Anchored to its Medieval Roots – Freiburg, Germany

Anchored to its Medieval Roots – Freiburg, Germany

Tucked into the southwestern corner of Germany at the crossroads of France and Switzerland, and with the Black Forest at the very gates of the city, Freiburg-im-Breisgau is the stuff medieval fairytales are made off.

From Market Town to Center of Learning

Franziskaner Street is lined with grand 16th century buildings.

In the late 11th century, the local ruler Berthold II von Zähringen, built a fortified castle on top of what is now known as Schlossberg (Castle Mountain) to control the local trade routes. Under his protection, the castle’s supporting cast of craftsmen and servants settled at the foot of the mountain in what is now the Altstadt (Old Town). Bolstered by the proximity of silver mines in the western Black Forest, the settlement quickly prospered. Declared a free market town  in 1120, Freiburg (or Free Town) developed into the area’s main center of trade. Then in 1457, with the founding of the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, the city established itself as a learning center that remains prominent to this day.

Garlands of mature wistaria enhance the quaint atmosphere of the Old Town.

As is frequent with most European towns, its fortunes ebbed and flowed as it fell under the control of the Austrians, the French, the Spanish and several independent German states at various times throughout its long history. But in spite of it all, Freiburg managed to retain the unique atmosphere of an ancient Germanic town with its maze of narrow cobbled streets leading to its magnificent Gothic Minster (cathedral).

The city’s ancient architectural heritage was exactingly restored after World War Two.

Sadly, Freiburg did not escape the devastation of the Second World War. In a single bombing in November 1944, the majority of its historic center was reduced to ashes in twenty minutes, miraculously leaving the cathedral mostly untouched. But an exacting re-creation of its original plan and thoughtful reconstruction of its historic buildings have since restored the charm of the medieval market town.

 

The Iconic Symbol of the City

The delicate spire of the Minster dominates the skyline.

The main focal point of the city is its majestic cathedral, considered one of the great masterpieces of Gothic art in Germany. Although construction began around 1200, so that the transept and the towers that surmount it are actually Romanesque, the Minster or Münster, as it is known locally, evolved over three centuries as an exquisite Gothic gem. Its delicate spire of filigree stonework soaring 116 meters (318 feet) into the sky was built in the 14th and 15th centuries and has been the iconic symbol of the city ever since.

The high-altar triptych is by Hans Baldung Grien.

Inside, a number of remarkable sculptures such as an early 16th century adoration of the Christ Child by the Magi (in the transept) and a lovely 13th century Virgin flanked by two adoring angels (by the entrance to the tower) are eclipsed by the triptych altarpiece by Hans Baldung Grien, who is considered the most gifted student of Albrecht Dürer. The aisles are lined with vibrant 14th century stained-glass windows. Some panels, however, are reproductions. The originals  can be seen at eye level in the nearby Augustiner Museum.

Ever a Market Town

Only local growers can sell their products at the market.

Freiburg remains faithful to its market tradition. Every weekday morning, the square surrounding the cathedral, Minsterplatz, is still home to a popular outdoor market where local farmers and craftsmen sell their produce, flowers and handicrafts. On the side of the main portal, a set of medieval measurements remain engraved in the stone, a reminder of a time when they ensured that merchandises (e.g. lengths of cloth or loaves of bread) were of the required size. Along the north side of the church, the row of food trucks offering local sausages is one of the market’s most crowded area.

Coats of arms and statues decorate the façade of the Historisches Kaufhaus.

On the south side of the square, the 16th century gothic Historisches Kaufhaus (Historical Merchants’ Hall) is one of the most photogenic buildings in the city. Rising from its street-level arcade, its flamboyant red façade is embellished with polychrome tiled turrets. The coats of arms on the oriels and the four statues above the balcony symbolize Freiburg’s allegiance to the House of Habsburg.

