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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY EIGHTY EIGHT Jigsaws and a Stone Bridge

Having left Munich for the two days' cycling to Dresden, we needed to decide route and stopovers. We should have gone via Bayreuth, not least because Wagner was born in Munich. But we opted for Regensburg - not to be confused with Ravensburg, also in the south of Germany, where the jigsaw puzzles come from. (By the way, if you have time to spare, Ravensburger has a 40,320 piece puzzle, though they no longer hold the world record. Kodak, a company forced to branch out since the death of film cameras, now offers a £450 51,300 piece jigsaw).

I'm not a jigsaw man myself but I do have a penchant for sausages and Regensburg offers the finest wurst in Germany. Of course, this is a matter of taste – but if you like a substantial sausage of pork, beef, lemon and nutmeg that has been hot smoked, then the Regensburger is for you. And the beauty here is that you can settle down, as we are doing, in the world's oldest restaurant - the Wurstküche zu Regensburg (which began serving in 1146), with a glass of Burg Ravensburg Spatburgunder Lochle to await your order. At which point, you are probably regretting having ordered a modest six-sausage portion when you could have taken the eight or ten sausage option.

But there is compensation to be had from looking out at one of the most interesting bridges in the world. Building began in 1135 when the flow of the Danube was at an historic low so the piers, of which there are sixteen, could be set in the river bed without difficulty. Completed in 1146, the bridge transformed Regensburg: knights of the Second and Third Crusades crossed the Danube here on their way to the Holy Land. The trade route from Venice to northern Europe now ran through the town - and made it rich. If you stand on the bridge, your view is of perfectly preserved medieval towers and spires, and the mansions of wealthy merchants. Regensburg is quite beautiful and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Incidentally, the bridge was the model for several other stone bridges including London Bridge and the Pont d'Avignon.

Regensburg's significance in trade also made it a political centre. The convocation of the Holy Roman Empire, the Diet, was held here from 1663 to 1806. There is a rumour, one can go no further, that attendees at the Frankfurt Book Fair have an organised system of companionship. The same seems to have been true of the Imperial Diet in Regensburg: in 1546, Charles V lodged with a local girl, Barbara Blomberg, at the Haus zum Goldenen Kruez. The Haus website takes up the (true) story:

From the night of love in the Golden Cross came none other than Don Juan d'Austria, the hero of the naval battle of Lepanto. On October 7, 1571, the native of Regensburg, as commander-in-chief of the Holy League fleet at Lepanto, defeated the Ottoman fleet, which from then on lost its nimbus of invincibility.

The story gets less romantic. The baby was taken from her at birth and Barbara did not see him again until he was 30, a year before he died of a fever. Though she did marry, her husband died young leaving her destitute and with three children - but, with a pension from Philip II of Spain, she struggled on until the age of 70.

Albrecht Altdorfer's Landscape with a Footbridge, 1518 (c)National Gallery

You can wander for days in the Altstadt, the old town, not least on the trail of Albrecht Altdorfer, one of Germany's greatest artists and the first painter of pure landscapes. In fact, the National Gallery has probably the first ever pure landscape painted in oils - Altdorfer's Landscape with Footbridge. He is now recognised as the founder of the Danube School of painting (a classification not coined until the nineteenth century) which is characterised by the colours of dawn and sunset lighting mountains, rivers and fir trees: the landscape is the subject, though human figures do appear.

Altdorfer's Danube landscape near Regensburg (c)wikicommons

Altdorfer, like many of the Danube School, was also an etcher. He is grouped with the Little Masters – German etchers whose works were often tiny, the size of a postage stamp. Some of his prints are of the Synagogue that he was instrumental in destroying in 1519 when a town committee, of which he was an elected member, banished the Jews from Regensburg.

The first record of Jews in Regensburg dates back to 981 and the ghetto was the oldest in Europe. During the First Crusade, Jews in the town were rounded up by Peter the Hermit and offered the choice of Catholicism or execution. In the persecutions at the end of the thirteenth century, Regensburg was unusual in shielding them. But as new routes opened to the east and the city became poorer, antisemitism grew worse.

Then in 1472, came the trial of Jews for the murder of a two year old Christian boy in Trento, in Italy. Under torture, one of the Trento accused is recorded as saying that Jews in Regensburg had used 'the blood of Christian children in ritual to make Passover matzo', the well-worn blood libel. The pressure on them continued unabated through to 1519 when all 800 were expelled and the Synagogue demolished. There is a permanent reminder of medieval antisemitism on the facade of the cathedral – a bas-relief of Jews suckling from a sow.

Interior of Regensburg Synagogue, Albrecht Altdorfer (c)wikicommons

There is another medieval relic attached to the Gothic cathedral – the Romanesque 'Donkey Tower', so-called because it was fitted with a ramp for mules and donkeys to carry up the building blocks of the new cathedral.

Tomorrow we continue on to Dresden but there will be time this afternoon to see one of Regensburg's treasures – a dictionary of the local dialect published here in 1689, the first of its kind in the world. Unfortunately, we have missed the play by Joseph Berlinger about three students taking a crash course in the local dialect; the tutor was played by Ludwig Zehetner, professor emeritus in Bavarian dialectology at the University of Regensburg.

We shall also go to the mansion where the astronomer Johannes Kepler lived. It's extraordinary to think that at the turn of the seventeenth century someone could have understood the optics of the eye - as well as working out that planets follow elliptical and not circular orbits around the sun. But Kepler was extraordinary: he began as an assistant to the astronomer Tycho Brahe, became imperial mathematician to three Holy Roman Emperors and was mentioned in dispatches by Galileo. He had a high opinion of himself, being sure that he had worked out 'God's geometry for the universe' - but was under-appreciated by others. To keep body and soul together, he had to market himself as an astrologer, predicting the fortunes of those with the money to pay him.

A tediously interesting film about the Ravensburger 40,320 piece jigsaw puzzle -

A tour of Regensburg -

A stroll through ninety-seven of Albrecht Altdorfer's paintings (you might want to turn the sound off) -

The Regensburg Cathedral Choir is famous throughout Germany -

André Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra playing The Beautiful Blue Danube -

And a 1936 swing version from Lily Pons -

Iosif Ivanovici's Waves of the Danube -

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