Using my cheap day out “Bayern-Ticket” to the full, I indulged in a train journey to Bamberg, a UNESCO world heritage site since 1993 and tourist trap for the better part of one thousand years, located just a short distance from Nuremberg, Germany.
Leaving the train station on a bright sunny morning in May, I followed the throng of tourists heading for the main attractions. An unpromising start took us past road works, shopping centres, traffic jams and noisy building sites until finally, we arrived in the town centre.
It’s hard to imagine a more picturesque place; there are more chocolate box buildings, winding cobbled streets and lovingly decorated houses the mind and feet of any tourist can cope with.
A river criss-crosses the town centre and much of Bamberg’s architecture has had to adapt to its acquatic position in this hilly landscape. An 18th century town hall stradled the river like a witch’s house out of a Russian fairytale, standing tall on two sturdy legs on either side of the embankment, its facade decorated and proudly showing off the town’s rich past. Passing underneath the buidling I crossed a bridge into the heart of the town, where cafes were packed with those longing to be seen and wishing to impress but rarely succeeding. Who could possibly outshine the spendour of those ancient buildings, the largest original medieval township in Europe?
The streets were lined with tiny shops, carved and painted facades, treasure-troves for antique- and souvenier hunters. Restaurants seemed to float on an island in the river, their landlords competing with floral displays and imaginative tableware. Downstream brightly coloured barges moored and artists showed off their ware. Little Venice basked smugly in the hot May morning, it had no reason to fear comparison with its larger name sake.
A steep climb on a cobbled streets brought me to the church and Schloss district where even more national treasures awaited me, alongside dozens of coaches spilling even more tourists into the main square. I fled the crowds and searching for a restaurant mentioned in my Lonely Planet Guide to Germany, I took a wrong turn into a tiny cobbled street curling around one of the town’s many churches.
I found I had inadvertently staggered into hell. Literally. Hell. Hoelle. Not so much the burning inferno I had been warned about as a child whenever I had expressed an unhealthy interest in sweets or in my teens when I expressed a shocking interest in boys. This was more the medieval equivalent of a day out in Sandwich, Kent.
Ignoring the omen of its name, the town’s upwardly mobile had made this district their 21st century home. Flowers in baskets and brightly painted pots, decorated windows and saloon cars spoke of a different kind of hell…competing with your neighbours…from net curtains to this year’s BMW model…showing off the latest trophy wife or designer child with A-grades and a university career to follow. A goldfish bowl exsistence in pastell-coloured brickwork. A lifetime in a job one hates just to pay off the mortgage on one’s tiny place in Hell.
At Hoelle No. 13 I found what must be the worl’d smallest B & B. One single room (with bath) and one double room (with bath). That’s the choice the weary traveller has to make.
Do I enter Hell alone, spending my night tossing and turning in a single bed contemplating my last shot at redemption? Or do I bring a mate, canoodling on double-bedded splendour before the morning after affect reminds us both that we gave up our chance of redemption long ago?
Leaflets proudly displayed outside a gleaming front door proclaim the landlords’ invitation for my weekend break in Hell. I admit, it was a great relief to find there are baths in Hell. After a hard day’s screaming and sweating in any inviting inferno, a traveller looks forward to washing off the stinkiness and start purgatory all over again the next day, freshly scrubbed and smelling of deodorant. A mere Euro 39. per night. Bargain. I hadn’t expected Hell to be so reasonably priced. A devillish plan enticing me to stay?
I escaped Hell…and made my way up the Kaulberg to fall into another tourist trap…the footpath up to the castle – yes, there’s always a castle, no German town in the south would be seen dead (or in hell) without one. I forget what this one was called, there are castles everwhere in Bavaria and Franconia, this middle-aged traveller cannot possibly be expected to all remember their names.
Just like Rome in Italy, Bamberg is surrounded by hills, each furnished with a respectably sized church tower from which bells chime at convenient intervals, reminding me that my stomach was still empty. I had strayed into hell instead of the recommended restaurant. My Lonely Planet Guide advised the climb up to the castle, where no doubt I’d find lunch and refreshments.
The views over the town were spectacular, even though I wished I had brought suction pads to keep me upright. This was the steepest footpath I’ve ever had to climb. Another devillish device by the crafty landlords from Hoelle No. 13 or a consumer test conducted by Lonely Planet’s editorial staff?
Exhausted I reached the hilltop with a protesting empty belly and sweaty brow only to discover that a bus stopped just outside the castle. The trees in the shady forest surrounding the keep allowed me to cool off – both my sweaty brow and my anger – and I drank in the fantastic views over the town and surrounding countryside. Deciding that a local dish of dumplings and goulash would be the right choice for a refugee from Hell, I made my way to the restaurant…only to find it packed to the medieval beams with tourists who had arrived earlier on the little tourist bus. No room at the inn, collect Nil Points and go straight back to Hell.
Typically, the bus was already fully booked for the return journey down the Kaulberg into the town centre, so I braced myself for the steep climb down into Hell with a tormented belly and burning soles.
…to be continued/