Forget everything you knew about medieval cities and think big. If I had to choose one word to define Nuremberg’s Old Town, that would be huge. No wonder Nuremberg was the Kaiser’s favorite meeting place when discussing the matters of the state and deciding the Empire’s faith. It’s all about extravagance, boldness, massiveness, strength, and safety, all at a large scale. Unfortunately, the Kaiser has left the building, or should I say the Imperial Castle, a while back. But he left behind a rock-solid medieval city that withstood countless attacks, all the while preserving its original form to this day.
What to visit first when in Nuremberg’s Old Town? Well, that depends on which one of its five entrance gates you pick. If you come by train, all you need to do is cross the street in front of the train station and you’ll immediately find yourself wandering the Old Town’s radial streets. If you come by car, you’ll be surprised to see how long it takes to go round the five kilometers of thick walls. The old moat which, despite its incredible depth, was never filled with water, still encompasses the old city for about two kilometers.
All activity inside Nuremberg’s Old Town revolves around Frauenkirche (Our Lady Church) and the Main Market Square in front. All streets seem to take you here. The colorful cathedral was built between 1355 and 1358 under Emperor Charles IV and was the first Gothic church in Franconia. Toward one end of the square, Schoner Brunnen (the Beautiful Fountain) draws attention with its golden reflections sparkling in the sun beams. Built between 1389 and 1396, the out-of-the-box fountain is quite tall and, at first glance, you won’t know what to make of it. But as you get closer, you’ll find a tangled display of various scenes from the history of the Holy Roman Empire.
From Frauenkirche, a larger street takes us along the Old City Hall, Rathaus. Here, we stopped for a slice of delicious German cake topped with forest fruits in front of St. Sebaldus Church, a massive Romanesque basilica near the Rathaus that is almost 800 years old.
It seemed as if everyone was heading in the same direction. Watching over the old city, the rounded bastions of the Imperial Castle in Nuremberg protect the courtyard and palace rooms of one of the most imposing Middle Ages buildings in Europe. Once the meeting place of kings and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, the Kaiserburg was built on a massive rocky hill overlooking the entire city.
The large complex is comprised of three parts: the Imperial Castle to the west, Burgrave’s Castle to the east, and the independent buildings of the old city. In the 11th century, constructions began on the sandstone bedrock under the orders of Emperor Friedrich I Barbarossa (1123-1190). By the 13th century, it had become one of the largest and most imposing castle complexes in the Holy Roman Empire. Between 1050 and 1571, the Imperial Castle in Nuremberg welcomed kings and emperors who discussed and decided the faith of the empire inside the very chambers we were looking at. The castle was only inhabited during imperial visits, and we actually passed by Burgrave’s Castle, the residence of the permanent administrator of the Kaiserburg, on our way to the main entrance. We followed the large crowds of tourists and headed toward the Inner Courtyard, a lively colored garden enclosed by massive walls covered in ivy, which protect the smaller buildings inside boasting their red window blinds and simplistic architecture.
All the crammed and lively colored houses are built along the Pegnitz River, which splits Nuremberg’s Old City in two. The canal is traversed by numerous bridges which take visitors to small isles and from one narrow street to the other. Hangman’s Bridge is a wooden bridge built in 1457 over the Pegnitz. It connects one part of the city to a small isle and the Hangman’s Tower, the place where the city’s hangman lived between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Crossing bridges, visiting castles, towers, bastions, and cathedrals, or simply lingering in the Main Market Square, you’ll find yourself retracing the footsteps of the Kaiser, all the while forgetting where you came from and where you’re heading, renouncing time and worries. Nuremberg’s Old Town is a mesmerizing labyrinth of huge proportions. You actually feel as if you could get lost at any time on these narrow streets which look very alike. Luckily, they’re all connected so there’s a good chance you might find your way after all, or at least realize that you’re going in circles. But in the end, it won’t matter and you won’t care, you’ll simply let yourself get carried away…