By Claudia Fischer & Roger Holliday

Würzburg, say the Germans, is the gateway to the south. It's in Bavaria, albeit at the top end. Bavaria is a southern state. Ergo, Würzburg must be where the south begins.

But Würzburg doesn't feel southern. Or Bavarian, for that matter. It's more conservative. More buttoned-up. Käse and Spätlese rather than the Lager and Lederhosen of their down-country cousins. Different dress. Different dialect. Different culture. Different cuisine. Having said that, Würzburg is most propitiously positioned. Touristically speaking.

It is the start or finish (depending whether you go at it head first or upside down) of the Romantic Road—that 180 mile stretch of heavily marketed Strasse that runs through a receiving line of 26 welcoming municipalities all the way to Füssen in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps.

It makes the perfect base, too, for day-trip discoveries of such medieval gems as Bamberg, Nürnberg and Rothenburg. Elegant Bayreuth, of festival fame, is a mere Wagnerian aria away.

Würzburg also bills itself, with some justification, as a hub for all Deutschland and by virtue of excellent high speed rail and road connections, the city is in fact directly linked to most of Germany's important cities. And with the Frankfurt Flughafen just a 90-minute ICE train ride away, it makes an excellent first or last night sleepover for international visitors.

Frankly, though, it's worth a whole lot more than a simple one night stay. For this is a city rich in just about everything that the curious traveler could possibly ask for. Medieval castle? Got it. Baroque churches? Sure. Eighteen of 'em. Museums? A baker's dozen. Add a simply splendid palace and park. Architects and artists with names like Balthasar Neumann and Tilman Riemenschneider. Rococo mansions. Open air markets. River cruises and excursions. Music and religious festivals. Outstanding food and wine. A world famous university with 50,000 students, established in 1582. And it all adds up to the quintessential gemütlich city.

But as you wander the streets and cultural centers, it's worth remembering that Würzburg exists today only by dint of a man-made miracle; for on one hellish evening, March 16, 1945, this 1,200 year-old town, this center of culture and learning, was bombed, burnt and blown to oblivion. Not a house. Not a church. Not a street. Not a public building. Was left standing. Würzburg was reduced to 2 1/2 million cubic meters of rubble.

A new unheralded, closet-sized exhibit in the Rathaus annex spells out the details in poignant words and pictures, and scrolls the names of the victims of that night's devastation. Würzburg, it explains, had reached the spring of 1945 in relatively good shape despite its strategic location in the geographic center of Germany and its importance as a railroad terminus. Just six air raids; 371 dead.

And the residents felt with the Allies rapidly approaching, they might well make it safely to the end of the war. But the Allies, specifically the British under Winston Churchill and Sir Arthur Travers (Bomber) Harris, had other ideas. All German cities over 100,000 had to be attacked, they said..."to break the will of the people."

So, at 5pm on March 16, some 600 planes from Bomb Group 5 took off from a North London airfield. Destination Germany. 280 turned to Nürnberg. The rest went on to Würzburg.

On the ground, first alarms went off at 7pm. By 8pm, the Würzburgers were scurrying for cellars and air raid shelters. At 9:07pm, flares were seen floating over the city, and at 9:30pm the attack began. Three waves of twin-engined aircraft, (Mosquitos and Marauders, apparently) hurled 360,000 sticks of incendiaries and more than 200 thousand-pound bombs at the city. In 12 short minutes the job was done. Würzburg was a smoldering ruin. Flames could be seen 170 miles away. And by midnight the temperature in the streets was upwards of 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Survivors fled in panic to the Main River, or to one of the outlying parks. But more than 5,000 perished in the flames - 3,000 women and 700 children - as well as countless unnamed refugees who were sheltering in the city at the time.

Such was the destruction, that the head of the American Military Government in Bavaria, Governor Wagoner, recommended leaving the city as it was...a permanent monument to the madness of war. But others said it had to stand again.

And so Würzburg was put back together again. Lovingly. Piece by piece. Brick by brick. Church by church. Monument by monument. The indescribable immensity of this task can best be seen via three dimensional models of Würzburg "after the attack" on display in the Rathaus and in the Fürstenbau Museum in the Festung Marienburg. Only then can one truly comprehend...the miracle of Würzburg's rebirth.

Accommodations & Food

Gasthaus Stadt Mainz

Returning to Würzburg is always a pleasure but anticipation ran particularly high this time because we would be staying at Gasthaus Stadt Mainz, enjoying not just the comfortable guest rooms but the marvels of the kitchen as well.

The cozy main dining room serves as the hotel lobby, neighborhood gathering place, informal salon for international visitors, headquarters for the business...and the Schwarzmann family living room. Everything happens in this beautiful room which is filled to the rafters with polished copper pots, jars of pickles and jam, deer antlers and family photographs.

At command central...the Stammtisch...sits Altwirten Wilhemine, mother of Anneliese and Margarethe. And it is these three women who run the show adding untold warmth and character to the establishment.

From breakfast through lunch and dinner and well into the evening, there's always something going on. When meal service tapers off out come the books and ledgers and business is taken care of, wildflowers are artfully arranged in big bowls, potatoes and onions are peeled and gentle conversation flows. The kitchen staff wanders in with plates of food adding to the family atmosphere. And then slowly the action picks up again as the next wave of diners arrives.

There's an unexpected international aura to the Stadt Mainz that begins with a menu that's translated into 14 or 15 languages. The employees who may come from Japan or Thailand or Nigeria are often seen rushing out from the kitchen to help fellow countrymen order their meals. Small groups of foreigners are frequent visitors as well as occasional celebrities.

One evening during our stay, Margarethe hurried over to point out Haile Sellassie's nephew who was doing a radio interview in the corner.

Not surprisingly, the food is Wunderbar! Anneliese heads up the kitchen and is well known throughout the region for her skills. In addition to the more typical German fare, Franconian specialities are heavily featured - and delicious. Frankische Hochzeitsuppe (Franconian Wedding Soup) and Ochsenschwanz (Oxtail Stew) are two favorites.

The fifteen guest rooms above the restaurant are simple and straightforward with all the necessary conveniences, a pretty touch here and there but are not fancy or luxurious in any way. There's no room service or hair dryers or satellite TV but all is fresh and clean and comfortable. If you go, ask for room Number Six.

Gasthaus Stadt Mainz Semmelstr. 39, D-97070 Würburg, tel. +49/0931/53155, fax 58510. Rooms 130 to 190 DM ($72-$108)

Another Würzburg favorite is Restaurant Backöfle. This 500-year old establishment is a combination Bierstube, wine bar and restaurant. Casual, lightly boisterous but very good, the menu concentrates on traditional German dishes - all a cut above the ordinary with great presentation. Multi-course meals range from $18 to $39.

Backöfle, Ursulinergasse 2, D-97070, tel. +49/0931/59059, fax 5855027410. Moderately-priced.

July 1998