Coburg, Bavaria, Germany Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Coburg, Bavaria, Germany

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For a small town (it has fewer than 50,000 inhabitants) in relative isolation, Coburg has had a pretty impressive influence on European history. Most people will know of it from the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the surname of the British royal family from the mid-19th Century before they changed it during WW11. This came from Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, now famed for popularising Christmas trees and genital piercings.

The isolation mentioned above stems from its location, which until recently was partly surrounded by the east/west border which passed through the mountainous Thuringer Wald to the north2. This meant it was a bit like being on the coast; people would come and go if they had business there, but no one 'just passed through'.

The Veste

The dominant feature of the town is the Veste, a huge fortress on the hill overlooking the town, largely dating from the 11th Century. Besides being very picturesque (it is locally known as the Frankish Crown), it has pretty formidable fortifications. These were important in a region bang in the middle of medieval Europe, as invading armies passed through fairly regularly, particularly during the 30 Years War (1618 - 1648), when the fortress withstood sieges from both the Bohemians and the Swedes.

A Dangerous Guest

Those inside the castle were not above rubbing authority up the wrong way, even at this point in history. Its most famous guest was Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) who enjoyed their protection while writing his theses that effectively started the Protestant movement. This was a risky business - the usual penalty at the time for challenging the authority of the pope was being burnt at the stake. Impressive Catholic buildings nearby testify to the fact that the area was on a border with lands under the pope's control, although religious differences have never been seen as a cause for war in the area. Nowadays the town itself is mostly Protestant, while the surrounding countryside is mostly Catholic.

More Peaceful Times

Towards the end of the 18th Century defensive walls and castles were no longer considered necessary. This was partly due to the influence of the ruling families in the region, who had allied with one another, and partly because weapons of the time made it more advisable to let invaders in quietly, before they destroyed everything.

Living in the Veste was harsh. It was cold and windy, and a long way to carry the shopping. So it was decided to build another palace in the town. This is known as the Ehrenburg, and is an excellent example of its kind from this period. Based on a fairly crude three-winged design started in 1543, it was extensively renovated and decorated in the fashionable Neugotisch ('New Gothic') style during the 19th Century. In front of this is the Schlossplatz, an area with a statue of Albert in the middle, now used for concerts and festivals and boasting a pretty huge theatre.

The Throne Room

The palace has many impressive features, including its Italian plasterwork, wonderful carvings and extensive art collection including works by Hieronymous Bosch, but perhaps the most impressive of them all is to be found next to the bedroom, where there is (according to the guide at least) the world's first flushable toilet, installed by Queen Victoria herself, and from which she conquered India.

The Town Itself

Patronage by such influential families brought a lot of wealth to the town, and this is easy to see in its architecture. Most of the inner town was built in the 18th and 19th Centuries, although many buildings are much older. Almost all are very elaborate, with many carvings and embellishments. 'Grand' would be a good word to describe it: pretty much wherever you look there are towers, sculptures, façades and timber frames, even on such mundane buildings as banks and supermarkets. The town square often hosts a market3, and is surrounded by the Rathous (town hall) and another palace, along with the oldest building in the town, which has been a chemist since 1543 (before this date it was a monastery). Gate towers remain from the original town wall, but it is now fairly difficult to work out where the rest of the wall was positioned.

Away from the old town, there are all the things you would expect to find in a modern town - swimming pools, cinemas, sports stadiums and the like. Although the town itself is small, there are few others within a 30-mile radius, so it is well-equipped in spite of its size.

Food and Drink

On top of the town hall stands a figure of a man from the 16th Century, holding up a fork with a Coburger Bratwurst4 on it, providing the dimensions that they have been made to ever since. A blue plaque on a nearby house declares 'Here Lived Gherkin Alex', elevating the maker of the town's tastiest gherkins to the status of composers, poets, philosophers, and scientists.

It is fair to say that they take their eating and drinking pretty seriously here; the area has the greatest concentration of breweries anywhere in the world. Excellent wine is produced nearby - the grape varieties Sylvaner and Domina are particular to this region, and well worth a taste. Eating out is both cheap and delicious - depending on the season you are likely to find venison and wild boar on the menu, usually served with Klöß - a sort of potato dumpling considered an essential accompaniment to Sunday lunch.

Going Out

There are plenty of good pubs, bars and cafés in and around the town. It has a large student population, so night life is quite lively. A few places have live music, and not just at weekends, and this is usually provided free with the price of the drinks. Most places are open until the early hours, and a couple of nightclubs cater for people wanting to party til dawn.

Other Stuff Worth Knowing

There are often events going on in the town, the most spectacular being the Samba Fest, an international carnival in July when Samba bands from all over the world invade the town, and the whole town goes wild, Brazilian style, for a few days.

1Suddenly having a German surname became highly unfashionable. Especially for British royalty, hence they changed their name to Windsor.2That is, the Thuringer Wald is still there, but the border isn't.3Two days a week throughout most of the year, and then daily in the month leading up to Christmas (when it is particularly magical); markets are also often held on public holidays. Bavaria has more public holidays than anywhere else in Europe.4A type of sausage, traditionally cooked over a fire of pine-cones; buy one in the town square from the trailer with all the smoke coming from it.

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