Bamberg has stumbled out of a medieval fantasy, trailing the seductive, smoky scent of Rauchbier behind it. If enchantment is the game, Bamberg is top of its class luring you in with hearty food and Bamberg’s distinctive smoky beer. The entire Aldstadt (“Old town”), with its medieval flair and distinctive photo ops, has been designated a UNESCO heritage site. Each of Bamberg’s seven rolling hills are topped with its own church and often a bevy of other historic landmarks. Our couchsurfing host from Nuremberg dropped us off one sunny day, and I couldn’t have been more excited to get started exploring.
The Aldstadt of Bamberg is compact and really easy to make your way around on foot, just be ready for a bit of hiking if you want to visit each of the seven hills. We were easily able to explore much of the historical sites in a day, but Bamberg is a great place to linger and take your time if you can. It was early spring when we visited so it was relatively quiet still, much to our delight. The market was busy, but in a mostly-just-locals-doing-their-shopping kind of way, if you get my drift. Stretching our legs and grabbing a map, we set off to explore the rolling hills of this lovely, little town.
For much of Bamberg’s history Cathedral Hill has held the spotlight. It was the spiritual and secular centre of power in the diocese of Bamberg from the 11th century until 1802, at which point Bamberg lost its independence and became part of Bavaria. Cathedral Hill is a great place to start your day in Bamberg as it features many of the important landmarks the town is famous for, including the Imperial Cathedral, New Residence, the Old Court and Michelsberg Monastery, as well as several museums. The rest of Bamberg’s seven hills (Michaelsberg, Kaulberg/Obere Pfarre, Stefansberg, Jakobsberg, Altenburger, and Abtsberg) are each crowned with a beautiful church of its own. Set aside plenty of time for exploring (and resting!) as you make your way to each.
The iconic image of Bamberg, however, is its unique Alte Rathaus (Old Town hall) perched in the middle of the river Regnitz. As the legend goes, the bishop of Bamberg didn’t get around to (or refused) granting land to the citizens of Bamberg on which they could build their town hall. Thinking outside the box, they decided to plant stakes in the middle of the river, creating a little island on which they built the Altes Rathaus. If the choice of location wasn’t spectacular enough, the walls are adorned top to bottom with colourful frescoes that seem to defy reason and burst from the walls in trompe d’oeil fashion. We didn’t see this ourselves, but keep a look out for a special cherub hidden in the frescoes whose leg really is coming out of the wall!
One huge claim to Bamberg’s fame is its signature smoky-flavoured beer, Rauchbier. The distinctive smokiness that this dark, bottom-brewed beer is known for is achieved mainly through drying the malt with aromatic smoke from burning specific types of logs. We decided to try the Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, lovingly crafted over the open flames of beechwood, within the old inn of Schlenkerla. The brewery is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, a half-timbered house with sky-blue shutters and window boxes that in the summer are overflowing with geraniums. Inside Schlenkerla, massive wooden beams are dark from centuries of being painted with ox-blood for luck, and heavy wooden chairs and tables invite you to sit down for a pint and some hearty Franconian specialities. We chatted excitedly as we waited for our beers (light for me, dark for Nathanael), leberknödel, and schweinshaxe. As a person just emerging from their beer-drinkers-cocoon, this certainly is an interesting one to try! To me, the flavour of the beer came across almost like smoked bacon, which I certainly wouldn’t say no to.
After a busy day finished off with a satisfying pint, our gracious couchsurfing host picked us up and whisked us back home. Bamberg is an amazing little side-trip well-worth visiting on your journey down the Thuringian Castle Road. On the morrow we would be off to Munich, a city of beer gardens, museums, and canal-surfers. Cheers to another beautiful German city, great people, and new adventures!