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June 2001

Better Homes Homes

Coburg—one palace after another

Back in the days of the Cold War, the edge of West Germany had about the same magnetic pull as the Transylvania of Bela Lugosi. The few towns that happened to be on the border to drüben (over there), as it was known, made a modest income from the passing trade, while the rest slumbered like so many Brigadoons caught in a time warp, their roads to the east and north cut off by the inhospitable border of barbed wire and minefields. Travelers heading to such places were far and few between, the general feeling being that, if you were to visit such a “creepy” border town, it might be wise to carry some garlic, a few wooden spikes and a cross in your suitcase.
To a certain extent, Coburg, in northern Middle Franconia, fell into this category. The town itself, as many others in the region, nestles at the base of a hill, at the top of which sits the mighty and gloomy Veste Coburg. This well-preserved fortress, surrounded by three defensive walls, was never taken in its over 1,000-year history. Its bastions afford a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside, a symphony of gently rolling hills and quiet valleys that occasionally fill up with an eerie fog. To the north are the forbidding reaches of the Thuringian Forest, which, of course, was drüben for 45 years and home to the abominable Homo Sovieticus.
Coburg’s medieval streets, some paved in castigating cobblestones and lined with half-timber houses or buildings of weighty sandstone ashlars, have cinematic appeal. The central square still hosts a regular Saturday market, where local farmers and peddlers come to sell their wares, as they have done for centuries under the watchful gaze of the officials in the Renaissance Town Hall. A rather unspectacular trailer standing in one corner is a daily source of the famous Thuringian bratwurst, which is roasted over a pinecone fire. On the Town Hall is a statue of the Bratwurstmännla, who holds the staff that is claimed to be the official length against which for the bratwurst has been measured for ages.
The fall of the Iron Curtain infused Coburg with new life. Stores began opening to slake the thirst for consumer goods that had plagued the Thuringian siblings across the border. Restaurants and hotels sprang up to meet the expected tourist boom. The Coburgers knew that they had things that people would want to see and experience. One local group associated with the municipal theater decided to launch a Brazilian Samba festival, which will celebrate its tenth anniversary this year. The event—to be held this year on July 13–15—now penetrates every nook and cranny of the Old Town, creating a remarkable atmosphere within the old walls.
Another one of Coburg’s—and the entire region’s—attractions are its numerous castles and palaces. The one that cannot be overlooked when approaching the town is the Veste. Within its thick walls, enlivened by Renaissance elements, is an exquisite art collection, which includes works by Albrecht Dürer and sculptures from the Tilman Riemenschneider (1460–1531) workshop. In the various rooms are numerous pieces of furniture and textiles, magnificent weapons, armor, tournament garb from four centuries as well as ornate carriages and sleighs. Visitors can peer into the rooms where no lesser a figure than Martin Luther lived for six months in 1530 while he kept a keen eye on the Augsburg Diet, which was unsuccessfully attempting to clarify matters of faith between Protestants and Catholics. The Jagdintarsien-Zimmer (Hunting Marquetry Room) is the last gem to be seen inside the Veste, featuring some extremely fine early 17th-century woodwork. Worth mentioning, too, is the museum of natural history, located in the castle’s garden, which boasts more than 8,000 exhibits that are arranged according to four categories: Earth, Evolution, the Human Being, and Earth History.
Coburg’s fame and historical significance belie its size. The dukes of Saxe-Coburg knew how to administer a modern state well. Moreover, what they lacked in brawn, they easily compensated for by an ambitious marriage politics that allied the family with nearly every royal house in Europe. One Coburg princess, named Victoire, for example, was married off to the Duke of Kent, producing, among others, a daughter, Victoria, who became Queen Victoria of England. She, in turn, ended up marrying her German cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1839. In fact, it was only in 1917, in the third year of World War I, that King George V of England proclaimed that all British descendants of Queen Victoria in the male line would be called Windsor, not Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Victoria and Albert were bound by love. The Prince Consort, who was born in Rosenau Palace near Coburg, was an attractive, hard-working man, blessed with business acumen and skilled in the art of diplomacy. In England, he attracted the envy and wrath of court officials, but, by the time of his death, no one, not even the reluctant British public, doubted his integrity. Now and then, of course, he and Victoria would take time off at the ducal residence in Coburg, Ehrenburg Palace, which stands at the foot of a sprawling park near the theater.
