Würzburg – Power and Wealth

“For centuries, the Würzburg prince-bishops wielded enormous power and wealth, and the city grew in oppulence under their rule”, and with that statement from our nightly Port Talk, the stage had been set for a visit to the site of one of Germany’s finest palaces – the Unesco-listed Würzburg Residenz.

Würzburg is a very old city situated roughly halfway between Nuremburg and Frankfurt, and its’ earliest mentions date back to 704. The city’s location in the Main River Valley made it attractive to those who built the first settlement atop the Marienberg hill that overlooks the city.

Unlike many other German cities along the river that became industrialized in the 19th century, other factors played a more significant role in its development, such as the university which served as a major research centre for the entire region. The economy was also very much driven by the surrounding vineyards and the wine trade which they facilitated.

By the 17th century, war and rebellion seemed to be things of the past, so Würzburg’s wealthy prince-bishops decided to commission a grandiose city palace in order to make a strong political statement, and that’s where the story of the Würzburg Residenz begins.

The idea behind such an immense project was pure braggadocio, some big-time chest-thumping, as in “we’re wealthy, beautiful and powerful…don’t mess with us.” In case I haven’t made it absolutely clear, the point of this opulent structure was essentially to show-off.

So of course our day in Würzburg began with a visit to the Residenz and in the panorama picture below, this is how it first appeared to us.

Construction of the Residenz took 60 years to complete; the shell of the palace was built from 1720 to 1744, and the interior was finished in 1780. The final result is one of the most important palaces of the Baroque period, and it includes an astonishing 371 rooms!

The Residenz for its day, was an enormous building, and in addition to the various halls and galleries one might expect, it also included residential and guest apartments, as well as several large spaces for ceremonial receptions. There were also an enormous number of work rooms for members of the prince-bishop’s court, along with offices and service rooms to meet the needs of the massive permanent and part-time staff.

Stepping back in time a bit, from the 13th century on, the Würzburg prince-bishops had lived for almost 500 years on Marienberg, a hill above the town, in a building that had been transformed from a medieval castle into a Renaissance palace. (side-note: we were afforded a tremendous view of it when we opened our curtains first thing in the morning – the Viking Lif having docked almost directly opposite it, before we had awoken on this day – Friday July 12th, 2019).

However, as soon as the first rooms of the Residenz were completed in the mid-1700’s, city officials began migrating to the new palace.

When visitors first arrive at the Residenz, they are greeted by a large fountain in the forecourt. At the top of the fountain stands Franconia, the symbol of the state. The three figures that surround her at the base are; a sculptor, a painter, and a poet.

Lets go inside….. and it should be noted that no photos were allowed inside the Residenz, so, most of the pictures about the palace that follow, are either from the official palace website, from postcards, or scans from a book I purchased in the palace gift-shop.

This “palace of palaces” was designed and built by the architect Balthasar Neumann, and his famous grand staircase, with its unsupported vault ceilings, features one of the largest frescos in the world – The Four Continents.

On March 16th, 1945, one of the heaviest air-raids of the Second World War almost completely destroyed the Würzburg city centre. Most of the roofs and wooden floors of the Residenz also went up in flames.

The pictures below shows the palace in ruins after the bombing raid.

Miraculously, the walls and stone vaults designed by Neumann withstood the fire, so the ceiling frescoe in the Staircase and Imperial Hall were preserved.

The rebuilding process took more than 40 years, and it wasn’t until 1987 with the reconstruction of the Mirror Cabinet (seen below), that the work was finalized. Reconstruction was done based on black and white photos while furnishings and valuable items that survived the bombing were stored in the basement until restorations were completed.

When we first entered the palace, we assembled in a large area (the Vestibule) just below the main staircase pictured earlier in this blog.

From here, our tour guide led us up three flights of stairs to the magnificent Staircase Hall, and it truly is a place where that most overused of words “awesome”, is entirely appropriate.

The Hall is made even more stunning by the extraordinary technical feat of eliminating any central support for the room, which measures 60 feet across and more than 100 feet from end to end! It truly is a miracle that this room survived the disastrous air-raid of 1945.

The ceiling fresco is so massive, you simply can’t absorb it all in a single or even several viewings. There is just so much detail, and so many storylines within it.

The basic concept of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s masterpiece, painted over two years in 1752-1753, was to show the myths, heroes, and poetic ideas of the four continents (America, Europe, Asia and Africa) with one continent appearing on each side of the vaulted ceiling. Above them is an expansive view of a cloud-filled heaven peopled by ancient gods. This is the most simplified description I can provide as there is so much going in this fresco, I could fill pages and pages with descriptive notes. Seen below are five small sections of this incredible work of art.

As part of a sequence of large halls in the central block of the Residenz, the next room we entered, was The White Hall. It is spectacularly adorned with white/grey stucco and again features a high vaulted ceiling.

According to our guide, The White Hall was originally intended as a guard hall, and deliberately designed with somewhat muted colours to heighten the effect of the next room we entered – the Imperial Hall.

While the Staircase Hall was certainly spectacular, the Imperial Hall was the most important of all the halls in the long series of connected rooms.

