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Of bombs, X-rays and wine

Mark Arrol celebrates Würzburg, a city that was nearly lost in World War II.

Halfway between Frankfurt and Nuremberg lies the beautiful city of Würzburg, only just inside Bavaria, but anything but Bavarian in character. Ruled for centuries by its wealthy and influential prince-bishops, it was only subsumed into Bavaria during the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800s.

Those prince-bishops bequeathed the city its two top-drawer attractions. On the hills on the left bank of the river Main lies the Festung Marienberg, a medieval castle complex designed to provoke awe among the residents of the area. However once it had outlived its usefulness 300 years ago, the decision was made to build a palace in the city itself. The stunning Residenz, one of the most important buildings in Germany, and listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site, is the result. It took 60 years to build and is regarded as one of the finest baroque palaces in Europe.

For a city to have one such attraction is impressive, to have two is remarkable. But what makes it all the more astonishing is that only three weeks after the infamous air raids on Dresden and only six weeks before the end of the World War II an even greater level of devastation was wreaked on Würzburg. The Allied bombardment here is far less well-known, but had the effect of destroying 90 percent of the city. After the war the initial thought was to leave the ruins as a sort of memorial, but then it was decided to rebuild the main sites exactly as they had been, a painstaking task which took almost 40 years to complete.

Stunning architecture aside, one of Würzburg’s biggest contributions to modern life was the discovery of X-rays by William Röntgen at his laboratory in the city in 1895, an achievement for which he was granted the first Nobel Prize for Physics. Today there’s still a lot of study going on at the University of Würzburg (founded in 1582), which contributes a quarter of the city’s population, giving it a very young and vibrant atmosphere.

Finally, and once more in contrast to other Bavarian cities famed for the production (and consumption) of beer, the drink of choice in Würzburg is wine (although for those still keen on the usual the Distelhäuser in Sternbäck bierkeller is a wonderfully fresh beer). Winemaking has been going in the area since the Middle Ages and the banks of the Main are covered with vines. The locals are rightly proud of their renowned produce and sipping a Silvaner on the Alte Mainbrucke, looking up at the Festung Marienberg is one of the must-dos of any stay.

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