Richard Wagner casts a long shadow over BAYREUTH. For most of the world Bayreuth and Wagner are synonymous, as though outside the social and musical spectacle of the Festspiele no other Bayreuth existed. Yet the town you see owes more to the passions of another remarkable individual, the Markgräfin Wilhelmine (1709–58), who transformed it into a graceful baroque Residenzstadt. Her Baroque quarter wraps itself around the eastern and southern sides of the Altstadt – both compact enough to be explored easily on foot. The leafy Hofgarten stretches east from her Neues Schloss to Wagner’s Villa Wahnfried, while his Festspielhaus is on high ground north of the centre. It’s also worth venturing out to Wilhelmine’s summer palace, Eremitage. Quite the paparazzi hotspot during the Festspiele, Bayreuth is a quiet, stolidly respectable place the rest of the time, though Wilhelmine’s magic ensures it’s worth a stay of a day or two.
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Wilhelmine and Bayreuth
Wilhelmine and Bayreuth
The eldest daughter of Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia and the sister of Frederick the Great, Wilhelmine was groomed by her Hanoverian mother for marriage into the British royal family. But the plans were thwarted by her father, who – partly for political reasons, partly out of loathing for his wife’s British relatives – married her off instead to a minor royal and distant relative, Friedrich von Brandenburg-Bayreuth, the future margrave of the insignificant Franconian micro-state of the same name. Despite its unpromising start, the marriage was a happy one, and with her aspirations to enter the glittering world of the London court thwarted, the intelligent and educated Wilhelmine decided instead to bring worldly sophistication to Bayreuth, embarking on an extravagant building programme whose fruits still grace the town today. Wagner’s Festspielhaus may have superb acoustics, but it’s notoriously spartan; Wilhelmine’s opera house, on the other hand, is a Baroque gem.
Tickets for the Festspiele (0921 787 80, bayreuther-festspiele.de) in late July and August are famously hard to come by: you must write (no emails or faxes) to Kartenbüro, Postfach 100262, D-95402 Bayreuth, in September of the previous year just to apply for tickets, and in practice it will be several years before you stand any chance of actually getting them, since the event is hugely oversubscribed. During the festival itself, any returns are available on the day at the box office from 1.30pm to 4pm; performances start at 4pm because of the great length of Wagner’s operas.
The other festivals
Bayreuth’s other festivals include Musica Bayreuth at the Markgräfliches Opernhaus and other historic venues around town in early May (musica-bayreuth.de). The Bayreuther Klavierfestival (Bayreuth Piano Festival; steingraeber.de) is in July. The Bayreuther Volksvest is a folk festival at Whitsun, with fairground rides, beer and live music.