From Monastery to Museum

The main hall displays a stunning collection of statues,

A short walk away from from the Minster, a former monastery of Augustinian monks has come back to life as the Augustiner Museum. A masterful redesign of the church has created a spectacular exhibit hall for the four-meter-high stone prophets from the Minster. They are one of the main attractions along with polychrome wood sculptures and panel paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Matthias Grünewald and Hans Baldun Grien among others. Upper galleries allow the works to be seen from various angles, and offer a close-up view of the gargoyles and stained-glass windows from the Minster.

A City Made for Wandering

The best way, the only way actually, to appreciate the unique charm of Freiburg is to wander its picturesque narrow streets.

St. George welcomes visitors at the entrance of Schwabentor.

One of the first things to catch the eye is bound to be one of the two gate towers that are all that remain from the city’s fortifications. Martinstor is the oldest, officially dating back to 1238, although research proved that the beams are even older (1202). Schwabentor is not far behind, having stood guard over the city since the year 1250. Both have had to adapt to modern times, however, and allow trams to now circulate under their arches. In case you are wondering which is which, Schwabentor is the tower with the painting of St George, the Patron Saint of Freiburg, on the side facing away from the city. Martinstor no longer features a painting but it does have an unfortunately unavoidable McDonald sign over its ancient archway.

Erasmus von Rotterdam lived here in the mid-16th century.

Haus zum Walfisch (House of the Whale) is the red mansion with the heavily decorated, late Gothic doorway on Franziskanergasse. The building’s best known resident is the humanist scholar Erasmus von Rotterdam, who lived there between 1529 and 1531 after fleeing the Reformation in Basel, Switzerland. The name of the building has no connection with its famous tenant, but it is believed to have a possible link with the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale (?).

A covered bridge connects the Old and New Town Halls,

Altes Rathaus and Neues Rathaus (Old and New Town Halls). The Freiburg Town Hall situation can be a bit confusing in that it consists of two elegant Renaissance buildings connected by a small covered bridge and facing a lovely tree-shaded square (predictably named Rathausplatz – or Town Hall Square). However, the ox-blood building on the right is the Old Town Hall. Completed in 1559, it has held the offices of the city government ever since, which by the way now include the Tourist Office. The white building on the left, completed in 1545, was used by the university for over three centuries before being purchased by the city for additional town hall space in 1891. And so it is that in Freiburg, the New Town Hall is older than the Old Town Hall.

Mind the Bächle

Sidewalk signage identifies the business conducted within.

Watch your step as you roam around the Old Town. Most of the lanes are lined with narrow, ankle deep ditches of running water known as Bächle. Dating back to the 13th century, they are filled with water diverted from the nearby Dreisam River. In the Middle Ages, they were used to provide drinking water for livestock and to battle fires. Today, in the summer, children run tiny boats in the Bächle, and local lore has it that anyone who accidentally steps in their water is destined to marry a local Freiburger.

Another thing that can’t be missed when walking around is the elaborate pavement design in front of most shops. Cut out of round stones this mosaic signage identifies the type of business to be found inside.

The Green City of the Future

The Heliothrope generates more energy than it uses.

Over the past few decades Freiburg has emerged as a European leader in sustainable urban development. One of the birthplaces of the German environmental movement, it is home to the Heliotrope, the very first “plus energy” house in the world. Designed as his own home in 1994 by Freiburg native architect, solar energy pioneer and environmental activist Rolf Disch, the Heliotrope generates more energy than it uses as it physically rotates with the sun to maximize its solar intake. It can be seen peering from a copse of trees, at the edge of the vineyards that reach the southern side of town.

The Holocaust Memorial reflecting pool and University Library.

The  nearby Quartier Vauban, also a plus energy district, is widely known to promote an environmentally conscious, family friendly life-style. In addition to the ubiquitous solar panels, it is notable for its variety of colorful paneled and vegetalized facades. Further eco-conscious developments can be seen throughout the city, including the new energy-efficient University Library building, which opened in 2015.

