Wertheim – “Between the Rivers”

Located where the Tauber and Main rivers meet, no matter what book, website, brochure, or handout I read, Wertheim was summed up by pretty much all as “a charming little town, very picturesque, and very cozy”.

It was against that description that the Viking Lif eased its way into its’ mooring spot at Wertheim on Saturday July 13th, an overcast day with intermittent showers in the forecast.

Our first impression was one of an attractive town nestled amid wooded hills rising up on both sides of the Tauber and Main rivers, and perched high above us were the ruins of Wertheim Castle.

At our Port Talk the night before, Program Director Leonard had told us that he had a surprise in store for us for our visit to Wertheim. Indeed he did, for instead of the usual motor coach transport into town, we’d been booked on the local “Burgbähnle” – a brightly-coloured motorized train.

A rather bouncy and laughter-filled ride from the ship into town ensued, and our train deposited us at the Main Gate of the city’s fortifications.

The Main Gate (Maingasse) has been framed on either side by inns since 1675, but the fortifications themselves, some of which can still be seen, date back to the 13th century. The watchtower (The Pointed Tower) is one of those structures and it served not only as a fortification tower, but also to watch out for fires and other dangers at the confluence of the two rivers.

It also has the affectionate nick-name of “the Leaning Tower of Wertheim”, as it does have a noticeable lean to one side. This is not due to any design flaw, but rather the result of 800 years of river-flooding in the area

Passing through the Main Gate, we found ourselves on the first of many winding alleys in the Old Town – an area that has been completely restored, and vehicle-free, since 1974. Most of these winding alleys eventually wind up in the Market Square or the Church Square.

As we moved through the town, our tour guide told us that due to Wertheim’s location at the confluence of the two rivers, it benefits from a healthy economy as the Main River has long been an important travel route from the East to the West. You get a really good sense of it from the aerial photograph below.

However, while the rivers have brought Wertheim prosperity, they have also brought it’s inhabitants devastating floods, over and over again through the centuries. In fact, several of the buildings in town have “flood calendars” on them, detailing the dates and heights of these often catastrophic events.

Many of the buildings also have metal bars/rods affixed to their door-frames indicating the point where flood waters would reach when the rivers rise 6 metres (19.5 feet) above normal level – a level that basically destroys the ground floors and their contents.

The worst flood in recent history occurred in 2003, when rising water levels exceeded the 6 meter mark, and our guide showed us a newspaper article from that episode. The most recent flooding happened in 2011.

The building in the picture below has a street sign on the wall – Wehrgasse – the former site of Wertheim’s Jewish community. Most of Wertheim’s Jewish population fled Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, and those who didn’t escape were sent to Nazi Labor or extermination Camps. Few if any survived and according to our guide, there are very few Jewish people living in the town now.

We continued to move along the narrow streets and winding alleys and before long emerged in Market Square. It is a central meeting point for many of the locals and there is a green market every Wednesday and Saturday in the square. Since our visit fell on a Saturday, we were right in the middle of the action.

The Market Square is also used for parties and festivals ranging from Easter celebrations and Oktoberfest, to “Medieval Days”, a three day event that takes place on the last three days of July, every year.

As we moved along through the market, our guide directed our attention to “Sable House”, the very narrow and oddly-shaped building in the picture below.

In the early 1500’s when this building and most of the others surrounding the square were built, taxes were levied based on the square footage of the ground floor. The owner of this building “beat the system”, by making his street level entrance as narrow as possible, and then increasing each subsequent floor by another foot or so. Clever!

Moments after the picture above was taken, the skies opened up, and so did our umbrellas.

In our travels, Mary and I are always on the lookout for interesting signs and logos, and in Wertheim’s Market Square, we came across a really interesting one – a historic local bakery with the adopted name of “Frischmuth”.

Frischmuth is actually two words which literally translates to “fresh”, and “courage”. According to our guide, this bakery is a centuries-old family business and the name comes from a legend relating to a local baker who came upon a wounded Saxon soldier and nursed him back to health with his baked goods.

As we moved on from the market, we noticed that in addition to flood markings, many of the buildings had a series of dates and initials on them, as seen in the next pictures.

It appears that one can read Wertheim’s building history on the walls of many of the houses, as the numbers and initials on the door frames relate to the dates and names of the various occupants.

It seems that there is another side of Wertheim’s history that needed telling, and our guide stopped us in an open courtyard to share the story of a man who is locally known as the “Bucket Sheeter”. I can’t honestly remember the entire story except that it had something to do with a disgruntled individual who lived on the top floor of one the buildings we were standing near. To show his displeasure or contempt for those below, he would apparently fill a bucket with poop and dump the contents on those below him. The legend grew to such an extent, that there is a locally-distilled peach liqueur named in his honour. Check out the bottle in the picture below.

We reversed our steps and made our way to the final stop on our guided tour, the Church Square, where our guide continued to point out various buildings of significance. In the picture below is a distinct style of architecture he referred to as being “Witt’Schen” Houses, unique in their browny-orange colouring and timbered designs. Also in the foreground of the picture below is one of the city’s most famous landmarks – the Angel’s Well”.

