Vine-covered hills form the backdrop to WÜRZBURG, a visible reminder that you’re no longer in beer country. The city marks the start of the Romantic Road, which leads south to the Alps from here, and with its picturesque setting, artistic and architectural treasures and fine wines, Würzburg makes a fitting start to Germany’s most famous road trip. Most of the sights are concentrated in the compact, walkable area between the Residenz and River Main, but you’ll need to cross the Alte Mainbrücke to get the classic view of the Altstadt’s pinnacled skyline. Also not to be missed is the Marienberg fortress, rising above vineyards on the opposite side of the river.
The centre of the Franconian wine industry was for centuries dominated by the bishopric founded by the English missionary St Boniface in 742 AD and, as in Bamberg, its prince-bishops wielded both spiritual and temporal power. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries the city nurtured the talent – whilst ultimately spurning the revolutionary politics – of the master woodcarver Tilman Riemenschneider. In the eighteenth century two prince-bishops of the luxury-loving Schörnborn dynasty were responsible for commissioning the city’s greatest monument – and Bavaria’s most magnificent palace – the Residenz, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Horrendous damage was visited on Würzburg by Britain’s Royal Air Force on March 16, 1945, when the city was subjected to an ordeal by firestorm that consumed the Altstadt and killed five thousand people; destruction was so severe the city was afterwards dubbed “The Grave on the Main”. Justification for the raid derived supposedly from the city’s rail junction, though it had long been on a list of cities earmarked for attack for no specific reason other than their size. After the war, Würzburg recovered with remarkable success, and its war-damaged monuments were slowly and painstakingly restored or rebuilt.Read More
Dominating the Altstadt’s eastern flank, the Residenz is an eighteenth-century status symbol that puts Würzburg firmly into the architectural super league, as it was fully intended to do. Johann Philipp Franz von Schönborn, prince-bishop of Würzburg from 1719 to 1724, transferred his court from the Marienberg to the town, but was not at all satisfied with the modest little Schloss on the site of the present Residenz, and so commissioned Balthasar Neumann to design something more appropriate to his princely status. The proceeds of a lawsuit provided the necessary funds, and Schloss Weissenstein at Pommersfelden – recently completed for the bishop’s uncle, Lothar Franz von Schönborn – provided the blueprint. Other architects of the day, including the Viennese Baroque master Lucas von Hildebrandt, provided some of the inspiration. The bishop never lived to inhabit his creation and his immediate successor stopped building work, but it restarted under his brother Friedrich Carl and thus the palace is the coherent creation of a relatively short period of construction. The results are breathtaking: impressively wide, the Residenz faces a paved Hof on three sides. After visiting the interior, stroll in the formal Hofgarten afterwards to see the Residenz’s southern and eastern facades.
The Haupträume (principal rooms) and the North Wing
Inside, the highly theatrical Treppenhaus, or staircase, stretches across five bays and is topped by a mammoth unsupported vault – a structurally audacious design of which Neumann was so confident he offered to fire a battery of artillery at it to prove its strength. His confidence was vindicated in 1945, when the ceiling withstood the aerial bombardment of the city – which wrecked the north and south wings of the Schloss but left the Treppenhaus intact. The staircase rises through a series of half-landings, their walls richly ornamented with stucco, but everything is merely a setting for Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s magnificent allegorical ceiling fresco, which measures thirteen by eighteen metres and is the largest ever created. It depicts the four continents of Asia, Africa, America and Europe, with the Würzburg court depicted as the centre of the arts in Europe.
At the top of the stairs, the white and pale grey Weisser Saal is decorated with tasteful stuccowork by Materno Bossi. Completed in 1745, the room provides an entirely deliberate aesthetic breathing-space between the Treppenhaus and the most extravagant of the state rooms, the giddily opulent Kaisersaal. With its twenty red marble columns, large oval dome and Tiepolo frescoes celebrating Würzburg’s position in the Holy Roman Empire, the richly coloured Kaisersaal provides a memorable setting for classical music concerts. To either side, long processions of rooms lead into the north and south wings. In the north, the delicate stucco ceilings had to be re-created after wartime damage; the Grünlackiertes Zimmer, or Green Lacquered Room, is the highlight.
The Southern Imperial Apartments, Hofkirche and Martin von Wagner Museum
The Southern Imperial Apartments can only be visited on a free guided tour – enquire in the Weisser Saal – but are well worth seeing for the Spiegelkabinett, a riot of painted mirror panels and gold leaf that was re-created after wartime destruction using old photographs and surviving shards of glass as a guide. Afterwards, visit the Hofkirche on the south side of the complex, the religious counterpart to the Residenz’s secular pomp, again with frescoes by Tiepolo. The south wing is also the venue for interesting temporary exhibitions, and contains the Martin von Wagner Museum, the university’s collections of antiquities and art, exhibited over the Gemäldegalerie, Graphische Sammlung and Antikensammlung. Art highlights include works by Tilman Riemenschneider and Tiepolo.