The statues, frescoes and portraits pay homage to the history of Würzburg and its various ruling houses over the centuries, as seen in the picture below.

This painting appears at the far end of the room between the two upper windows.

Our tour continued through a stunning array of imperial apartments, guest rooms, audience rooms, and galleries, each lavishly decorated in order to support the opulent note that the prince-bishops of Würzburg wanted to put forth.

Today, in addition to housing a number of state offices and apartments, the Würzburg Residenz is considered a museum, as well as being home to a branch of the Bavarian State art gallery.

Speaking of galleries, and since I’m writing this after the fact, I had to check my stamp collection to see if any had been issued commemorating this larger than life palace…..and to no surprise on my part, there were three. One of them for the palace, one for the designer (Neumann) and the third for the painter of the magnificent ceiling fresco (Tiepolo). Check them out below.

Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about all the treasures within the palace. Unfortunately, she spent so much time on the details of what seemed like each and every piece of art in the palace, that after a quick stop in the gift-shop and a moment to poke our heads in the Court Chapel for a quick photo (see below), it was time to move on.

From the Residenz, our Viking tour guide took us on a route leading directly to the centre of the city (X on the map below marks our starting point from the palace)……

…….and as we started out, we could see the dome of Neumünster Church. As we walked around Würzburg’s Old Town, we happened upon this church from various different angles, which you’ll see later in this commentary.

Continuing along Cathedral Street (pictured above), we arrived at a “Y” junction directly in front of Würzburg Cathedral (also known as Killian’s Cathedral), which is considered the centre of the old town. City records note that a wooden church was first erected on this site in 755 to house the remains of the Franconian apostles, Kilian, Kolonat, and Totnan.

In 686, three Irish missionaries, Kilian, Kolonat, and Totnan, came to Würzburg to convert Duke Gosbert to Christianity and in the process get him to leave his wife. He left town before making his decision. His wife took the opportunity to have all three murdered. The murders were discovered many years later and the three Irishmen became martyrs which made Wurzburg a pilgrimage city.

Our visit to Würzburg coincided with the annual Kiliani-Volksfest that happens each year in early July. That meant much of the downtown core was devoted to a huge fun fair which included rides, “brats”, cotton candy, and of course a big beer tent. The area around the Cathedral was swarming with people including many large groups of children on their way to and from the event.

Between the Cathedral and Newmunster Church is an open area with four steps rising to the church. The city dictated that a handrail must be placed on the stairs. The people opposed the handrail…without success. In protest, they placed this “handrail” statue on the steps. It is bound in “red” tape. Our guide joked that since many young woman like to sit on this man’s lap while posing for a picture, he is actually looking towards the heaven giving thanks!

The inside of Kilian’s Cathedral is elegant but also quite simple compared to some of the cathedrals we’ve visited along the way, a fact that Mary and I found to be somewhat refreshing. You’ll see what I mean from the picture below. Clean and unpretentious.

Photo of Dom St. Kilian - Würzburg, Bayern, Germany. Nave and choir

The Cathedral was one of many buildings badly damaged in the March 1945 bombing raid, and the reconstruction process combined the original architectural styles with some 20th century concepts.

Exiting the church, we were now in the heart of Würzburg’s old town.

Click on the download button below for a short video clip showing a slice of life along the Domstrasse in the centre of town.

I mentioned that we would keep encountering Neumünster Church, and as we strolled among the shops along the Domstrasse, we now found ourselves directly in front of it. In both pictures below, you can see another group of children in matching t-shirts on their way to the Volksfest.

Released to wander freely at tour’s end, we embarked on what could best be described as an “aimless wander”. The pictures below are included in this blog to give you a flavour of Würzburg’s old town. I do not know the names or history associated with them, I was simply captivated by the architecture and the atmosphere, so very different from where we live – except for the McDonalds of course (in the bottom picture of the four below).

Our “aimless wander” couldn’t help but lead us to Mary’s Chapel (of course), and the Market Square.

This area was full of life and activity, with market stalls, live music, and buskers among the attractions for locals and tourists alike. The other thing about it that I thought was cool, was the presence of a maypole – something not readily seen in North America unless one happens to be attending a European folk festival of some type.

As for Mary’s Chapel, construction began in 1377, and despite its large size, it is indeed a chapel (not a church) and as such, it has no parish. Like so much of Würzburg, it was heavily damaged in World War II, and its interior was gutted by flames. It was rebuilt in the 1950’s.

In addition to being the burial place of Balthasar Neumann, the famous architect of the Würzburg Residenz, the chapel is home to a famous sculpture – “Adam and Eve”. It is located in the tympanum above the north door. By the way, I had to look up the word tympanum, as it was mentioned in the church pamphlet I picked up. It is an architectural word referring to “the semi-circular or triangular decorative wall surface over an entrance, door or window, which is bounded by a lintel and an arch”. It often contains sculpture or other imagery or ornaments, as is the case with “Adam and Eve”. Oh and while I’m at it, a lintel is “a horizontal support of timber, stone, concrete, or steel across the top of a door or window”.

The first two pictures below are of the doorway itself, and a close-up of the afore-mentioned tympanum.

