Bavaria, Biers, Brats: Nuremberg, Germany
Nuremberg. Famous (more like infamous) for yes, the WWII war crimes tribunals and hosting massive Nazi party rallies, but also more breweries per square capita than anywhere else, a charming medieval old town, teeny tiny little sausages, and an area literally named after Switzerland (Franconia Switzerland) because it, well, looks just like Switzerland.
Last summer, Raunaq and I had been crippled with indecision over where to take our first international train trip. The options felt endless. So, when our friends invited us to stay with them in Nuremberg for the weekend, we thought - great! Decision made. Truth be told, Nuremberg wasn’t really on either of our top ‘must visit’ lists (and it might not be on yours, either), but I find that it’s those unexpected cities - like Catania and Milan - that are sometimes the greatest discoveries. We arrived via train on a Friday night in August, and spent the weekend eating and drinking our way through the city, and as it happened, through history.
Food and drink
Traditional Nürnberger bratwursts, like all good things, come in threes and are smaller than Raunaq had expected. Turns out that to be a proper Nuremberg brat, these sausages must be no longer than 9 centimeters and weigh less than 25 grams - dainty little things, prepared this way for over 700 years.
Legend has it that they are made in this size because during the medieval plagues, it was too dangerous for people to leave their homes in search for food, for fear of infection or infecting. One enterprising sausage-maker finally figured out you that if you made sausages a certain size and shape, they were slim enough to fit right through the keyholes of the plague-infested doors - and boom, the Nuremberg sausage was born. Also to note, this was a time when people drank beer instead of water, including children, because it was the healthiest fluid around. What a time to be alive.
Traditional Nürnberger bratwursts, like all good things, come in threes.
Present day, these baby brats are served two main ways: three to a bun, sandwich-style and snug as a bug in a rug, with mustard; or sizzling in neat little rows on a metal plate with a heaping side of sauerkraut. I can’t speak to the taste, but they are flavored with marjoram and other spices, and Raunaq was a huge fan.
I was more partial to the traditional Obatzda cheese: a rich Bavarian speciality of aged soft Camerbert and butter, colored pinky-red from paprika, spread on slices of dense brown bread (or pretzels, or pumpkinseed, but always fresh: day-old bread is somewhat of a offense to Bavarians) and topped with the crunch of raw onions. As ⅓ of Obatzda is butter, it really shouldn’t be that surprising to those who know me best that I loved this cheese. You can buy Obatzda in shops and grocery stores all over, but the tastiest versions are served in biergartens, as they add a bit of stout beer to the recipe. It’s true, beer makes everything better.
Raunaq and I both discovered the “shorle” style drinks. This isn’t specific to Nuremberg, but a common summer drink in Austria, Germany and Switzerland (the German-speaking “DACH” countries). It essentially means adding sparkling mineral water to a juice or wine, creating a spritzer or natural soda. Apfelshorle, made with apple juice, is probably the most popular, but once I discovered the crisp dryness of the German Riesling (that was nothing like its sweet California counterpart I was used to drinking), weinshorle it is! Almost more refreshing than a cold beer on a hot day, and you even get the extra benefit of a little hydration. Forget Aperol spritz, this is my new European summer drink of choice.
And lastly, we tasted our first apfelstrudel (apple strudel). Our version came drenched in a vanilla creme sauce, and was less sweet than I expected, meaning I absolutely devoured it. I’m sure this will not be the last strudel I eat while in Europe, but it was a strong start to DACH desserts.
Saturday was dedicated to exploring Nuremberg’s Altstadt (Some German lessons for you: “alt” meaning old, and “stadt” meaning city. Old town!). The entire old city is walled, with running paths around the perimeter and a few rivers cutting through the town.
Once inside, our first stop was the truly lovely Weissgerbergasse, famously the prettiest street in the old town. Quaint rows of half-timbered houses lined the street, wearing their colorful wood frames on their sleeves, most with well-tended flower boxes perched on the windowsills, pretty as a painting.
Instagram-stop complete, we continued through the medieval city. Karolin pointed out “prayer boxes” on many of the buildings - large boxes that jutted out of a window, built so that you were technically on the outside of the house while praying, and thus closer to the sky and to God.
Nuremberg is famous for many things (good and bad), but one of the cheeriest is the Christmas market, heralded as one of the best in all of Europe. We were there in August, so of course there were no gingerbread stalls and yuletide cheer in the main plaza, but we did come across many curious photos of a charming girl dressed as an angel on postcards throughout the shops. It was Barbara Otto. Who is Barbara Otto, you ask? Well.
