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The northern terminus of the Romantic Road, Würzburg is a surprisingly cosmopolitan Bavarian city filled with architectural and artistic treasures and exquisite Franconian wine.

By Jim Johnson

Wurzburg Oldbridge

Würzburg has welcomed visitors for 1,300 years. It all started in 686 when three Irish missionaries urged the local duke to convert to Christianity. When his wife caught wind that getting rid of her was part of the deal, she got rid of them first. A few decades later, horses pawing a stable floor uncovered the bodies, which were found in perfect condition. In light of this miracle, the three were canonized as saints, and the pilgrims started pouring in.

Along with intersecting trade routes, a favorable climate, fertile soil and a primary waterway, this influx accelerated the city's growth, power and wealth, much of it in the hands of the ruling prince-bishops. Symbols of this wealth and the artistry it bought are what still attract visitors: the massive, medieval Fortress Marienberg that towers over the city; the Residenz, arguably the most ornate Baroque palace in Germany; St. Kilians Cathedral, with its Romanesque exterior and splendid Rococo interior; and Neumünster Church, built where the missionaries were killed in 689 and a destination for thousands of pilgrims every July 7. The prince-bishops hired some of Europe's finest architects, sculptors and painters, and their legacy can be seen on nearly every block.

Würzburg (and its visitors) also benefits from its prime location on the Main river. The promenade makes for delightful strolls, and riverfront cafés overflow in good weather. Sightseeing boats offer excursions to neighboring villages, and passenger ships plying the Rhine, Main and Danube make the city a prime stop. And there are few better views from a hotel room than of a river, a castle rising above it, and vineyards stretching beyond sight.

As the northern starting point of the Romantic Road, Würzburg is often overlooked by travelers who prefer the immediate gratification of nearby Rothenburg. Those who do make the trip are generally surprised by its warmth, charm and extensive variety of art, architecture and culture. Würzburg is a surprisingly cosmopolitan Bavarian city, due in great part to its citizens high appreciation of the city's cultural heritage. By some estimates, more than 600 classical concerts are held annually. Major events range from the Mozart Festival to the Africa Festival along with a lengthy list of wine festivals. Clubs, bars and bistros abound. Some of the worlds finest wines attract residents, visitors, and some of the towns 50,000 students, to wine cellars, courtyard restaurants and outdoor cafés that stay lively well into the night.

Wurzburg Residenz
Residenz

That the city is so alive and ripe with culture is especially noteworthy in that nearly 90% of if was destroyed in 17 minutes during Allied saturation bombing at the end of World War II. Thanks to extensive restoration, even the shortest walk reveals architectural masterpieces that span centuries. Many treasures were hidden outside the city during the war, however, and much of what visitors see inside the churches and palaces is original.

The Fortress

It is a substantial climb to the Marienberg Fortress. Those with limited endurance or time may wish to go by car (city buses also stop at the castle entrance), since the imposing structure is built high on a bluff overlooking the Main and the city.

Walkers can pass the 13th-century Romanesque Town Hall and cross the river via the Alte Mainbrücke, built in the 15th and 16th centuries and lined with Baroque statues of saints. Two routes lead to the castle, one directly up a steep series of stairs and paths, the other along a more gradual trail that winds through the vineyards surrounding much of the castle. The latter route may take twice as long (about 50 minutes at a good pace), but it's more scenic and easier on the knees and thighs.

The view from the fortress offers a good first stop to get ones bearings. To the east, across the Main, the Altstadt is bordered by a series of streets that (with a little imagination) form the shape of a bishops hat. To the north, the vineyards of the Steinberg climb terrace upon terrace up a craggy, rolling hillside.

The skyline is dominated by churches representing nearly a millennium of architectural styles: St. Kilians, Neumünster, St. Marys Chapel, St. Peters, St. Stephans, St. Gertrauds, Augustinerkirche, St. Johannis, Karmelitenkirche, and on a wooded hill to the south the pilgrimage church Käppele, significant not just for its impressive frescoes but for the stations of the cross life-size sculptures along the pilgrimage path.

Marked routes throughout the city make walking easy and match up with a free Visitors Guide and map available at the tourist office and elsewhere. The tour (about two hours, excluding time spent visiting buildings) passes most major sights and provides a good orientation and starting point for more individualized exploration. Watch out for streetcars, which seem to come out of nowhere.