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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY FORTY TWO Pizzas and Roentgens

After the lunchtime excesses in Rothenburg ob Main, pizza for supper was a relief – and a pleasure because we were in the oldest pizzeria in Germany.

Nicolino di Camillo (c)

Nicolino di Camillo came from the poverty-stricken Abruzzo in 1946 to work for the American Army of Occupation as a kitchen helper. He fell in love with Janine Schmitt, a dancer from the Nuremberg Opera House, and in 1952 they set up a beer and pizza place. For several years their only customers were the occupying American troops, but eventually they broke through to the wider Wurzburg populace and, 68 years later, their Sabbie di Capri is a national institution.


In a curious way, the beer served there followed much the same path to wider public acceptance. The Würzburger Hofbräu brewery was founded in 1643, during the Thirty Years' War, by the Bishop of Wurzburg to supply the Swedish troops occupying the town. These Swedes were the same troops who had put a stop to the witches' trials in Bamberg and, indeed, also in Wurzburg. Like Nicolino's pizzas, for a long time the Bishop's Hofbrau was only drunk by the occupying Swedish soldiers – the masses continued to favour the wine of Franconia.

Nicolino and Janine were lucky to find somewhere for their pizzeria. As late as 1952, seven years after the war ended, there were few buildings still standing. As a minor transport hub, Wurzburg was a legitimate target – but its bombing was primarily an attack on civilian morale through massive destruction.

The town's agony began at 9.07pm on 16th March 1945 when air raid warnings sounded. RAF planners in High Wycombe had known that the medieval centre with its twisted oak buildings would be particularly susceptible to firebombing. So at 9.35pm, a first wave of Lancaster bombers dropped 396 tons of high explosive: the intention was to remove roofs and create debris. The second wave followed with 300,000 incendiary bombs. The heat created a vortex that turned the town into a giant blast furnace, a firestorm burning at 2000 degrees. A raid that had lasted only 17 minutes achieved the destruction of 89% of the centre and 68% of the surrounding areas - and 5000 people just disappeared as they tried to run from the Altestadt to the river. In a matrix of surface area and bomb weight, Wurzburg was hit harder even than Dresden.

It was extraordinary that any buildings did survive: what would become Nicolino's restaurant was one; the most important part of the Bishop's Residenz with its Tiepolo fresco, was another. Thirty five churches were destroyed along with many Riemenscheider sculptures – though some did survive. There is a wonderful tomb of the knight Conrad von Schaumberg in the Marienkappelle, though the carvings that decorated the outside have gone.

Another survivor was the small museum housing artefacts from the laboratory of Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, the man who discovered X-rays - and it was a genuine discovery. Roentgen had been analysing a range of cathode ray tubes and measuring whatever it was that they emitted. He wrapped the tubes in a layer of aluminium, cutting out a small letter box to marshal the rays in a controlled direction.

As he repeated the experiment, he noticed a shimmering glow over a bench a little distance away. That was on a Friday and his excitement can be imagined because he then locked himself away in his laboratory for the weekend and ate and slept there for the next few weeks while he ran experiment after experiment.

The breakthrough came in an extraordinary way: presumably by accident, he stood between the letterbox and a sensitised screen - and there on the screen was an image of his own skeleton.

Elated, but afraid for his reputation, he kept things secret until he had built and tested a prototype X-ray machine. He called his wife in and, placing her hand against a sensitised plate, he took the first ever X-ray. The guinea pig was less elated: “I have seen my death”, she was reported as saying.

Frau Roentgen's hand (c)wikicommons

Roentgen published his work in December 1895: a Nobel Prize followed, and element No.111, which is radioactive, is called Roentgenium in his honour. His name is also a unit of measurement for exposure to radiation. In 1931, the safe limit for radiation was set at 0.1 Roentgen per day; a lethal dose can be as little as 1,000 Roentgen. At Chernobyl, radiation was released at 20,000 Roentgen an hour - so it took just minutes to kill the people in close proximity. In February 2017, the No. 2 Reactor at Fukushima was releasing radiation at an 'unimaginable' 3,600,000 Roentgen an hour. When they sent in robots to remove the fuel rods, the radiation melted their wiring.

Our own experience of nuclear accidents is not encouraging. Scientists who measured deposits of radiation from the Chernobyl plume as it touched the tips of the Lake District found more radioactivity still present from the Windscale fire in 1957.

Personally, I still worry about those machines in shoe shops, pedoscopes, that showed the bones of your toes wiggling. American machines delivered an average of 13 Roentgen to a child's feet during a typical 20 second fitting. British pedoscopes delivered about 2 Roentgen – but a parent might insist on trying several different pairs of shoes and, with feet that grow quickly, there could be several fittings a year. Radiation doses are cumulative and aggregating 300 Roentgen can impair a child's growth.

I try not to think too much about it. The German proverb - in wine there is wisdom; in beer there is strength; in water there is bacteria – offers great comfort in Franconia where the wine and beer are excellent. And there are also many wonderful sausages: in Wurzburg the town's trademark sausage has achieved cult status - the Feuerwurst, half a metre long and very spicy, served with a special onion sauce. In fact, we're heading off now to the Unterer Markt to buy some firesausages from the Wurzburgers who invented them.

Film of Wurzburg's Christmas Market made by someone who probably isn't very tall -

A tour mainly of the Wurzburg Residenz -

A silent film of reconstruction work in 1946: at 5 mins 28 seconds, there is film from the air of the damage -

This is Wurzburg youth rhyming 'city' with 'pretty' -

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