Note – Across the street from the library, the Holocaust Memorial black granite reflecting pool follows the outline of the foundations of the synagogue burned down during Kristallnacht, on November 9-10, 1938.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Conveniently located at the border triangle of Germany, France, and Switzerland, Freiburg is easily accessible by train though the excellent railroad system that connects it to the most major cities in Germany and neighboring European countries, making it an easy destination for a weekend side trip. By car, the city is connected to the German autobahn system via the A5, which runs along the Rhine Valley from north to south all the way to the Swiss border.
  • Visiting –The Minster is open to the public year round, Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and Sunday from 1:00 pm to 7:00 pm. NB. The Organs:The Minster is famous for its rich musical history. Over the centuries it acquired four great pipe organs created by some of the most prestigious organ builders of their time. The four instruments are strategically placed throughout the church for optimum acoustic effect. They can be played together from the main console or as individual instruments. There are regular Tuesday night concerts throughout the summer season (tickets are sold at the door). But they can also be heard for free year-round at the Saturday morning “Orgelmusik zur Markzeit” (market time organ concert) from 11:30 am to 11:55 am. The Minster Market –The Market is open year-round, Monday through Saturday from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm. The Augustiner Museum, Augustinerplatz, 79098 Freiburg im Breusgau, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and closed Monday. Contact: tel. +49 (0) 761 201 2531.
  • Best Viewpoints – Although the iconic spire of the Minster is visible throughout the city, the best place to get a close-up eye-level snapshot is the terrace of the the cafeteria-restaurant at the top of the Kaufhtof  department store just around the corner from Münsterplatz. For a panoramic view over the rooftops of the city and the Black Forest hills to the horizon, take the footpath opposite Schwabentor, or hop on the cable car to the top of the Schlossberg.
  • Green City – Freiburg was the recipient of the German Sustainability award in 2012. 

Location, location, location!

Altstadt Freiburg

On the trail of Barcelona’s History – Barri Gòtic

On the trail of Barcelona’s History – Barri Gòtic

From its beginnings as a Roman-era harbor and garrison to today’s exuberant capital of Catalonia, the northeastern-most region of Spain, Barcelona has developed into a fascinating patchwork of architectural styles.

Barcelona-Port Vell

Barcelona is one of the busiest port cities in the Mediterranean.

Once the seat of the medieval kings of Aragon, it remained an austere gothic city until the industrial revolution generated a Modernist rebirth. Today, these successive metamorphoses can be followed along its various barrios (neighborhoods), wooing tourists with an embarrassment of riches that makes this sunny Mediterranean city one of the most visited in Europe.

 

 

Begin along Las Ramblas

Barcelona-Living statue,

The lower part of Las Ramblas is lined with living statues.

It’s Barcelona’s most famous street, a 1.2 kilometer-long (0.75 mile) pedestrian artery that runs through the center of the city from the waterfront statue of Christopher Columbus to the Plaça Catalunya (Catalonia Square), where the old city meets the Modernist 19th Eixample neighborhood. In recent decades, to cater to the throng of visitors strolling in the shade of its venerable plane trees, it has become overrun with café terraces, living statues and street vendors of all kind. But never mind that it is mainly shunned by locals these days, if you are a tourist, it’s the first landmark you identify, if only for its no-fail access to most of the major attractions of the old town.

From the waterfront, a right turn into any of the narrow side streets gets you into the labyrinthine alleys of the Barri Gòtic.

The Gothic Quarter

Barcelona-Gothic Quarter styles.

Centuries of architectural styles coexist in the Gothic Quarter.

Barcelona-Royal Plaza

In the heart of the neighborhood, the 19th century Royal Plaza is one of Barcelona’s favorite meeting spot.

The oldest part of Barcelona, the Barri Gotic includes remains of the roman city wall as well as a number of medieval landmarks going back to the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. However, the most damaged of these ancient monuments were extensively restored in early 20th century, which transformed the original somber neighborhood into a neo-Gothic tourist delight.

The maze of narrow lanes now leads into inviting squares, most notably the elegant Plaça Reial (Royal Plaza), built in the mid-19th century as a luxury residential complex on a site once occupied by a Capuchin convent. Inspired by French neo-classical squares, the rectangular plaza is surrounded by identical four-story buildings raised on vaulted semi-circular arches. Today, with its soaring palm trees, central fountain and arcades lined with restaurants, bars and popular night spots, the pedestrian square is a favorite meeting venue for locals and visitors alike.