The “Angel’s Well” dates back to 1574, is made out of four pillars and two crossing stone beams and is surrounded by sculptures of the mayor, a councellor, a city architect, and the sculptor himself….and the well is apparently still in working order today!

While the “Angel’s Well” may be the focal point of the square, the predominant structure in the area is the high-rising Collegiate Church, a Lutheran parish that dates all the way back to 1384, and remarkably where daily services have taken place since 1419!

And, it is from the square where Mary turned me loose to make the 15-minute climb up to the fortress by myself while she browsed the shops in the square below.

The Castle was built by the Count of Wertheim, starting around 1180 and it was the main component of the cities’ fortifications that I mentioned earlier. Much of the building’s structure was destroyed by a gun-powder explosion in the early 1600’s and further damage was inflicted upon it during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Following that, it was not lived in again except for the tower-keeper who maintained his function well into the early part of the 20th century.

Today, the castle remains are using to host corporate events, weddings, concerts, summer theatre performances and other cultural events.

The climb up to the castle was definitely worth it. Not only are the ruins a landmark of the city and one of the largest stone fortresses in Germany, rising at the top of a hill, it affords spectacular views of the town and river valley below.

Click on the download button below for a short video showing a panoramic view from the castle’s hilltop location.

While most of my blog content has been about what we did and saw, it goes without saying that one of the nice things about a trip like this, is you get to form friendships with some of the people you meet. On this day, as we did on so many others, we spent time touring with Chris and Shawn Kay and their wives, Kim and Karen. The boys joined me on my climb to the top, and this is a particularly nice picture of them against the backdrop of the valley surrounding Wertheim.

I should note here, that the local citizenry raised white flags on the castle ruins in the last days of World War II in 1945, and that act saved the city from much of the destruction that other parts of Germany received. The Americans used Wertheim as an Army installation from that time until the early 1990’s when the U.S. Army left Peden Barracks following the easing of Cold War tensions in Europe.

I found a 1947 Allied Occupation postcard in my stamp collection showing Wertheim Castle, and the fortress remains along the river.

The walk down was much quicker and easier than the walk up, and in no time at all I had reconnected with Mary in front of the Angel’s Well in the Church Square……..where else would she be 🙂 ?

We were not due back on the ship for another 90 minutes, so we set off on a stroll through some of those winding alleys we’d passed on our way into town. We were quite taken by the architecture of these small town and cities and Wertheim was no exception. Take for example the building in the picture below – the Blaues Haus (Blue House). The carved beams are painted in the shade of “smalto blue”, a colour created by mixing crushed blue glass into the ingredients before mixing the final product. How cool is that?

Earlier in the trip, Program Director Leonard had sidled up to me and said “since you like taking pictures so much, when we get to Wertheim, remind me to show you a “secret” spot where you can take a very special picture”.

While I had thought about it a couple of times since that first encounter, on this day in Wertheim, it was not on my mental radar at all. Suddenly, like magic, okay maybe just a coincidence, upon turning a corner, we of course bumped into Leonard, which immediately jogged my memory. When I reminded him of his earlier comment he said “of course, follow me”, he led us through a very tiny alleyway which opened into a hidden courtyard known as the “Wenzelplatz”. Positioning me directly opposite a small splashing well that sits on the site of an old malt house torn down in the late 1970’s, Leonard pointed up to the castle on the hill, and said “from here, you can clearly see the various tiers of the town as it rises up the side of the hill”, and the view was as special as he had suggested.

The little yellow-brown building at the end of the lane dates from the 1300’s, and as I found out from matching a purchased postcard to my pictures, from 1562-1988, it served as the Town Hall. It is in fact part of a building complex with several houses attached to it. The tower (seen in the postcard picture below) houses a double-spiral staircase with entrances into the two buildings on either side. The large outside staircase was added in the 19th century.

Today it is the “Grafschaftsmuseum” (the Museum of History and Culture), and the Blaues Haus I mentioned earlier, also belongs to the Museum.

Up until this point on the trip, we hadn’t really done a lot of shopping (we kept reminding ourselves we are in down-sizing mode), but Mary had seen a few interesting shops on our way into town, and since they were on our route back to the ship, we decided to do some browsing.

Window shopping in Europe, inevitably leads to tantalizing smells and teasing glimpses of low-calorie (ya sure) creations, laid out for all to see. What that usually meant for us, was that this…..

……..almost always led to this.

After “forcing” myself to eat the bakery concoction above (I really struggled to get it down – uh huh), I suggested we walk back to the ship, rather than wait for the little train.

It was a very pleasant way to end our visit to Wertheim, and it afforded us one final view of the castle up on the hill, and a nice shot of the Lif waiting for us at it’s riverside mooring.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Barbara Higgs says:

    I like that all of your visits to places start with a guided tour and then give at least a small amount of free time as well. Truly the best way to get the most out of your sightseeing.


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