x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Germany's Bamberg and Nuremburg are a perfect slice of the 17th century

Inspired by their choice as the setting of The Three Musketeers, Andrew Eames is impressed by two very different cities in the pretty southern German region of Franconia.

Hitler called Nuremberg 'the most German of German cities'. Bayern Tourism
Hitler called Nuremberg 'the most German of German cities'. Bayern Tourism

This autumn's Hollywood swashbuckler, The Three Musketeers, is being prepared for release next month. It stars Orlando Bloom and Milla Jovovich and, despite being a carefully detailed period piece, was made partly on location. These days most productions are made in studios and in creative directors' imaginations, but in this case the directors wanted a perfect slice of the 17th century, and they found it in Germany.

This setting will come as a surprise to some readers. Business travellers, for example, who only deal in big cities, could be forgiven for thinking that there's little of real period value left in a nation that ended up on the rough end of two world wars. Downtown city centres were certainly "re-designed" by Allied bombers, so business travellers tend to emerge from the hotel, peer down the main street, harrumph and head back to the airport. But venture a little farther, dig a little deeper, and they'd discover the Germany that provided that authentic backdrop to the Musketeers: a cobblestoned, half-timbered Germany where the medieval and the baroque live cheek by jowl, where old traditions are maintained and where not a lot has changed since the days when emperors and their entourages would take up residence for the season.

Two of the best examples of this history in action are the Franconian double act, Bamberg and Nuremberg, two cities that developed pretty much in parallel over the centuries but which have very different recent pasts. Both have, in their time, been associated with the concept of being the "most German of German cities", an idea that came to have unfortunate associations, more of which later.

Franconia may sound Frenchified and musketeery but is, in fact, the northern part of Bavaria, a peaceful landscape of impressionistic swirls, whorls and patches, of spidery rural villages sitting in webs of hill-topping woodland. As a landscape, it isn't as spectacular as the rugged peaks and steep alpine meadows that attract the crowds to southern Bavaria, but here it is the cities, with their long and colourful histories, that are the main attraction. For this was once the heart of the Holy Roman Empire, and the emperors were keen to ensure their home towns were suitably splendid.

Bamberg is the most immaculate of them all, something Unesco spotted some 18 years ago when the city was first designated a World Heritage Site, and this is where a substantial chunk of The Three Musketeers has been filmed. Fortunately, the world wars passed the city by and there are some 2,500 protected medieval buildings still standing.

Furthermore, this is a city still divided along medieval lines, with the Imperial Residence, the 12th-century cathedral and the nobles district up on a hill overlooking a large island between two arms of the River Regnitz. The cathedral (Romanesque, but with Gothic additions) sits on the edge of a giant cobbled square - the only cathedral outside the Vatican to still contain the tomb of a Pope (he asked to have his remains interred here). Lining the other side of the square is the Residenz and its adjoining rose garden, where the emperor would wander out to escape the attentions of courtiers and supplicants and gaze out from the balustrade across the rooftops of his city.

Most of those roofs belonged to the more impoverished dwellings situated on Bamberg's island, where the more plebeian commercial and market district was located. Here, the riverbanks are still lined with what is now known as Little Venice - wonky, half-timbered fishermen's houses right by the water's edge, once ramshackle and poor but now extremely desirable properties. These days there are no more fishermen but boat cruises instead, including actual gondolas from Venice.

The river crossing between the imperial and the plebeian part of the city is the most attractive bit of Bamberg. The Old Town Hall straddles the crossing on its own little island, blushing with frescos and frilly with rococo balconies, its bridges flowing with a babel of languages from all the visitors off the cruise boats that stop here in transit between the Rhine and the Danube. Terraces of cafes sprawl out across the cobbles, with customers getting stuck into traditional beef and dumplings and coffee and cake of the sort that, once past your lips, remains forever on your hips.