 

 

The Cathedral of Saint Eulalia

Barcelona-Cathedral

The Gothic nave of the Barcelona Cathedral.

Meander northward from Plaça Reial and within ten minutes, you come to a sprawling gothic confection rising from the highest point of the neighborhood. It’s the Barcelona Cathedral, officially knows as the Cathedral of the Holly Cross and Saint Eulalia, after a local girl who defied Roman Emperor Diocletian by refusing to recant her Christian faith. Built on the site on an earlier roman temple, its origins reach back to the early days of Christianity. The present cathedral stands on the remains of a succession of sanctuaries, with most of the current structure from the 13th century, when the construction of Gothic basilica began. As for the grand façade, it’s a flamboyant example of neo-Gothic style added in the early 20th century.

Barcelona-Saint Eulaila crypt.

In the crypt, this Renaissance sarcophagus is said to hold  relics of Saint Eulalia.

Inside, the most notable elements are the Gothic choir stalls, the crypt with its elaborate Renaissance tomb dedicated to the eponymous saint, and the 15th century cloister. In addition to its series of side chapels, the elegant cloister includes a garden, a fountain, the Font de les Oques (Fountain of the Geese), and a pond that is home to a gaggle of 13 white geese. They have been squawking here since medieval times, when they warned against intruders and thieves. Their number is explained variously as representing the age of the saint when she was martyred or that she suffered 13 tortures during her persecution.

Leaving the cloister, it’s only a few steps to the Plaça Nova (New Square), which traces back to 1358, when it was the site of the city’s hay market. It is still flanked by two of the defense towers that protected the fortified Roman colony.

The Palace of Catalan Music

Barcelona-Palace of Catalan music.

Elaborate mosaics decorate the facade of the Palace of Catalan Music.

Another short walk northward from the cathedral to the street that bears its name but is far too narrow to do it justice, the Palau de la Mùsica Catalana stand it all its glory. Built at the turn of the century for Orfeó Català, a presitigious Barcelona choral society, this architectural jewel is the crowning creation of famed local Art Nouveau architect Lluis Domènech I Montanier.

Barcelona-Palau glass ceiling.

The main concert hall boasts an ornate stained glass ceiling.

Designed around a central metal structure covered in glass, it exploits natural light to create an exquisite harmony of sculpture, mosaic, stained glass and ironwork inside and out. The rich glazed mosaic decor of the façade, which incorporates traditional Spanish and Moorish architectural elements, is especially striking. The interior is equally flamboyant, particularly the main concert hall with its inverted stained glass domed ceiling. The Palace remains to this day an exceptional venue for opera and symphonic as well as folk music, and an essential landmark in the cultural and social life of Catalonia.

Graze at La Boqueria

Barcelona-Boquaria fruit.

The vegetable and fruit stands are especially colorful.

Barcelona is famous as one of the foodie capitals of Europe and the Barri Gotic, one of its most visited neighborhood, offers plenty of attractive eating options. But the first de rigueur stop for connoisseurs is just across Las Ramblas, at the edge of the El Raval neighborhood. Arguably the most famous food market in all of Spain, the Mercat de Sant Joseph de la Boqueria (a.k.a La Boqueria) traces its origin back to the 13th century when it started out as a cluster of meat stalls. It settled in its current location in 1840, on a space previously occupied by a convent dedicated to St. Joseph. Its graceful Art Nouveau iron and glass structure was added in 1914.

Barcelona-Jamón Iberico

Jamón Iberico is much appreciated by gourmets throughout Spain and beyond.

