One Morning in Nuremberg

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The Altstadt was quiet on that late autumn morning. It was a few weeks too early for the Christkindelmarkt, but there was a regular market with stalls, under red and white awnings, selling gingerbread, wild mushrooms and flowers.

It was a cold morning and the customers’ breath fogged in front of their faces at the bratwurst stand as the vendor grilled sausages, stuffed them in buns and slathered them in German mustard. The wind lifted the edge of the awning.

The Pegnitz River slices the old town neatly in half, St Lorenz to the south, St Sebald to the north. Each has a venerable church with twin towers imposing themselves on the skyline of spires and turrets and terracotta roofs.

There is a choice of bridges to cross the river. Several are centuries-old. Museumsbrücke leads directly into the Hauptmarkt – the main market square – and has the best view of them all. To the left, as you walk over it, is the Fleischbrücke, standing since 1598, notwithstanding the Second World War; to the right is the Heilig-Geist-Spital – Holy Spirit Hospital – built in 1339 and beautifully reflected in the river. The low arches beneath it blend into their reflection and form the shape of spectacles.

The cafes around the square across the river had optimistally put out their tables and chairs, but no one was sitting outside that day. A tour group, wrapped up in winter coats, trooped into the square and stopped in front of the Schöner Brunnen, the gilded 14th century fountain. The guide twisted the brass ring in the fence around it with a clank and a squeak and told – I assume – the story I had read in my guidebook about it bringing good luck.

Mention Nuremberg, even now, and many will immediately think of the Nazis; but its history did not begin with Hitler’s bombastic rallies, nor end with the war crimes tribunal.

In its half-timbered heyday, it was the unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire, the centre of the German Renaissance. Albrecht Dürer, was born and died there; his house survives as a museum. It is one of a cluster of timber-framed fachwerkhäuser in the steep cobbled streets in the lee of the castle at the top of the Aldstadt. The shops around it sell antiques, antiquarian books and, one, garden gnomes in bondage gear, as if gnomes were not creepy enough already.

There is evidently more to Nuremberg, behind the lace curtains, than gingerbread and wooden toys.

I found that again when I started walking round the old city walls and came to a sign which purported to bar the way to under-eighteens. I was puzzled, at first; but beyond it, the windows were framed with red tube lights and the street was busy with furtive middle-aged men.

More tourists appeared in the Hauptmarkt in the quarter of an hour leading up to twelve and assembled on the cobbles in front of the Frauenkirche to watch the mechanical clock. On the hour, a bell tinged, drummers mimed drumming, trumpeters jerked up their arms, and miniature electors rotated around a miniature Holy Roman Emperor.

“Oh!”said the crowd in half a dozen languages,“… Is that it?”

© Richard Senior 2015

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