Sunday, July 04, 2004

After my pilgrimage to the grave of Walther von der Vogelweide I caught the afternoon train to Bad Mergentheim, an hour’s ride through hills covered with vineyards.

Vineyards on the way to Bad Mergentheim

Bad Mergentheim is currently a small resort town centered around a famous spa featuring water from the local mineral springs.

Main Square of Bad Mergentheim

From 1525 to 1809 Bad Mergentheim was, as you probably know, the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights. The old Teutonic Knights headquarters takes up the greater part of the downtown area.

Entrance to the Teutonic Knights Complex

The main castle of the headquarters now serves as a museum.

Castle of the Teutonic Knights Complex

The church connected to the castle was designed by the ubiquitous Balthazar Neumann, who also built the Residenz and the Kappele in Wurzburg.

Castle Church
As wine cognoscenti know, the German city of Wurzburg sponsors a big wine festival during the last week of May. This year the first day of the wine festival was on Monday, May 28th. In order not to miss this event, on Sunday, May 27, I flew from Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, to Berlin, Germany, with a one-hour stopover in Moscow to re-fuel. Skies were cloudy out of Ulaan Baatar and over most of western Mongolia but it did clear off over the Sayan Mountains of Siberia, just north of Mongolia. I searched in vain among the jumble of peaks, many still mantled in snow, for 10,200 foot Peak Typograf in Tuva, to whose base I had hiked to in 1995 while searching for the base of the source of the Biy Kem branch of the Yenisei River. Then clouds again until about an hour out of Moscow.

I finally arrived in Berlin at 12:30 am local time. After a night in my favorite Berlin hotel just off Wittenbergplatz, I caught the 9:38 train to Wurzburg. via Gottingen, site of the famous university founded by King George II of Britain in 1737 and now home for over 60,000 students; Fulda, in the notorious Fulda Gap, which through which the Soviet Army was supposed to pour into Europe (this idea has since been forgotten), and Kassel, which as the home of many munitions factories during World War II got pounded to a pulp by Allied bombers and is now noted for nothing in particular that I could see. I arrived Wurzburg at 1:32, checked into the first hotel I saw on the other side of the train station, and headed for the Residenz, the immense stone pile built in 18th century by the local bishops.

The Wurzburg Train Station, with vineyards on the hill behind

Wurzburg, on the River Main, is of course famous for wine (the steep hillsides on either side of the River Main are covered with vineyards) and as the northern terminus of the so-called Romantic Road, a hallowed tourist path which runs from here about 200 miles south to Fussen in the Allgau. As such it attracts a fair amount of tourists. A large guided group of Japanese was filing into the immense Residenz as I arrived, and there were also several small groups of Chinese, who are rapidly coming the world’s most ubiquitous tourists.

The Residenz

The Residenz itself was built to demonstrate that the local bishops were every bit as important as their counterparts in Paris and Vienna. To prove this they employed one of the leading one of Germany’s leading eighteenth century architects, Balthasar Neumann. The main hall of the building is covered with an immense unsupported vault considered one of the architectural wonders of its age. While it was being built, rival architects and bar-stool construction experts said it was bound to collapse. To prove them wrong Neumann offered to fire off a battery of cannon in the hall just below the vault (presumably using blanks). No one took him up on this offer. He was fully vindicated, however, on March 16, 1945, when Allied bombers pounded much of downtown Wurzburg into rubble. The Residenz, on the edge of downtown, was damaged, but the vault, along with the fresco which covers it, reportedly the largest in the world, survived without so much as a crack. This fresco was the work of Giovanni Battisa Teipolo, the famous Italian artist who did much of the Residenz’s decoration and whose paintings now adorn the Residenz museum.

Start of the Wine Festival in the Garden of the Residenz

The next morning I got up at 5:00 am, meditated for an hour on White Tara, the Protectress of Travelers, then headed out to downtown Wurzburg. This is of course the best time of the day to walk around a city: only a few people about and very little traffic. I crossed the River Main River via the old stone pedestrian foot bridge.

The River Main

Looming on the far side of the river was the Marienburg, a huge castle originally constructed in the 13th century, although there have been many additions since. On the bridge itself are statues of the local bishops from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1945 Allied troops toppled these statues into the Main, but they have since been put back in their original positions.

View of the Marienburg from the footbridge over the River Main

On the far side of the Main I puffed my way up to the Kappele, a twin-domed church built by Balthazar Neumann, the same architect responsible for the Residenz. The terrace out front provided a great view of the Marienburg and the city to the left.

The Marienburg, with vineyards on the hills below

Then I retraced my steps back across the Main to the Neumunster, the huge Romanesque cathedral in the middle of town. Just behind the Neumunster is a tiny garden surrounded by the remains of a twelfth century cloister. In the middle of the garden is a stone monument over the grave of Walther von der Vogelweide. Although of course the wine festival was of interest, my real reason for coming to Wurzburg was to make a pilgrimage to the grave of von der Vogelweide, who was by far the most popular singer and minstrel of the thirteen century. He died in 1240.

The grave of Walther von der Vogelweide, beloved thirteenth century minstrel

There’s a Qualifier!