Built originally in the mid-16th century, Ehrenburg Palace was revamped several times, notably in the early 19th century after a fire. Duke Ernst I, Albert’s father, invited the celebrated architect Friedrich Schinkel from Berlin to refurbish the palace in the then popular Neo-Gothic style. The duchess lived in Biedermeier rooms on the lower floor. The upstairs rooms of the castle, however, boast some of the finest stuccowork in all southern Germany. Part of it is the work of 17th-century Italian masters; the elaborate stuccowork on the Throne Room ceiling, however, dates from 1831. The Hall of Giants, which was used as a banqueting hall, is considered to be a masterpiece of the High Baroque. Its name alludes to the 28 larger-than-life atlantes, each of which appears to be supporting the ceiling with one hand and holding a candelabra in the other. Queen Victoria came to Ehrenburg seven times and had her own chambers on the ground floor. Not enamored of German sanitation, in 1860 she insisted on having the continent’s first flush toilet installed next to her bed. A telling comment on our society, this pedestrian sanitary element, truly a “water closet,” is one of the major attractions of the palace. The Baroque chapel abutting the castle is often used for weddings.
2001 marks the 100th anniversary of Victoria’s death and Coburg is commemorating the historic event with a special exhibition in another nearby ducal residence, Callenberg Palace, which is perched on a hill 5 km west of Coburg, near Rödental. From 1842 onward, it served as the summer residence of Duke Ernst II. It is currently owned by a foundation headed by Prince Andreas Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a great great grandson of the Queen. The works of art, furniture, weapons and clocks that are normally on display there have been put away to make room for an impressive selection of photographs, tableaux, sculptures, signed books, jewels, clothing and other ephemera related in one way or another to Queen Victoria.
The 550-year-old Rosenau Palace, near the village of Rödental, is the birthplace of Prince Albert. This Neo-Gothic jewel is situated in a vast landscape garden. As is only fitting, it, too, has a room devoted exclusively to Albert and his Queen. Much of the palace furniture was made especially for the Saxe-Coburg family by noted Viennese craftsmen. Today, the orangery accommodates a fascinating museum devoted to modern glass sculpture. Rödental is also known for the Goebel porcelain manufactory, which probably would not have attained its present fame had it not been for the drawings of Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel and the business acumen of the factory owner, Franz Goebel, who acquired the rights to her many figures. The first “Hummels” were presented at the Leipzig trade fair of 1935 and they have since grown into a multimillion-dollar business with a faithful clientele and even a fan club. Naturally, the manufactory has an outlet and a museum, where fans can marvel at the delightfully kitschy figurines.
To the west of Coburg is Tambach Palace, with an extensive hunting and angling museum and an aviary featuring eagles, vultures, falcons and other birds of prey, with regular falconry shows. On the way, stop in at the farming museum (Gerätemuseum) in Ahorn, which has a pleasant little beer garden. To the east, in Kronach, is Rosenberg Fortress, which, in World War II, was a prison, where Charles de Gaulle was interned as a POW. It is now used as a youth hostel—there still is a prison near the entrance—and a museum of art, featuring works by Lukas Cranach the Elder (b. Kronach), Riemenschneider and other renowned Franconian artists. Every summer, sculptors come to demonstrate their skills in the fortress’s courtyard, leaving some of their works behind to enliven its otherwise somber walls.
Besides all the royalty and their various residences, there is another traditional side to Coburg that draws visitors from around the world. During the long and tedious winters, the hardy Franconians used to sit at home and make dolls, a cottage industry that rose to become a mainstay of the local economy. An exhibition of the dolls can be seen in the Puppenmuseum (Doll Museum) on Rückertstrasse. It contains a fine collection of more than 900 antique dolls and some 150 furnished dollhouses.
A more comprehensive presentation of the industry is provided at the Museum der Deutschen Spielzeugindustrie (Museum of the German Toymaking Industry) in Neustadt, about 15 km northeast of Coburg. Here, displays range from workshop re-creations to the production of Christmas ornaments.
A three and a half hour drive from Munich, Coburg is rather far away to be considered a day trip. Though they may not be castles, the town boasts a number of quaint inns and hotels, including the period-decorated 1756-built home-cum-upscale lodging, the Romanik Hotel Goldene Traube. Pack a suitcase a make a weekend of it—you can leave the wooden stake at home. <<

HOW TO GET THERE >>> By car: A9 to Nürnberg, then A-73 to Bamberg, then B-4 to Coburg
>>> By TRAIN: Regular train service takes about 3 and a half hours >> FURTHER INFORMATION: Coburg Tourist Office
Tel.: (09561) 7418-0
Fax: (09561) 7418-29

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