In its current iteration, la Boqueria is a grid of some 200 permanent stalls selling all manners of local and exotic foodstuff. They converge on an oval plan from colorful local vegetable and fruit displays to cured meats and cheeses to fresh-out-of-the ocean seafood in the center. Those who are shopping for provisions come early, before the aisles become clogged with tourists. For the rest of us, it’s fun to graze through La Boqueria, munching on slivers of Jamón Iberico, the famed dry-cured ham from the Iberian breed pigs, or grab a stool at one of the many tapas bars sprinkled around the market. They are hugely popular so you may have to hover a while before scoring one. Then order whatever looks good in the plates of your neighbors, a glass of cava(local bubbly) or cerveza(beer) and watch the world go.

Barcelona-Panorama

The roof terrace of the luxury Eurostars Grand Marina Hotel offers a unique panoramic view of the city.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By air:A number of low cost carriers, including easyJet, Germanwings, Ryanair, Transavia and Vueling connect Barcelona International Airport with most major cities in Western Europe and beyond. The airport is located 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the city center and easily accessible by public transportation or taxis. By train: there are multiple daily high-speed-rail connections between Barcelona and Madrid (travel time between 2.5 and three hours) and several major cities in France (travel time from Paris is 6.5 hour, Lyon 5 hours, Marseille 4 hours and Toulouse 3 hours). By sea: the city is one of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean for cruise ships and ferries. There are ferries from the Balearic Islands, North Africa – Tangier and Algiers, and Italy – Genoa, Civitavecchia, Livorno and Sardinia. The ferrys dock at Port Bell, at the bottom of Las Ramblas.
  • Getting around –The city center is best explored on foot and easily walkeable. However there is also a good public transportation network of buses, trams and a modern metro system with twelve lines that provide efficient access to all parts of the city.
  • Visiting – The Cathedral, Plaça de la Seu, Barcelona, is open Monday through Friday, 12:00 pm to 7:30 pm, Saturday, 12:30 pm to 5:00 pm and Sunday, 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Nearest metro stop: Jaume I. If time allows, a short elevator ride to the roof offers a panoramic view of the city. Palau de la Música Catalana, Carrer Palau de la Mùsica Catalana. Nearest metro:  Concert times vary throughout the year. There are guided tours  daily from 10:00 am to 3:30 pm.  La Boqueria, Las Ramblas, 91. Nearest métro: Liceu. Open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 am through 8:00 pm. 
  • Staying– On this recent visit, we stayed at the Eurostars Grand Marina Hotel, Moll de Barcelona, s/n, 08039 Barcelona, my son’s favorite hotel in Barcelona, and now mine, for its unique central waterfront location within a 5 minute-walk from Las Ramblas. Built by famed Chinese-American I.M. Pei (think the Musée du Louvre Pyramid in Paris, or the J.F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston). In addition to all the amenities and services one expects from a 5-star hotel, this luxury property offers exceptional panoramic views overd the entire city and the mountains to the horizon. Contact: e-mail reservas@grandmarinahotel.com, tel. +34 936 03 90

Location, location, location!

Barcelona, Barri Gotic

Las Ramblas

La Boqueria

Eurostars Grand Marina Hotel

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Les Hospices de Beaune

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Les Hospices de Beaune

To oenophiles, Beaune is the uncontested wine capital of Burgundy. Inhabited by wine growers and merchants, it stands on cellars holding millions of gallons of its famous wines, surrounded by thousand acres of vineyards. Yet a majority of the wine tourists and buyers who descend on the prosperous historic town each year may not realize that it owes its wine fame and affluence to a medieval charity hospital.

A Palatial Lifeline for the Poor

Burgundy-Beaune courtyard.

Designed in Gothic Burgundian-Flemish style, the Hospices de Beaune roofs are covered with varnished tiles.

When in 1443, Nicholas Rolin, Chancelor to Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good, founded the Hospices de Beaune, the country was emerging from the Hundred Year War, a period of conflicts that had pitted against each other the crowns of France and England and their respective allies for over a century. Unrest, plague and famine had decimated the countryside. It was to attend to the most destitute population of the area that Rolin and his wife Guignone de Salins created a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, inspired by the most outstanding hôtels-Dieu (charity hospitals) of Flanders, a province that had recently been annexed to the Duchy of Burgundy. Rolin, who had extensively observed these hospitals, charged Flemish architect Jacques Wiscrère to create a “palace for the poor” in Beaune.

