Bayern the beautiful

Germany, and by that I include Austria, is a country notably diverse in its history, its customs, its dialect and even its religion; but there is one state in the melée which defines the Germans, at least to a foreigner, more than any other: Bavaria.

Beautiful Bayern is the home of steins, bierkeller wenches, white sausages, fairytale castles and lederhosen – which are apparently making something of a comeback amongst the young in this most conservative of German states.

As one wanders through this delightful country, in my case by boat along the magnificent Danube, it is not difficult to understand why the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire chose the City of Regensburg as its permanent seat in 1663.

This charming city and UNESCO World Heritage Site is little changed since the Perpetual Diet came into session and, indeed, a great many of its fine buildings are far older than that – all pastel façades, coats of arms and cobblestones.

One of the oldest complete structures is Regensburg Cathedral, Dom St Peter, which was built in its current form between 1320 and 1520. I remember as a young Catholic being told by our parish priest that the Holy Mother Church moves very slowly; it seems she builds very slowly also.

The grand façade of the cathedral was one of the last parts of the building to be completed and has all the usual depictions of Christ, saints and the faithful eking out godly lives, but there are reliefs on the cathedral which also point to some of the darker chapters in Regensburg’s history – as well as proving that trolling is nothing new.

The city had, until the 16th century, a large Jewish population and the resentful Christian majority took particular delight in goading the sons and daughters of Moses with depictions of Jews, in the characteristic hats they were forced to wear, worshipping a pig and even suckling a sow.

As money changers, the population and its ghetto were afforded imperial protection; however, during the interregnum following the death of Emperor Maximilian in 1519, 500 Jews were expelled from the city and their cemetery desecrated. The peculiar presence of small, Hebrew-inscribed gravestones sticking out of a number of buildings in the city is evidence of the trophies proudly displayed by satisfied pogromists.

Thankfully there is far more in the history of Regensburg than Jew-baiting and the student of ancient history can see not only the oldest bridge in Germany – the stone bridge built between 1135 and 1146 – but also a surviving section of the old Roman Porta Prætoria built in AD 179.

One feature which could be missed for those not in the habit of looking up, however, are the numerous Italian Renaissance-style towers littered around the city centre. These were built by the great trading families of Regensburg which dominated the city from its incorporation as an autonomous Free Imperial City in 1245 until it was incorporated into the Principality of Regensburg, ruled by the Archbishop of Mainz, by Napoleon in 1803.

The residence of Prince-Primate von Dalberg in the city square bears witness to the pair’s relationship, with a plaque recording the dates – April 24 and 25, 1809 – when the Emperor of the French visited the Archbishop.

The Holy Roman Empire had by this time been dissolved by Emperor Franz II, who chose instead to become Franz I of the Austrian Empire, though there remains a legacy of this convoluted and anachronistic empire in Regensburg that simply must be seen.

This is the Palace of the Princes of Thurn und Taxis, which is still owned by this formerly bourgeois Italian family, whose name literally means ‘tower and badger.’

This rather humble family rose to prominence when Ruggiero de Tassis devised a highly efficient postal system in the middle of the 15th century, which was so admired he was raised to the nobility and made Hereditary Imperial Postmaster by Frederick III – an office his descendants – first as barons, then as counts and, later, princes – continued to occupy until the system was nationalised in 1867.

The palace is furnished exactly how you might expect for a family of such prestige, and there are nice little touches, such as the bed draped in cloth covered in little yellow golden bees to win over Napoleon in an immaculately neoclassical bedroom, to the stunning mirrored ballroom modelled after Versailles.

However the most rewarding end to any visit to the palace, and indeed Regensburg itself, has to be the on-site brewery. This is now owned by the venerable Paulaner brewery but the Thurn und Taxis beers are still brewed here and they are a most refreshing relief for the weary traveller.

A little further down the Danube, the town of Passau is very much in the same ‘living museum’ mould as Regensburg – an impossibly beautiful, historic, settlement refined during the Age of Enlightenment and seemingly untouched by modernity.

The timing of my visit to Passau was fortunate, as I the town had moved on from the worst of the great flood the previous July – evidence of which could still be seen in the very high water marks on buildings throughout the settlement. Indeed, one got the impression this was the worst flooding the town had seen since July 1954 – which little hochwasser plaques dotted around various buildings commemorate.

The Danube appears to flow particularly clearly through Passau, charging through as quick as ever in a shimmering emerald green and meeting the rivers Inn and Ilz, overlooked by the great turret which once enforced the Prince-Bishop of Passau’s salt tax with gunpowder and shot but now houses a charming little café. I was unable to ascertain whether they sold gunpowder tea as the café was, sadly, still closed due to the previous year’s flood.

Being far smaller than Regensburg, there are fewer things to see in Passau other than the general beauty of the town’s buildings, though the bishop’s palace is worth a look and the beautiful baroque Cathedral of St Stephen is an absolute must.

The cathedral was built, much as the rest of the town, after a devastating fire in 1662 and features the largest cathedral organ in the world, as well as beautiful frescos by Carpoforo Tencalla and an incredibly detailed, white interior with lashings of gold leaf as only the Germans know how.

Oh, and before you leave Bavaria, make sure you try the sweet mustard. It’s not all that, but they won’t stop talking about it

This article was originally published by In Good Taste.