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October 2001

Western Style

Freiburg-- a magical town rebuilt to look as good as old

For the masses downtrodden by the chilly autumn weather in most parts of Germany, much of the Rhine Valley may well appear to be something close to the Promised Land, with its balmy temperatures and slopes of fiery vineyards that warm the eye with their color and the blood with their product. The warmest region along the river is around the Kaiserstuhl, an odd geological wart standing 557 meters high that grew eons ago between the Black Forest and the Rhine. In addition to robust wine grapes, the subtropical microclimate here is mild enough to support rare orchids and sequoias and a fauna that includes lizards.

Perhaps it is this meteorological sleight-of-hand that has been attracting the esotericists to the Markgräflerland for centuries. To this day, spiritual teachers and preachers flock here. One local wizard from the days of yore has even achieved lasting fame. In 16th-century Staufen (a pretty town with cobbled streets and several art galleries) the local alchemist blew up his lab trying to make gold. The sulfuric fumes produced by the cataclysm gave rise to the legend that he had been carried off by the devil himself—and so the many variations on the Faust theme were born.

The center of the region is Freiburg, a university town of about 200,000, which lies on the western slopes of the Black Forest, where Höllental (Hell Valley) meets the Hexental (Witches’ Valley). If there is magic in the region, as such names seem to indicate, then much of it has rubbed off in the old town, where time appears to have stood still. The tall Minster (Münster) tower still presides grandly over a bustling marketplace, where potters and woodcarvers hawk wares and local farmers (many organic), cheese makers, vintners, vinegar specialists, sausage stuffers and bratwurst peddlers display an incredible variety of victuals at often remarkably low prices. The trained eye will make out the various weights and sizes carved into the wall of the Minster, though they don’t apply any longer. On the northwestern corner, surrounded by the tables of two cafés, is the old granary, on the south side of the square the glorious red Renaissance “Merchants’ House,” where the city administrated the mercantile goings-on back in the 17th century. The Alte Wache (Old Guardhouse) is now used to promote and sell regional wine. For an added touch of authenticity, the Museum of Torture, unappetizingly sharing frontage with restaurants, has a few gory displays of medieval punishments, including a pillory. The twisting cobblestone streets, the arcades, the generous squares, the host of dribbling fountains, the Schwabentor and Martinstor gates, with tall Gothic watchtowers, would all look like movie sets, were it not for the milling crowds in modern clothing.

Unique to Freiburg are the so-called Bächle, brooklets diverted from the Dreisam River that run in neatly laid-out beds along the city’s streets. First mentioned in 1246, the Bächle were said to be used to water cattle, put out fires and temper the heat of summer. This assessment, however, fails to capture the enchantment of the trickling that cuts its way through the pedestrian din. The Bächle, one is tempted to suspect, were an alchemist’s plan to introduce the element of water into the suffocating confines of a medieval city. The municipality pays a contingent of Bächleputzer to keep the waterways clean. Locals say that if you accidentally step into one while gawking, you are sure to marry a Freiburger or Freiburgerin.

Freiburg is magic. It did not grow out of a Roman settlement, but was conjured from a conglomeration of farmsteads and homes at the foot of what is now the Schlossberg, where a castle once stood. In 1091, it officially and independently called itself a free market town (hence its name), a fact ratified in 1120 by Konrad of Zähringen, whose dynasty ruled until 1218. One of the oldest buildings in town is the Gasthaus zum Roten Bären near the Schwabentor, the Swabian Gate. The “Red Bear” also shares the honor of being one of Germany’s oldest inns, with a pedigree of innkeepers stretching back to 1327. Merchants coming from far and wide used to stop here with their wares on their way to market.

Freiburg experienced a boom after the Urach counts granted the town the right to mint coins from silver mined on Schauinsland Mountain, in 1258. Moreover, Freiburg’s great pride and joy (and landmark), the Minster, was built, stone for heavy stone, thanks in part to that bounteous silver mine. This glorious red sandstone church with its single pointed tower and two shorter ones (the Cock Towers) has played, and still plays, a central role in the life of the town. Even after it became the seat of a Catholic archbishophric in 1827, the townspeople continued to call it “our Minster,” and never “the Cathedral,” another expression of their autonomy.

The idea of the Minster was born in 1200, when the last of the dukes of Zähringen, Bertold V, commissioned his own lavish burial place to be built on the spot where the old parish church stood. As his model, the ruler took the basilica of Basel. In 1218, Bertold died, leaving behind a late Romanesque church and no male heir to carry on the line. Construction continued under the counts of Urach, who renamed themselves the counts of Freiburg, but in the more popular Gothic style of the period. The western tower tells the tale well: its almost square base dates from the late 1200s, whereas the octagonal section above it was built in the 1330s. The spire, an extraordinary perforated stone structure over 40 meters in height, was completed around 1340. It is well worth trudging up the 335 stairs for a closer look at the masonry and the panoramic view of the Rhine Valley all the way to the Vosges Mountains. The 16 Minster bells can also be admired along the way, among them the 1258 “Hosanna,” weighing over three tons and considered to be one of Germany’s oldest. Miraculously, the bell did not end up as a cannon on one of the fronts in World War I. One of the old treadwheels used to haul heavy loads is also on display at its original location.

