There is sometimes a problem with too much, intensive travel. You go places, take pictures, eventually write a blog post, the next day you go to another place and after a while you completely forget about why you are traveling in the first place. Travel is such a normal thing nowadays in my part of the world, both in terms of financial and geographic affordability that there is always the risk of taking your journeys for granted.
Especially when living in a country like Germany, so rich in terms of cultural, historical and natural stories, once in a while one might realize that you need to visit a place more than once, in order to fully understand its meanings and discover its treasure.
For me, such a recent example was Bayreuth. I've been there a couple of years ago, on a one-day trip and honestly I haven't been so impressed. At the time, I felt like I was turning around and around the city center, without fully understanding its meaning.
Therefore, when I was invited some weeks ago by the very efficient and dedicated team of Bayreuth Tourismus to engage with their newly program Bayreuth4Ladies I didn't hesitate to give a positive answer. I wanted to be back and see this city through local eyes and figure out what I was actually missing during my previous (very) short trip. Apparently, lots of things...
Bayreuth is half-way between Berlin and Munich, 4-hour away by bus. As the train does not offer a direct line, I've prefer the direct, bus option. International visitors can use the Nuremberg Airport connection.
Bayreuth means first and foremost the one-month music festival, the Festspiele, first organised by Richard Wagner in 1876. This year, it takes place between 25 of July and 28 of August, and if you want to meet la crème de la crème of Germany, here you have to be - provided your budget allows you to pay for the tickets which in some cases do have highly prohibitive prices. Like America has the Oscars, France Cannes and Germany, Bayreuth Wagner festival. German chancellor Angela Merkel, besides other political figures, it's a regular guest, and this long before she was a woman in power.
Called also 'The House of the Green Hill', the Festival Hall was exclusively built for the opera festival, at the time, the first of this kind ever, with specific acoustics that for some experts are still among the best in the world, while comparing it with famous opera destinations such as Met in New York or Sydney Opera House.
You can walk there in less than 30 minutes from the central train station. You only need to find the handwritten W, part of the Walk of Wagner itinerary. It starts from House Wahnfried (the museum dedicated to the composer who lived there between 1874 and 1883) and ends at the Festival Theatre, being made up of small dwarf-like figures of Wagner on the top of some rectangular columns, with information about him and his family, as well as his works. Every year, the information changes which makes it as an interesting cultural exploration.
But Angela Merkel is not the only woman in power whose destiny is intertwinned with Bayreuth. For most of the cultural achievements of the last three centuries, the city should be thankful to Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia. The eldest daughter of Fredderick William I of Prussia and the granddaughter of George I of Great Britain, she was born for a glamorous destiny. But her luck betrayed her and she ended up as the wife of Frederick, Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth. She arrived in a place too small for her dreams. A composer, painter and lover of arts, she ended up by shaping Bayreuth according to her wishes and cultural aims. People hated her at the time, and it was not always easy to obtain the proper funding for her plans, but in the end, the history made her justice.
One of the most famous works associated with her is the Margravial Opera House. It was built in Baroque style to celebrate the wedding of her only daughter, Frederike Sophie - described by the notorious Casanova as Germany's most beautiful princess - with the Duke Carl Eugen of Wurttemberg. The main head behind the interior design was the Italian Giuseppe Galli Boliena, who worked for the Imperial Court in Vienna.
What is really fascinating about this place is that when you are entering the space for the first time, you have no idea what to expect. The main entrance looks like the door to a storage than to a cultural institution, and the halls leading to the Opera are narrowed and more than modest in appearance. Then, you enter the concert hall, entering through a small door and what you see it takes your breath away.
It is the Opera House, since 2012 part of the UNESCO World Heritage, that consecrated Bayreuth as Wagner's brand place. Born in Leipzig, he was looking for a destination for his ambitious opera festival and was intensively considering Zurich, Weimar or Munich as possible location. Then, he was told about the fantastic acoustic of the Opera and decided to see the location for himself. Even though in the end he had to create the building, he remained in Bayreuth and now, the two of them, for the good and the bad, are hard to separate.
The architecture, the details of the decorations and the paintings are all together creating a spectacular effect where only music was missing to recreate the overwhelming experience originally assigned to this concert hall.
At first, it looks very much as an Italian lodge theater but with a magnified effect of a fairy tale. The special effects and the philosophy place the Opera as an unique example of what is called Bayreuth rococo. During the short guided tour offered, the historical and technical details shared only created a higher expectation for what it would look like to really listen to a concert or opera here. Something to really have in mind for a next visit.
By request, it created that special bell for Parsifal by Wagner or the hamer dulcimer, a rare instrument specific to so many musical areals, from the klezmer to China or Iran.
The weather is lovely and I am ready to discover another gem of culture and architecture, the New Palace. It is hard to chose where to spend most of the time, as both the indoors and the outdoors do have their share of local histories and beauty. But as in the case of many of the places I would discover during my 3-day stay, there is always harmony between those dimensions and the dialogue between the outside and the inside is perfectly fitting.
