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Friday, August 1, 2014

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An architectural and historical gem in southern Germany

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Wurzburg, Germany

WURZBURG, Germany — Toward the close of World War II, less than two months before Germany surrendered to the Allies in an act of submission that ended the 12-year tyranny of Nazi rule, the British air force attacked this attractive city in Lower Franconia in a devastating bombing raid.

Within a span of 17 minutes, 225 Lancaster bombers virtually levelled the medieval centre of Wurzburg, destroying and damaging residential and historical buildings and killing 5,000 people.

On that day, March 16, 1945, the Residence – once a regional seat of government, the last Baroque palace to be built in Europe and arguably the grandest historical building in Wurzburg – was severely damaged. A raging fire devoured its roof as well as priceless furnishings, frescos and wall panels, but fortunately, the most important works of art had already been removed to safety when the airplanes struck.

Over the next 15 years, the Residence, its exterior having been finished in 1744 after decades of construction, was painstakingly restored to its pre-war splendor.

Formerly the home of Wurzburg’s ruling elite of prince bishops and since 1981 a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Residence today is one of southern Germany’s most outstanding sights.

Commissioned by Johann Philipp von Schonborn and designed by Balthasar Neumann, this yellowish sandstone palace is the acme of architectural magnificence. It contains the largest ceiling painting in the world, a winding staircase that leads into a formal reception room, and a treasure trove of extraordinary paintings, tapestries, furniture and baubles.

Its setting is such that the Hollywood period movie, The Three Musketeers, was filmed here.

Hosting an annual Mozart festival and housing the Bavarian State Archives and faculties of the University of Wurzburg, the Residence has nearly 400 rooms. But for a visitor, only a few need be explored.

Garden Hall, leading to exquisite gardens where receptions still take place, is adorned with an ethereal ceiling fresco by Johannes Zick that was inspired by Greek mythology.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s fresco of four continents, covering a surface of 600 square metres, adorns the ceiling above the staircase. In terms of size, there is nothing like this fresco anywhere else on this planet. Replete with wild animals and vivid figures, it is a sight to behold.

The White Hall, decorated in neo-classical style, is heavy with the weight of history. Oil paintings of the mighty prince bishops who administered Wurzburg, originally founded as a Celtic stronghold, dominate this room.

Empress Hall, its floor constructed of white and rose Portuguese and Italian marble, is an astonishing mélange of sandstone, pulverized stone, columns, mirrors, chandeliers and gold leaf trim.

The Imperial Suite, hung with fine Belgian tapestries portraying scenes from the tumultuous military career of Alexander the Great, leads into another state room, the Hall of Reception, which is filled with ornate furniture, intriguing bric-a-brac and yet more frescos.

The adjoining Venetian Room is a guest bedroom whose most stellar feature is a beautifully decorated porcelain heater. The Mirror Room, laboriously rebuilt after the destruction of 1945, is embossed with the cherubic faces of lovely 18th century maidens.

Due to the Napoleonic wars of the 19th century, the spirit of Napoleon Bonaparte pervades the Green Room, dressed up in fetching green and gold leaf. Legend has it that Napoleon, a frequent visitor, died from the effects of the arsenic fumes he inhaled here.

Fascinating though it is architecturally and historically, the Residence is not Wurzburg’s most imposing landmark. The Marienberg fortress, a weathered castle on a hill with a panoramic view of the city, holds that title.

Marienberg, which can easily be seen from virtually any vantage point in Wurzburg, documents the history of this city of 130,000 inhabitants through the medium of oil paintings, prints, photographs and maps.

In one telling photograph, Jewish residents are led away before being deported to Nazi extermination camps. As elsewhere in Nazi-era Germany, Jews were marginalized and persecuted in Wurzburg, which had a Jewish community as early as the 11th century, and has one today thanks in large part to emigration from the former Soviet Union.

From the ramparts of Marienberg, terraced vineyards are clearly visible. Wurzburg is a centre of the wine industry, which is deeply embedded in German culture.

The Juliusspital wine estate, the second largest winery in Germany, lies in the heart of downtown Wurzburg on more than 170 hectares of land. It produces about 1.4 million bottles annually. Ninety per cent of production is focused on a range of white wines.

Grapes are harvested in September and October and bottling starts in January. Much of the wine is consumed in Germany, but upwards of 10 per cent is exported, mainly to the European Union.

Juliussital was established by the prince bishop of Wurzburg, Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn, in 1576 to support a hospital, which still exists, along with a seniors’ home.

A Jewish cemetery was uprooted to make way for the winery. By all accounts, its Hebrew-inscribed headstones were used for construction purposes. Juliusspital’s brochures do not mention this facet of its past.

Nor is much made of the fact that Wurzburg’s medieval Jewish community – the target of a 14th century pogrom – was physically located where its expansive main square stands today, the site of a bustling fruit and vegetable market, a medley of cafes and restaurants and an assortment of fast food places.

For more information, contact the German National Tourist Office: info@gnto.ca. Local guide Alexandra Memmel offers city tours of Wurzburg (Alexandra.memmel@web.de).

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