There's healthier fare along the main artery of Bamberg's island, Gruner Markt, where, as the name suggests, there's a daily market dominated by seasonal fruit and vegetables, some of which would have been grown across on the other bank of the Regnitz, where the market garden district is still flourishing just as it did 400 years ago.

The latter is also the location for the main railway station. Frequent trains make the swift crossing (little more than half an hour) to Nuremberg, a city where the whole medieval-imperial story repeats itself, but this time has a very different ending.

Nuremberg too was an imperial seat and a very significant trading crossroads, which is why it grew so fast in the Middle Ages, fast enough to become the second-biggest German city (in 1499). It too had its original castle up on a hill overlooking a river - confusingly, the Pegnitz, not the Regnitz. It outgrew its original walls, built a new set of fortifications, added a new castle and prospered so much that the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire were kept here on a permanent basis.

Just as in Bamberg, resident emperors could readily gaze out from the castle balcony over the city rooftops and, today, with half-closed eyes, the two cities could be chips off the same block; the same rippling, choppy sea of gabled and dimpled ochre tiles pierced by soaring ecclesiastical towers. But while Bamberg is the original, Nuremberg is a reconstruction; this city was 95 per cent destroyed in the last months of the Second World War.

It was Nuremberg's perfect medievalism and its tradition as the centre of empire that came to be its undoing. Hitler called it the "most German of German cities" and, as such, designated it as the spiritual centre of National Socialism (Nazism), staging huge annual rallies out at specially designed rally grounds in the suburbs. It was this that attracted the attention of the Allied bombers, intent on striking a telling blow on Nazi morale, towards the end of the war.

The city was flattened but out of the ashes have risen several key monuments. The turreted Kaiserburg Castle is still there, overlookings everything, as are many of the city's fortifications, including gates and walls. Within them, the centre has become the largest pedestrianised area in Europe, busy with buskers and shoppers and, during the run-up to Christmas, its main market square hosts Germany's most long-lasting Christmas market (first held in 1628) against the backdrop of the delicately carved façade of the 14th-century Frauenkirche.

In the right season and in the right light, Nuremberg can thus seem very romantic, especially where the city walls cross the rivers in the shape of ornate, fortified mansions. But not all is as romantic as it seems, for even one of those river-straddling properties was once occupied by the hangman, and would commonly have a corpse hanging outside it to discourage visiting criminals.

These days, for the city's darker edge, you need to travel a bit out of the centre. The former Nazi rally grounds were designed by Hitler to impress, to intimidate and to perpetuate the mythology of Nazism. These days, the massive Congress Hall in the grounds houses the Documentation Centre, a very dry name for an outstanding exhibition that looks at how one megalomaniac managed to hijack a nation's future. His Nuremberg rallies were a key ingredient - they lasted up to eight days and inculcated a kind of group hysteria that is disturbing to witness. The pre-war role that Nuremberg played in the growth of Nazism also made it an entirely fitting location for the post-war Nuremberg Trials, where Hitler's cronies were finally held to account in a court of law. It was the first time in human history that politicians were made answerable for crimes against humanity. The courtroom where all this took place has recently been opened to the public and there's an exhibition (Memorium Nuremberg Trials) that tracks the birth of the idea of a trial all the way through to its - and their - execution, with gripping videos of some of the key figures in the dock. It's a sobering side to the city.

So whether you are interested in modern history or medieval history, in peace or in war, there's no denying the story-telling power of both Nuremberg, with its light and its dark, and its altogether sunnier neighbour, Bamberg. It's no surprise that modern film-makers should want to make their movies here.

Andrew Eames is the editor of www.germanyiswunderbar.com. His latest book, Blue River, Black Sea, is out now.


If you go

The flight Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Frankfurt cost from Dh2,860, including taxes

The stay Double rooms at the stately Residenzschloss (www.residenzschloss.com; 00 49 951 60910) in Bamberg cost from €176 (Dh933). In Nuremberg, double rooms at the Sheraton Carlton (www.carlton-nuernberg.de) cost from €139 (Dh737). Both rates include taxes