The powerful and intelligent Wilhelmine, whose diary was written in French and who loved to chat about life and philosophy with the great Voltaire, a frequent visitor to Bayreuth, created the design of many of the rooms of the New Palace. New, because it was built afther the old one was burned down. The residence has a number of Dutch and German paintings, many of them reflecting the family history of Wilhelmine, and unique pieces of furniture.
One of the most exquisite space is the Cabinet of fragmented mirrors with fragments of mirrors surrounded by pastel contourings and patches of colour placed on the ceiling, as a way to reflect constantly the inner changes into the space. Sounds like a very revolutionary thinking for an art installation, isn't it?
When the weather allows, the outdoors are as much inspiring as the indoors. Neat geometrically delineate spaces filled with season's wild flowers are surrounding the relatively modest looking building of the palace.
The gardens went through constant changes in the last centuries, with various elements added, finally settling for an English gardens style, with small islands in the middle of ponds toured by impassible ducks. It looks like the perfect place to spend a busy afternoon in the city.
Or, you can just get the taste of more nature sighseeing and head to another gem of a place that is directly connected to Wilhelmine, the mysterious Hermitage. You need to put aside at least half a day for this beautiful place, surrounded by a beautiful natural scenery.
Centuries old trees give to the ensemble a note of strength and weight. The Hermitage was offered to Wilhelmine by her husband, margrave Friederich, but she decided to add her personal touch to both the gardens and the construction as such.
Disparate elements such as small cottage where some of the guests were retreating for short amounts of time to live a very strict life and ruins were aimed to reflect a certain philosophy centered on the fragile human destiny and the need to take off from the material life.
An unique pumping system which operates since the late 18th century allowed to create various water games whose meaning was of cleaning the person of its material impurities and offer a life changing experience.
The initiation-like started from the very beginning, when the lavish dressed guests were introduced to a grotto with interior decorations made of shells of various sizes. Transfigurated by the spectacular water show they were not noticing that their outfits were completely wet. Who cares about such material details, actually?
The grotto walls are a minutious work of art, with the North Sea small shells creating marine characters. Bayreuth doesn't have any appeal for the sea lovers - except maybe the Lohengrin Therme, which is close to the Hermitage, by the way - but in the grotto, the marine feelings were part of a spiritual experience that Wilhelmine's husband reproduced also under the influence of the Freemasons to whom he belonged.
Every two hours - before it used to be every hour, but water limitations should be taken into consideration - a short water show wakes up the stoned statues. At the time they were created, the gardens were considered an exception in the history of landscape architecture in Germany, as they were not a copy of any of the consecrated European styles, such as English or French, but were offering a different, German-breed outline.
A tour of the interior, with the special cabinets and various rooms, part of a splitted space between Wilhelmine and her husband, reveals a lot of creativity, filling the spiritual journey with noteworthy historical and cultural details.
After such a culturally stuffed program, you might need to clear your mind. While stepping up on the Octogonal tower - or Schlossturm - you are offered views - through the closed windows though - that bring together the old and the new, the history and culture on one side, and the pristine landscapes of the Franconian Switzerland. Information about visiting the tower are available at the Tourist-Information Office, at Opernstrasse 22.
The geometry of some cobblestoned streets of the old town bordered by yellowish stone buildings - especially the Friedrichstrasse - remind to the connoisseurs of the neat architecture of my beloved Potsdam, as Wilhelmine was first and foremost a Prussian.
Time to Relax
You can hardly wander Bayreuth streets without finding cultural and historical references though. Wilhelmine - in this statue, accompanied by her favorite beloved pet Folichon which appears in many visual representations of her - is everywhere, as a reminder to both the residents and visitors about the deep roots of the European culture she associated to Bayreuth since. Besides being a multi-talented artist, she was also a frequent traveller, her journeys to France and Italy being a frequent source of inspiration for her works and designs.
A touch of Italy still can be found in a modern version, with some small channels, small scale Venetian scale, crossing the central area, where people gather during the long summer days for a chat.
Everywhere, outdoors terraces and restaurants are inviting for getting soaked under the sun. It's hard to make a short list and the choices are always personal, therefore, you have to test it by yourself to decide. When you have such a welcoming historical ambiance, you might only want to sit and watch people. You can continue with some smart shopping on many of the small boutiques selling fashion and local gourmet products - including some pralines which are highly recommended, on Sophienstrasse.
When you travel with pre-school children, all those cultural marvels are not such an appealing offer. If there is one place you can entertain there, then there is the Urwelt/Unterworld Museum. Let's play the local for a moment and meet in the front of the dinosaur, where many of the local dates are starting.
Around the corner, there is the interactive museum, displaying various fossils found in the region. It is a time-travel experience enjoyable by everyone, as it has the perfect combination of pedagogical information and entertainment dino-adventure.
