Visits a scenic part of Germany
In the north of Bavaria, just above Nuremberg, lies a string of idyllic towns.
The pace is gentle, the streets pretty, the forests moody and the beer plentiful; as an antidote to the major cities and tourist hotspots, it doesn’t get much better.
A train line direct from Nuremberg conveniently links Erlangen, Forchheim and Bamberg, three towns that form the western border of the beautiful Franconian Switzerland region.
The low mountains explain the Swiss part of the name, but why Frankish when we’re in Bavaria?
“This used to be Franconia and people still think of themselves as Franconian, ” our friend, a local resident, says.
When did it become part of Bavaria? “Oh, 200 years ago, ” she replies. “People have long memories here.”
Erlangen is the largest of the three towns; one-third of its population is university students and another third works for Siemens.
Initially it seems like just a modern town but the city centre is charming, and the history complex.
As I step out of the train station I find the Hugenotten Kirche, the first Huguenot church built outside of France as they fled persecution in the 17th century.
The influence of these French refugees can be found in places such as the iconic Cafe Mengin, started by a Huguenot family.
And at the entrance to the Palace Garden (Schlossgarten), an enormous statue depicts members of leading Huguenot families alongside ancient deities.
There is a strong thread of Protestant history here: the university was founded as a Protestant institution in 1742; the Old Town Church is on MartinLuther-Platz; the New Town Church is also worth visiting.
But different threads of history are entwined in Erlangen.
As I wander around Marktplatz, I find a bronze plaque marking the spot where books were burned in 1933.
Looming majestic above this plaque is the Schloss, the former palace which now houses the university administration — a university that had a strong early base of nazi supporters.
On the other side of the square stands the Palais Stutterheim, another gorgeous building with a complicated history: once an aristocratic residence, then the town hall, it now houses the city library and a nationally renowned art gallery, the Kunstpalais.
On the hunt for art, I find that the Erlangen Art Society exhibits fantastic contemporary work in a tiny gallery on the corner of Hauptstrasse and Glockenstrasse.
And in the Loewenichsches Palais (a former tobacco factory), the Erlangen Art Museum exhibits art of the Nuremberg area post-1945.
Artistic pursuits in Erlangen don’t end here. The pretty streets around Theaterplatz house the Markgrafentheater, the oldest operating baroque theatre in southern Germany, and next to this is an experimental stage, Theater in der Garage.
There is also Lamm-Lichtspiele, a cinema that screened its first film in 1922 and is still going strong.
After lunch I return to the pearl of Erlangen: the Schlossgarten.
This lovely baroque park harks back to a time when Erlangen was ruled by the margraves, military commanders of the Holy Roman Empire.
Summer folk festivals in this region are reason enough to visit. If you’re in Erlangen in mid-June, catch the Weinfest, a free, open-air festival with bands and local wine.
Bigger still is the Bergkirchweih, a folk festival that brings thousands of visitors to the city each May.
One of the best is Annafest in Forchheim, 10 minutes from Erlangen.
Annafest is held at the end of July in the Kellerwald — literally the “forest cellar”.
Hidden in a forest on a hill, this is where many local breweries store their beer and serve it outside.
Forchheim also boasts an abundance of fachwerk buildings, a local method of timber-framing that produces intricate facades.
We wander the town, along the central canal with its old wooden fish boxes, stopping for fresh fruit at the markets and eventually finding the ancient town wall.
Near the stone ramparts is a memorial to a different wall — the inner-German wall that divided East from West.
Although it didn’t pass directly through here, the town erected a genuine piece of the fencing along with a border marker.
If you have a car, take the opportunity to venture from Forchheim into Franconian Switzerland.
It’s a short drive: head towards Wiesenthau then Walberla, a twin-peaked hill with a stunning view.
From Forchheim we take a train to Bamberg and find that for the first time in a week we are not the only English-speaking visitors.
But it’s easy to see why this picturesque medieval town attracts tourists.
In its centre is an arresting sight: the 14th century Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall) stands in the middle of the river.
It is a unique building born of necessity, when the bishop would not give the citizens any land for a town hall.
We wander through the charming old town to Bamberg Cathedral — remarkable, with its four towers, Romanesque elements and, inside, the only Pope entombed in Germany.
The wide, cobbled square by the cathedral stretches across to the Neue Residenz, which formerly housed the prince bishops.
Tours of the staterooms are available but we admire the rose garden and catch a pretty view across roofs and trees to Michaelskirche.
Our visit wouldn’t be complete without trying the local specialty: smoked beer.
It’s a bit of a hike to the Spezial-Keller but worth it for another excellent view and the taste of centuries-old tradition.
It’s a taste that lingers as we return to Forchheim.
The palace garden in Erlangen.