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The charming city of Nuremberg is over 950 years old yet remains young at heart, suitable for trade fair and convention guests and popular with tourists seeking culture and enjoyment.
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Bavaria’s second city is over 950 years old and, arriving for the first time, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a Brothers Grimm fable set amid spires, turrets and gabled roofs. But much of this mediaeval metropolis is brand new, and it’s a tribute to postwar town planners that Nuremberg retains its sense of history, 60 years after 90 per cent of the city centre was pulverised by Allied bombers.
During the Middle Ages, Nuremberg belonged to the country of Franconia and was celebrated for its precision scientific instruments and, less happily, for its Iron Maiden torture device, supposedly created in the image of Jesus’s mother Mary. It was also the ‘unofficial’ capital of the Holy Roman Empire and a key staging-post between the ports of Hamburg and Venice and the great markets of Paris and Prague.
By the 15th century, it had become one of Europe’s most spectacular cities, whose architectural footprint is palpable as you stroll among the handsome merchant houses of the wonderfully reconstructed Old Town, Altstadtor Altstadt. Germany’s greatest Renaissance artist, Albrecht Dürer, made his home and studio here, and there are superb examples of his work in the vast Germanisches National Museum.
As trade routes to the New World opened up, however, Nuremberg declined in importance, and 200 years ago was swallowed up by Bavaria. But it retains the feel of a capital. Unlike most of Bavaria, it’s Lutheran, not Catholic. The sense of separation isn’t just a religious divide. They never wear lederhosen here, rarely fly the Bavarian flag, and the emphasis is on wine, not beer, as in Munich, 165 kilometres south. Even the sausages are smaller. Nürnberger Bratwurst are the size of chipolatas, and you toss them down by the dozen, with sauerkraut and potato salad or hot, white radish.
Nuremberg’s imperial past drew German nationalists during the 19th century, a romantic patriotism that in the 1930s led to its adoption as the cultural capital of the Third Reich. This pretty city, world-famous for its handmade children’s toys and its ridiculously picturesque Christmas Market, became synonymous with Hitler’s gigantic, open-air rallies in the Luitpoldarena - now, despite its bombastic, weather-beaten architecture, a haunt of skateboarders. This past is addressed at the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände.
It’s hard to equate this aberration with today’s friendly and progressive Nuremberg, but history is tangible here – quaintly so in the steep, narrow streets that run down towards the River Pegnitz, which divides the Old Town into its Sebald and Lorenz districts, or in the monumental, 12th century Kaiserburg (imperial palace) at the Altstadt’s outer wall, or even the peculiar wonders of its adult-friendly Toy Museum, replete with rarities such as miniature altars for adolescent seminarians.
Fine art and architecture and the importance of Franconian beer and wine, are strong reasons for visiting Nuremberg. It’s a popular tourist destination that never feels overrun by coach parties. In its souvenir shops, you can buy postcards comparing the ruined cityscape of 1945 with the tidy panorama of today. This is a city which has been through hell and back to become a cultural capital once again – but for all the right reasons, this time.