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Nuremberg Castle
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Old and new

Jefferson Chase
November 6, 2013

All German cities mix old and new, but rarely is the contrast more pronounced than in Nuremberg, where the Middle Ages collide with post-World War II history. DW's Jefferson Chase checked out the city's past and present.


Nuremberg and I have a bit of history. Many moons ago, I passed through Franconia's largest city while on my first extended visit to Germany. Back then I looked a bit like Kurt Cobain, at least in terms of the length and cleanliness of my hair, and that didn't go down well with the local authorities. No sooner had I gotten off the train than two beat cops stopped me on the street and made me come to their station. I was only allowed to resume my tourist existence after I'd answered a series of questions about who I was and what I was doing in the northern part of conservative Bavaria.

This time my arrival is a lot more pleasant. Sigrid Natterer, the director of the Nuremberg Youth Hostel where I've booked a room, welcomes me with a coupon for a meal in the hostel cafeteria. I promptly convert the voucher into one of the dark beers for which Franconia is rightly famous.

I'm a few years beyond normal youth hostel age, but this is no ordinary hostel. For starters, because it's located in one of the city's top addresses - the ancient castle that is Nuremberg's great landmark.

Exterior of Nuremberg hostel
Germany's most unusual hostel is located hereImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The non-profit association that runs the hostel leases the space from the city, which in turn wants to give non-royals the chance to experience what it's like to stay in a castle. But the hostel is an unusual mix of old and new. The facilities have just been renovated, Frau Natterer tells me with pride, at a cost of 20 million euros (about $27 million). Everything is state of the art. QR codes painted on the walls even link to websites dealing with Nuremberg history.

Natterer promises to give me a tour of the entire hostel the next morning, and I set off to explore the city.

Nuremberg by night

It's the early evening and, as I discover, taking your first tour of Nuremberg after sunset is not a bad idea. The many medieval and Gothic landmarks of this walled city - its many cathedrals or the Schöner Brunnen (Beautiful Fountain) on the main market square - look bewitching when illuminated by yellow spotlights. The Pegnitz River babbles its way through the middle of the Old Town. Natives and tourists sit outside enjoying the mild, late autumnal evening.

Schöner Brunnen in Nuremberg
The "Beautiful Fountain" is deserving of its nameImage: DW / Maksim Nelioubin

Unfortunately, Nuremberg's restaurateurs have little of the innovative spirit I found in Frau Natterer's hostel. My guide to the city still lists Chinese restaurants under the heading "exotic.” It's clearly no use being picky, and in any case, Franconia is renowned for its gleefully carnivorous cuisine. But in the city at night it's hard to tell the tourist traps from the real things.

What to do? I'm getting pretty hungry.

My street turns into a pedestrian shopping mall with the ubiquitous retail chain stores left and right. I flee down a side alley until I come to a squat building with a beam-and-mortar façade, which is home to a restaurant called Bratwurstherzle - or Little Bratwurst Heart. I haven't got a clue whether the place is truly old, but with a name like that, it's got to be either good or absolutely abysmal. I head inside.

Eight centimeters of heaven

Bratwurst on a heart-shaped plate
A bratwurst warms the heart of every carnivoreImage: DW/J. Chase

I'm well prepared for this. Having studied the home page of the Association for the Protection of Nuremberg's Grilled Bratwurst, I know that genuine Nuremberg sausages should be between seven and nine centimeters long and are properly consumed with horseradish, not mustard. The ones in Bratwurstherzle are authentic - light years beyond the vacuum-packed ones you get in the supermarket. A Champions League final versus a Sunday kick-around among hung-over pensioners.

I like the Bratwurstherzle. The interior is simple, two plain rooms connected by open windows and a space in the front where the sausage is grilled. There's no music, and the waitress doesn't say any more than necessary. This is a place of tradition, not innovation, and if it ain't broke, as the old saying goes, don't fix it.

As I'll discover the following day, you can get Nuremberg's famous little sausages practically everywhere in the city. The takeaway variant is called "3 in Weckla," or "3 in a roll" - a prime example of Franconian directness.

Beam and mortar house in Nuremberg
The old buildings in Nuremberg are as romantic as they look in photosImage: DW/J. Chase

The Bratwurstherzle also has a healthy selection of local after dinner liqueurs with strange names like "The Nuremberg Funnel." I wash down my dinner with a blackhorn schnapps and think to myself: From a tourist perspective, the Franconian restaurants are the ones that should be listed under "exotic."

A melting pot and a feed slide

After dinner, I stop in at the Schmelz-Tiegel - "Melting Pot," the tavern associated with the Altstadthof micro-brewery. Their specialty is a wheat beer made with red malt. I've never had or even heard of such a combination, but I immediately become a fan. "Red Weizen" is very drinkable, a refreshing cross between a traditional Franconian Landbier and a light white beer.

No wonder, then, that I sleep well back in the castle. My room is Spartan, modern, light and airy and affords a spectacular view of city below. The next morning Frau Natterer tells me that the part of castle where the hostel is located used to be the Holy Roman Emperor's stables, built in 1495.

The wrought-iron sign outside the Schmelz-Tiegel tavern
The wrought iron sign outside the Schmelz-Tiegel tavernImage: DW/J. Chase

She shows me an ancient stone staircase that was uncovered during the most recent renovations and takes me past a concave slide hollowed out of one castle wall, which was used to get the hay to the horses.

The massive walls of the castle accommodate nine floors of hostel, and the medieval and modern elements of the facility harmonize surprisingly well. The stylish canteen and bar somehow fit in with the brick archways on the ground floor. On the upper floors, wood paneled hallways lead to state-of-the-art seminar rooms. The hostel often plays host to company conferences, although its main clientele is high-school kids on field trips and budget-conscious families, many of whom come to Nuremberg for its diverse, and often dark, history.

Past legacies and autumnal calm

After taking my leave of Frau Natterer, I head back down to the city, which, as I discover now in the daylight, is an utter mish-mash of old and new, with beautiful beam-and-mortar houses juxtaposed with pre-fab 1960s nightmares. The people of Nuremberg obviously saved whatever they could of their medieval city after World War II, but the Old Town was badly damaged by air-raids and shelling from land, and scars from the past remain visible. Indeed, they stand out all the more because of the architectural beauty the city still possesses.

Water mill on the Pegnitz River in nuremberg
The water mill is another, more modest Nuremberg landmarkImage: DW/J. Chase

I pause for a few minutes by the Schöner Brunnen to listen to a guide telling a group of Japanese tourists that the square used to be a swamp, then a Jewish ghetto before it became Nuremberg's central market. Wherever you go in Nuremberg, there's no shortage of history, good and bad.

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