Now, transcribing write from the pamphlet notes, ” it depicts the original interpretation of the Annunciation – “Concepio per aurem”, or conception through the ear”. Look at the close-ups below, and again referring to the pamphlet notes: “the kneeling Virgin conceives that God the Father blows the Baby Jesus down a type of speaking tube into Mary’s ear”.

Off to one side of the market square, there is an interesting building known as the “House to the Falcon”. It used to be a pub, and in 1751, the owner commissioned a traveling craftsman to carry out the ornate stuccowork on the facade. A falcon was added to the center gable.

The decoration was not only good for business, it was also worthy of a tax exemption! A local ordinance inspired by the work of Balthasar Neumann stated that owners of especially attractive facades received a tax rebate. Today is it home to the public library and tourist information office.

Also at the market square is the oldest wine house in Würzburg; Zum Stachel, dating from 1413. It is still active today as a restaurant that specializes in meals made from centuries-old family recipes.

After visiting a number of the stalls in the marketplace, we slowly made our way back to the Domstrasse in the centre of the Old Town.

There is a historical complex that still serves as a town hall, and the building known as the “Grafeneckart” (see the picture below) is the oldest portion of the complex. The tower and lower side-stories date back to the year 1200, and to some degree it has served as the town hall since 1316. If you look closely at the tower, you can see the first public clock that was added in the middle of the 1400’s.

Directly beside it, and part of the same complex is the self-evidently named “Red Building”

On this day particular day, a wedding had just taken place, and in the midst of all the commotion in front of the building, the bride was just about to kick a soccer ball to the male attendants , which is apparently a local tradition.

The picture below really gives you a good sense of the Domstrasse in the Old Town; the town hall is on the left, a historic fountain is on the right (a favorite meeting spot of locals), and the Würzburg Cathedral is at the top of the street.

Let me take you a bit closer to the front of the cathedral again, as what you can’t see in the picture above is a sculpture created by local artist, Mia Florentine Weiss. Depending on which side you are looking at, it can be read as either Love or Hate.

It is a mobile sculpture that along with Miss Weiss has become a travelling ambassador through various cities in Europe in support of democracy and humanism – the concept being lets turn hate into love. What a beautiful idea!

The Viking Lif had been moored a few hundred yards from the historic Old Main Bridge, and we began moving in that direction as our day in town was coming to an end.

Built between 1473 and 1543, the bridge itself offers a unique perspective of Würzburg. Not only does it connect the Marienberg Fortress on the hill to the Old Town and city centre, it also offers a fantastic view of the river, as well as the world-renowned “Am Stein” vineyards to the west (note: it is Germany’s oldest and largest vineyard).

Program Director Leonard told us that people like to purchase a glass of wine at the “Alte Mainmühle” restaurant located at one end of the bridge, and then gather in small groups among the statues that line both sides of the bridge. You can see in the pictures below, he wasn’t exaggerating.

Twelve days into our adventure (including our time in Toronto en route), we were feeling a little leg-weary and rather than find a spot on the wall, we opted for a couple of memento-style pictures of each other, then headed back to the ship, for an afternoon cup-of tea.

In hindsight, we had enough time for a visit to the fortress, and probably should have pushed ourselves to do it, but given the pace we had been on for the previous twelve days, we played this day out exactly the way we needed to.

I should mention that while the bulk of the Lif’s passengers spent the entire day in Würzburg, there were two other optional excursions that a small number of our fellow guests opted for; a visit to the medieval town of Rothenburg, one of Germany’s last remaining walled cities; and/or, a hike in the hills and vineyards that surround the city, ending in a tour of the fortress.

The Lif pushed away from the shoreline just before 6:30 and Mary and I stood on our balcony breathing in a few last moments of our visit to Würzburg.

As you’ll see from the video below, some of the heavy clouds that had been present for most of the day were beginning to dissipate, and I took the opportunity to take a panoramic video that you can see by clicking the button below. It starts with a view looking westward toward the vineyards, with the Old Main Bridge in the foreground. It then pans along the shoreline where the Lif had been docked all day, and if you watch until the end, you’ll see the remains of the original lock and canal that boats used to navigate in order to pass under the Old Main Bridge.

In the sequential pictures below, you’ll see the Lif approach the only channel that longships like ours can use today to get under the bridge. There was a very small but essential lock that lowered us just enough to make it through, and enable us to move on.

Mary and I popped up to the lounge for the nightly Port Talk to hear about our next destination, Wertheim, and then after another wonderful dinner onboard, we opted for an early night. There was a glass-blowing demonstration in the lounge after dinner, featuring a craftsman from Wertheim whose shop we could visit the next day, but we decided to take a pass on it.

We are very fortunate to have seen quite a few glass-blowing demonstrations through the years, with the highlight being a trip to the island of Murano, near Venice.

As we took stock of the day, we once again reflected on how very fortunate we are to see all that we are seeing, and to be adding such a rich mixture of new memories and experiences to the “scrapbook of our life”.

We are truly blessed.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Barbara Higgs says:

    I am always amazed by the ornateness of so much of the old towns. It makes our modern architecture in Canada seem so bleak and plain.


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