The plague that ravaged Europe in 1349 hit the economy hard. Plans for a mighty new chancel—which was to give the Minster the elongated look it has today—as well as 13 chapels, had to be shelved. Then, in 1368, Freiburg residents forced out Count Egino III because they felt he was an ineffective ruler. They even burned down his castle and paid him the stupendous sum of 15,000 silver marks in compensation. Under the Habsburgs after that year, it was the administrative center for the outlying Austrian possessions from 1648–1805.

It was by and large a good decision. In 1457, the town’s university was founded by Duke Albrecht IV and is still going strong today. Its buildings are not exactly architectural wonders, but the atmosphere, especially around Niemnensstrasse, is very lively, offering a host of cafés, restaurants, shops and night haunts. As a bastion of Catholicism during the religious turmoil of the early 16th century, Freiburg also became a haven for scholars and artists seeking refuge from the Protestant storms. Erasmus, for example, lived in the lovely Haus zu Walfisch on Franziskanerstrasse. Work resumed on the Minster and, by 1513, after over 300 years of work, the town’s landmark was completed. All that remained to do was to finish the interior, which took another 30 years or so. The high altar (and several altars in the chancel) is by Hans Baldung Grien, a pupil of Albrecht Dürer.

A guided tour of the Minster is an excellent way to understand its complexity and grasp what makes it so special. Its furnishings and decorations are subdued and well spaced. Above the western (main) entrance, for example, is an exquisite, yet extraordinarily simple relief of the Madonna and Child dating from about 1290. Under the “swallow’s nest” organ loft on the north wall is a delightful figure of a trumpeter who “blows” his instrument when the organist pulls the right stop (free concerts every Tuesday at 8:15 pm). The organ is the second largest in Germany, a mighty instrument with 10,200 pipes. The church’s many stained-glass windows prominently feature the secular symbols and tools of the guilds that sponsored them. In fact, the entire Minster gives the impression of being a private church built by and for the burghers of Freiburg.

The Minster revealed its magic on the evening of November 27, 1944, when the Allies hammered the town from the air. 3000 people lost their lives in the raid, but while it was going on, some standing on the Schlossberg watching the city burn thought they saw a huge figure rising into the incandescent sky, a figure reminiscent of the depiction of Mary holding her protective cloak over the townspeople in the Locherer chapel of the chancel. When the dust cleared, almost the entire old town had been reduced to rubble. The Münster, the largest and most prominent target, however, remained virtually unscathed, barring a bit of burnt roof.

The second “miracle” was the careful rebuilding of the old town. With few exceptions, the “old” houses lining Freiburg’s streets are replicas. What remained of the city is displayed in two excellent museums. The first is the Augustinermuseum on Augustinerplatz, housed in a former Augustinian monastery that served as the town theater for a while. The ground floor—partly in the former church, partly in the monastery—and basement are used to exhibit religious painting and sculpture from the Rhine region and sculptures, gargoyles and other stone decorations from the old Minster. Upstairs you will find displays documenting secular life in the city. The second historical museum is the classical Wentzingerhaus on the southeastern corner of the marketplace. It was built by painter, sculptor and architect Johann Christian Wentzinger (1710–1797). The ceiling fresco in the stairwell is one of his works. The building has been used since 1994 to house a diverse collection of religious artworks and secular artifacts from the city’s history, exhibits on Wentzinger himself, the guilds and church life and a display case with items from five centuries of city life, including a typewriter recovered from the bombed out rubble of a bank. On the second story you can view a remarkable 1:50 model of the Minster as a construction site.

The past has also been exhumed at the old silver mines of Schauinsland. These are open to the public. The mining museum is up in the mountains, where Freiburgers and visitors alike can enjoy beautiful hikes, skiing in winter, a look at an old Black Forest farmhouse or a ride through the park in a horse and buggy.

No one can fail to be enchanted by Freiburg. Thanks to its large contingent of students, it exudes a feeling of youthfulness and élan. But this is not just a matter of age. Locals smile, greet each other loudly and seem eager to communicate at the slightest prompting. Even the portly police officer forking out tickets to cyclists failing to push their bikes in the pedestrian zone along Kaiser-Joseph-Strasse does so with a smile that makes paying the DM 20 fine almost feel like a voluntary act. The secret to their friendliness is to be found in their long history of self-determination and self-confidence. Sit in one of the many Weinstuben (wine pubs) for a hearty meal of Schäufele (roasted shoulder of pork) with Brägele (home fries) and a solid Spätburgunder from the Kaiserstuhl, and, chances are, you will leave four hours later, inadvertently step into the nearest Bächle and marry a Freiburger.

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