Most of us know the name Nürnberg, or Nuremberg, because of the trials held after World War II.
We explored the dark and Nazi side of Nuremberg but, thankfully, discovered ourselves charmed by her light side first.
In order to understand why the city was so significant in 20th century history, we had to travel back centuries earlier to learn about Nuremberg’s place as one of the Holy Roman Empire’s most important cities…
Beating the Clock
To get a better grip on things, we went to see a clock.
Yes, a clock. One that can turn back the hands of time.
Every day at the stroke of noon the tower of the Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady, in the main square comes to life to commemorate one of the most notable events in the history of the Holy Roman Empire, the Golden Bull of 1356.
No, we’re not talking a male cow here.
This bull, as in a decree sealed with a bulla, stated the rules for selecting a new emperor and mandated that the ruler must spend his first day in office in Nürnberg… and that’s no BS.
In order to see the spectacle of the clock, we had to get to the church on time.
The mechanical Männleinlaufen, meaning running men, begins its song-and-dance history lesson precisely at midday and it is a one-time only event.
Luckily we made it with minutes to spare.
As the crowd was gathering we staked out a spot right in front, just before the church bells began to peal a dozen times.
Beneath the clock the Holy Roman Emperor sat between two trumpeters, and above them a drummer and several bell ringers were standing at the ready.
As the bells finished tolling the trumpeters raised their horns, or at least tried to.
They must have been tired, because they barely lifted them at all.
We decided to cut them some slack since they are over 500 years old. After blowing their herald, the drummer drummed and the bell ringers rang.
Then doors opened on either side of the king, allowing seven guys to come out and do a little circling around the big kahuna.
Those were not just any old dancing dudes; they are the seven electors who choose the new emperor.
After three laps, the doors slammed shut — end of show.
Although it might seem a bit cheesy to our twenty-first century eyes, we could only imagine how amazing the performance must have been to folks back when it was installed in 1506.
Whoa. That’s a Giant Fountain!
As the crowd dispersed, we set out to explore the old town center as well.
We began with the Hauptmarkt, the large square in front of the church, and the huge sixty-foot tall fountain.
It is known only as Schöner Brunnen, which simply means beautiful fountain, however this beautiful version is actually a replica of the original from 1385.
There are forty figures adorning the fountain representing philosophy, the liberal arts, the four Evangelists, the Church Fathers, Moses, the Prophets, and the seven Prince-electors, which pretty much summed up the world as they knew it at the time of the Holy Roman Empire.
Pressing (and Spinning) our Luck
As with many landmarks like this, there is good luck to be gained if a task is properly performed. We located one of the two brass rings embedded in the ornate fence surrounding the fountain, and gave it a good spin.
So far so good on our ensuing good fortune — who are we to argue and say it didn’t work?
Our next artistic encounter featured folks who were certainly not lucky.
At the center of a crossroads we found the Ship of Fools.
This disturbing boatload of misfits floating through the streets is based on Sebastian Brant’s 1494 satirical book, Das Narrenschiff.
We found ourselves grateful that we were experiencing a much different fate aboard the trusty Longship Odin.
Stealing Away for a Sausage
Seeking something a little more uplifting, we wandered into an open air market for a look at some of the local fare.
In Nuremberg that meant the Nürnberger Bratwürste.
These famous little sausages differ from the usual würste mainly in size, and the fact that they are always served in threes.
3 im Weckla, or Drei im Weggla — there seemed to be some variation of the spelling — were advertised everywhere, and either way three little links were ending up in a bun with some sauerkraut.
While we were more than happy to participate in this local tradition of three small sausages on a roll, we felt the need to look into the story a little deeper.
Since the European Union has passed legislation designating the “original Nuremberg bratwurst” as part of Bavaria’s culinary heritage, and about a billion brats are produced each year, we figured this just might be a serious subject.
They do take sausage seriously here, and strict rules must be followed during production.
As so often seems to be the case, there is also a legend about the Nürnberger Rostbratwürst.
Centuries ago, a man named Hans Stromer was sentenced to life in prison.
He accepted his fate, asking only that he be allowed one brat a day.
To accommodate him, the local sausage makers began to make sausages small enough to fit through the keyhole of the jail.
Hans went on to live long enough to consume 28,000 of the little links, and we can only guess he died happy.
The Dark Side of Nuremberg
Moving out of the city center we made our way over to the enormous open stadium known as the Zeppelinfeld, where the Nürnberg rallies were held during Nazi rule.
We wandered silently around the eerie grounds and — we’re not gonna lie — felt completely creeped out by being there.
The place looked straight out of those fuzzy films of Hilter’s angry speeches that we’d viewed on the History Channel.
A big part of why Hitler chose Nürnberg was because of his obsession with the Romans, and the Holy Roman Empire. In his mind he was creating a comparable realm, so the city that was of such importance to past emperors became home to six huge Nazi Party conventions.
The field is obviously big enough to hold several blimps, but the name is actually slightly deceiving, the only zeppelin to ever touch down on the field was back in 1909 when Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin landed one.
Instead it was used as a parade ground and demonstration area to show off Nazi troops to the public.
The stadium became best known to those of us across the Atlantic after American troops took the city in 1945 and blew up the huge swastika that stood atop the grandstands. The event was captured on newsreel footage and became an iconic image of the end of the war.
Hall of Horrors
Next to the field Hitler began constructing what was planned to be the biggest indoor hall ever, the Kongresshalle, or Congress Hall.
Once the war broke out work was halted, and never resumed, but even half finished the place is huge… and creepy.
We couldn’t help but notice a cosmetic similarity to the Coliseum in Rome, but on closer inspection the beauty was only skin deep.
The structure lacks any of the classic nature, or architectural strength of the original, and comes off as a weak copy.
Still it is impressive just for the sheer size.
Since 2001, parts of the hall have been put to good use as home to the educational museum Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände (Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds) featuring a permanent exhibition called Faszination und Gewalt (Fascination and Terror) concerned with the causes, connections, and consequences of Nazi Germany.
Sobering stuff no doubt, but important in light of the adage, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
Thanks to Viking River Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure! See our full Cities of Light Voyage from Paris to Prague with stops in, Luxembourg, Trier, Cochem, Heidelberg, Wurzburg, Rothenburg, and Nuremberg. As always, all opinions are our own.
YOUR TURN: Would you visit both the dark and the light side of Nuremberg?