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Awfully German
May 18, 2011 | By:
Nuremberg has the fortune and misfortune to be the historic soul of its fatherland. Oliver Bennett visits the most gemutlich city in Bavaria

Uber alles: St Sebald's Cathedral soars over the red roofs of the old town. Photo by Oliver Bennett

Nuremberg is a place, it is fair to say, that slightly buckles under the weight of its recent history. Ask a native for directions to the Nazi Rally Grounds and you’ll most likely get short shrift: it’s not really done to talk about it here. But of course, you have to go.

It‘s fascinating fascism, to coin a phrase, and standing in the very place where the National Socialist Party held its mega-meetings – as seen in Leni Reifenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will – is an undeniably potent experience. Good, bad and ugly, Nuremberg is the soul of Germany.

The Nazi belly overhangs a visit to the Bavarian city, but it’s only a small part of a place that makes a perfect weekend break. It’s not that big: the population is half a million, but the medieval centre is navigable and replete with interest: culture, cake, beer, bangers and even oom-pa-pa music at the markets.

Getting around is highly efficient, with an eight-year-old underground system as well as trains, buses and trams. Think vorsprung durch technik – progress through technology – with a photogenic heart. That’s Nuremberg.

As I drove through modern suburbs into the old town, with St Sebald’s Cathedral soaring above the red roofs and city walls, and the Kaiser Castle topping the lot like a wedding cake, one could almost forget the Nazi stain and revel in the fact that in 1500, Nuremberg was a world trade centre and the crucible of the German renaissance.

Indeed, in the city’s fabulous German National Museum – one of the most important storehouses in the country – I found out that local metal technicians made the world’s first watches, looked at the world’s first round globe (made in 1492 by Martin Behaim) and mused upon the fact that it was (arguably) in Nuremberg that the Earth was officially deemed Not Flat.

Because of its deep history, Nuremberg was by the 19th century dubbed “the most German of German cities”. The idea, alas, tickled the National Socialists’ toxic variant of patriotism. I went a mile or two from the centre to see FC Nuremberg’s Franken Stadium, originally built as part of those infamous rally grounds, then walked over to the Zeppelin Stadium next door to find the full rally rigout, complete with Fuhrer‘s podium.

I perambulated the dusty edifice, observing that the podium had been graffitied and littered with beer cans, puncturing its pompous monumentality. “It’s difficult,” sighed a German friend later, over a Paulaner beer. “If we preserve it, they say ‘glorification’. If we demolish it, they say we‘re covering it up.”

So they’ve left it alone, and like some Mayan temple, grass grows in the cracks of the 1934 fabric. It’s supported by a fascinating and appropriately sombre Documentation Centre attached to the Nazi Rally Grounds, where you can learn about Nuremberg’s famous trials of 1945.

Back in town, I went to the other great Nuremberg attraction, Albrecht Durer’s house. Durer is to the Germans as Constable is to the English: a kind of national artist-laureate whose pictures of crouching hares and praying hands hang in the living rooms of a million German homes. I suffered an actress pretending to be Durer’s wife in period dirndl, but then found the sparsely furnished timber home a great introduction to this great master, and one that offered a full blast of gemuchlikeit, that wonderful German word that mistranslates as ‘cosy belonging’.

Outside, there was a lot of it afoot in Nuremberg’s shops, particularly the Handwerkerhof in the Old Town. Half-timbered craft outlets sell tin toys and Nuremberg’s delicious gingerbread cakes, Lebkuchen, shaped like sugary Hansel and Gretel witch houses and another temptation to find the sinister beneath the sentimental.

This place is a honeypot at Christmas, when Nuremberg comes alive with one of the quaintest of all markets: a hyperglycaemic fest rammed with cribs, gluwein and chocolate. When the picturesqueness starts to cloy, do as I did and repair to the cathedral, where you’ll find several tortured saints to redress the balance.

But in Nuremberg it’s part of one’s duty to embrace the utter gemutlich-ness of it all, and at the Barfusser – a vast, vaulted bierkeller decorated incongruously with English pub signs – I did just that. The beer is plentiful, served Bavarian-style in ceramic goblets by cherry-cheeked madchen, and chased down with the local grilled sausages served on pewter. So much for Germany’s soul; this was a satisfying journey into the belly of Bavaria.

Visit the German National Tourist Board website