In Nuremberg, instead of anxiously awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus to bring gifts, children instead await the “Nuremberg Christkind,” the Christmas child. She is a young angel with blond ringlets, a white dress and a golden crown, who is the symbol of the Nuremberg market and Christmas itself. And, this is a real person, elected every two years to be the ambassador of Christmas. Last year, it was Barbara Otto, and she was all over the postcards and newspapers. It’s kind of a big deal!
We wandered around the central plaza and the town’s many churches, over bridges and down tiny side streets, and up the hill to the castle overlooking the brown roofs and blue church spires. It’s worth noting, though, that much of this medieval ambiance is a reconstruction, rebuilt from ruins in the 1940s and 50s. Nuremberg was regarded as the “most German” of all the cities in Germany, the ideological center of the Nazi party, and Hitler’s favorite city - a tough trifecta at the end of the war, and made it a prime target for Allied destruction after their decisive victory. To put it frankly: they bombed the sh*t out of the city. Walking through Altstadt today, that’s hard to imagine.
Exhausted and hot, we ended the afternoon appropriately - with pints of Franconian beer in a small plaza adjacent to Albrecht Dürer house. As the afternoon wore on, it seemed like more and more folks had the same idea, and when the cafe ran out of chairs, people just sprawled out in groups right on the cobblestone. The whole place had a really nice, relaxed vibe, which is probably why we stayed for a few more pints (and, once I discovered the glory of the wine shorle, a few glasses of that, too!). Drinking and eating continued through the afternoon and into the evening, topping off the day with a delicious Greek mezze meal and of course, a couple more bottles of German Riesling.
Our second and last day involved more history lessons, but this time a little more recent, and a lot more dark. The city is home to the largest pieces of Nazi-era architecture still standing anywhere in the country, it was where Hitler and the Nazi party held rallies serving to whip thousands of party members and supporters into an absolute frenzy, and ultimately where some of them were tried for their crimes. It’s terrible and fascinating to see.
It’s not often that you think of the influence that architecture and design can have on the public and its central role in propaganda, but when you see Albert Speer’s design of the Kongresshalle, or the Zeeplinfield stadium with its massive grandstand, and the planned (but never completed) grand boulevard named the Prachtstrasse/”Street of Magnificence,” you begin to understand the underlying strategy and message. The design evokes triumph. It’s both menacing and impressive, and above all, sobering.
You can imagine what has been shown in newsreels from the 1930s: blood-red Nazi flags hanging from every wall, the fire lighting up the walls, the large Swastika that was affixed to the top of the grandstand, Hitler evoking heroic and god-like power to thousands of adoring fans while giving his speeches high above the masses. Terrible and fascinating. You can learn about the regime in the Documentation Center - perhaps not the best museum on the Third Reich, but certainly helpful in understanding Nuremberg’s role and the actors involved - and by taking yourself on a walking tour through the former party grounds.
The design evokes triumph. It’s both menacing and impressive, and above all, sobering.
Nuremberg, in common with the rest of the country, has a truly dreadful burden of history to bear, but they do seem to bear it as truthfully as they can. I appreciate the city coming to terms with the past, and leaving these pieces to educate, to remember, and ultimately, to prevent this happening again. Most of the rally grounds have been repurposed into public parks, with placards indicating the history of each site. On a summer day with groups of people lounging in the sun, it’s hard to imagine the vitriol it once represented. For me, it seems that Nuremberg has transcended it’s tortured past, and has built something better.
Three trains brought us back home to Zurich. We had tight transfers, and after learning that the stellar reputation of German transit efficiency was somewhat of a hoax, felt lucky that we made each train connection (if by the skin of our teeth!). It was the first international trip since we moved, and arriving back to the Zurich main train station on Sunday night, I felt, for the first time, that comfort and familiarity of coming home.
We went to Nuremberg in the summer, but the city has a famed Christmas market (end of November-December) where you can find their world-famous gingerbread and sausages and lots and lots of yuletide cheer throughout the old town. The German name is for this is the Christkindlesmarkt.
There is fun souvenir shopping in the Handwerkerhof - it’s like an old town within the old town.
If you still want more WWII history after visiting the Documentation Center and rally grounds, you can also visit the Memorium Nuremberg Trials, where the leaders of the Nazi regime were prosecuted.
German train efficiency is a myth! Every train we took, to and from, was late. If you have train transfers, definitely err on the safe side and give yourself at least 30 minutes between trains.