Burgundy-Beaune dormitory.

The hospital ward still displays 15th century canopied beds used by the patients of five centuries ago.

An unassuming gate in the somber stone façade topped by a Gothic high-pitched slate roof leads into the vast rectangular courtyard of a stunning Burgundian-Flemish architectural complex. There, the elegant roofline of steep dormers is covered by intricate lozenge patterns of varnished tiles in shades of yellow, red, green and black. Around the courtyard, the layout of the buildings is especially designed to efficiently support the life of the charitable institution. Inside, the most striking feature is the 50-meter (160-foot) long Grand’Salle.

Burgundy-Hospice de Beaune Chapel.

The small ward reserved to isolate patients “in danger of dying” had its own chapel.

This main hospital ward still displays 15th century furnishings, including the 28 red-canopied and curtained beds used by patients five centuries ago. The beds seem quite spacious for their time, until it is pointed out that they were expected to accommodate up to three patients each. At the far-end, the chapel is an integral part of the hall, so that patients could attend mass from their bed. A magnificent 15th century polyptych of The Last Judgment by famous Flemish master Roger Van de Weyden, which then hung over the altar can now be admired in all its glory in a dedicated room of the museum.

Burgundy-Beaune apothecary.

The apothecary.

There is also a separate, smaller ward with only 12 beds and its own chapel. It was an intensive care unit before its time, designed to separate patients “in danger of dying” from the merely sick. Other parts of the Hospices include an extensive apothecary with its beakers, mortars and earthenware jars, and a vast kitchen with an imposing gothic fireplace. Additional halls once dedicated to the care of orphans and the elderly as well as the refectory, library and other common areas are now an impressive museum that showcases treasures bequeathed to the Hospices over the centuries.

A Foundation for all Eternity

Burgundy-Beaune pharmacy.

The pharmacy’s laboratory.

A savvy businessman and diplomat, Nicholas Rolin used his vast knowledge of charitable hospitals to make his Hospices an institution capable of sustaining itself through the centuries. He established an unambiguous charter for the establishment: to care for the sick, elderly, orphans, women about to give birth and the destitute. He then set up endowments to support his foundation, and promptly placed it under the spiritual authority of the Holy See, thus freeing it for all times from the oversight of the local bishop and any other clerical coercion. His business model worked. The Hospices even managed to survive the French Revolution (1789) relatively unscathed. The institution continued providing services to the local population until 1971, at which point it became a museum and its medical functions were transferred to a modern facility.

Burgundy-Hospices kitchen.

The kitchen of the Hospices de Beaune.

And this is where we get to the wine. The Hospices received their first gift of a vineyard In 1457, a tradition that continued for five centuries and grew to include farms, woodland and works of art. Today, the vineyard estate is around 60 hectares (150 acres), entrusted to 22 vintners selected by its manager. It produces some of the most prized vintages of Burgundy. Since 1859, the town of Beaune has hosted an annual wine auction held at the Hospices on the third Sunday in November. Nowadays, this most famous wine charity auction in the world is organized by the renowned Christie’s auction house. All proceeds are used to support the new hospital facilities as well as the conservation of the historic Hospices.

Burgundy-Beaune polyptyc,

Polyptych of the Last Judgment by Flemish master Roger Van de Weyden (circa 15th century).

 

Good to Know 

  • Getting there – By car. Beaune is 310 kilometers from Paris via highway (A6) and 45 kilometers from Dijon (A31). By train. It’s a 20-minute non-stop connection from Dijon to Beaune with frequent departures throughout the day. From Paris, take one of the many for the high-speed train (TGV) from Paris-Gare de Lyon to Dijon and connect to Beaune.
  • Visiting – The Museum of the Hospices de Beaune,  Rue de l’Hôtel-Dieu, 21200 Beaune, France is open every day from 9:00 am to 6:30 pm. Contact:  tel. +33 (0)3 80 24 45 00, email hospices.beaune@ch-beaune.fr.

Location, location, location!

Hospices de Beaune