with its intricate stucco work and hall of mirrors. The latter boasts some 600 mirrors surrounded by exquisite stucco and two kilograms of gold leaf – certainly not something you see every day. “The President of Singapore, who toured the grounds three years ago, would have taken the room home with him if he could have,” explains guide Susanne Streichfuß.
Two outstanding artists and craftsmen of their time greatly contributed to the city’s majestic beauty: Residence architect Neumann and sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider – both of whom are known well beyond the borders of Würzburg, Bavaria and, indeed, Germany. As luck would have it, they both lived in the heart of Würzburg. The two never met, however, as they lived in different centuries.
16 of Riemenschneider’s works are just a five-minute walk away from here, in the city’s market square – the huge stone figures line the Marienkapelle. The most famous among them are Adam and Eve at the southern portal. These are notable because the client demanded that the figure of Adam was to be three fingers taller than Riemenschneider himself. The result was a particularly stately Adam as Riemenschneider was a giant in his day, measuring 1.85 metres tall – 25 cm taller than his contemporaries on average.
Riemenschneider also shaped the city politically. For many years he was a councilman and even served as the mayor of Würzburg from 1520 to 1521. He supported the peasants and fought against tax exemptions for the nobles and clergy – and thus had a host of influential people against him. Riemenschneider ended up in prison in Randersacker, where he was tortured for eight weeks, then released and deprived of most of his property. Given this fate, the eyes of his “mourning Mary”, one of his most famous works, may well have also been looking upon him. This figure is housed in the Museum für Franken next to the city’s fortress.
The end of the tour
One more notable person who shaped Würzburg’s history – not structurally, but with lyrics – was the minstrel Walther von der Vogelweide. A tomb in the Lusamgärtchen, located in the cloister of Neumünster Church, is dedicated to him. For a time, he roamed from castle to castle, reciting his songs and verses to the women of the estate until finally settling in Würzburg about 700 years ago. “Herr Walther von der Vogelweide, swer des vergaeze, der taet mir leide” (“Mr Walther von der Vogelweide, those who would forget him grieve me”) reads the inscription on the stone monument. Flowers lie scattered on top of the tomb, as unhappy lovers hope they will bring them luck. The visit to the tomb of the minstrel usually concludes the city tour for cruise guests, who then continue their journey up the Main through the lush surroundings of Lower Franconia.