Otherwise, you can bring your little one to the open parks, tell them a story while slowly walking surrounded by surreal creatures. Tierpark Röhrensee, in the Southern part of the city, was a recommended family destination, but I left this for an eventual future visit in Bayreuth.
My favorite retreat so far is the park near the Festhalle, that I enjoyed during my first visit here which fell in autumn, but this time it looked considerably better, dressed in the summer colourful flowerly costume.
Exploring Upper Franconia's Beer Traditions
Let's continue with a relaxing note on revealing a well known secret about Upper Francony: it has the highest concentration of breweries in the world. Not a beer drinker, I've been curious to taste some of the local products even since visiting Bamberg, home to some very unique beers, such as the smoked one.
Although they have so many beers here, there is no Oktoberfest celebration and, if you want to know a very undiplomatic truth, Munich and Bayreuth don't share too much love, accusing each other of being lazy. Munich seems a bit too much self-centered, as they don't like Berlin either, because poor and...also lazy.
My tour also included tracing some important beer trails in Bayreuth, and started with the Maisel's Erlebnis Welt, a guided tour of the most famous local brand.
For one hour - the organised tours are taking place twice the day, at 14 and 18 o'clock - you are introduced to an important episode of modern history. The ways in which the beer production and the final taste evoluated during the centuries is part of a larger industrialisation stage. Compared to other places where the breweries were produced in monasteries, in Bayreuth the introduction of big machines and the modern processing methods leaded to the creation of a beer which reflects the contemporary taste: simple, balanced, while keeping in mind the strict 500-year old German Beer Purity Law/Reinheitsgebot issued in the lovely city of Ingolstadt. According to it, the only ingredients permitted in the German beer are: water, malt, hops and yeast. Therefore, a chocolate-flavoured beer made in Germany will obviously not include any trace of chocolate, but has a unique processed combination of the four ingredients which tastes like it.
The tour of Erlebnis Welt is well structured, and cuts the historical and technical intermezzos with olfactive and tactile experiences.
Nowadays, Maisel's beer continue to be produced by the same family factory, trying to keep up with the curious tastes of the nowadays young consumers. Beer is introduced as part of a local culture and lifestyle, therefore it is branded through various cultural and beer-related events.
A couple of meters away from the 4500 sq.m Maisel's Brewery, the underground beer world is revealing another slice of beer secrets through the hidden life of the catacombs. The unterground labyrinth run under Bayreuth's main streets and during the war it was used as a shelter during the bombings.
The 90 minutes tour takes place at a relatively low temperature - around 10C - so the best is to be prepared with warm clothes in order to have the full experience of this secret world. The temperature was perfect to maintain the fresh beer, of course.
During its 400-year of history, this underground area was used for other aims too. For instance as a lazaret, where people with leprosy were isolated.
During the war, a small but active community was born here, where the available city services were transferred.
The tours are taking place every day, at 16.00. Besides German, the tours are also offered, by request, in English, French, Italian and Chinese
Where to Stay
When it comes to accommodation, the period around Festspiele is by far one of the busiest of the year for the hotel industry. But although during the year various other cultural events are organised, there is not such a high demand of accommodation for the rest of the 12 months. Therefore, you will not find any luxury, high-end posh hotel in Bayreuth.
Instead, there are many small family hotels catering to tourists and business visitors. I've stayed at the Goldener Hirsch - courtesy of Bayreuth Tourism Board - which was a perfect option for busy travellers situated minutes away of walking from both the train station, bus station and the central historical area. The rooms are minimally decorated provided with Internet, small storage space and shower and clean, and the breakfast offers a good variety of products for starting a day in full force.
For those looking for a relatively higher standard, there is the 350-year old Goldener Anker, close to the Opera house.
What and Where to Eat
Food is one of the things that brings people together and understanding the culinary traditons is part of any of my trips.
If you are looking for a traditional Franconian meals, which includes Frankischen Sauerbraten, beef in a gingerbread (Lebenkuchen) sauce - which is actually addictive in its heavy moderated sweetness - a little bit of Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) and some enormous potato dumplings - Klößchen. I had my first meeting with the local cuisine - and the light blonde beeer - Bayreuther Hell - at Oskar, a typical local with a very fast and efficient service. My only regret was that I could not come back to have a bit of their beer-soaked Tiramisu...
If you want to have see how the local products look like, you can visit the Farmer's market on Maximilianstr., which takes place every Tuesday and Thursday.
A typical product for Bayreuth is the anis bretzel. The dough is white and has a lot of anis, a spice which is always a matter of very personal taste. No comment...
If you want a very different culinary experience, Liebesbier restaurant, part of the Maisel's brewery is a recommended destination. The eclectic menu comes with generous beer recommendation, and the meals are served in the local Bayreuth porcelain - Walküre. Where possible, the products are purchased from local producers and the bread is baked on the site. What I peronally loved about it is the intelligent redesign of otherwise very common meals, like burgers. Accompanied by organic salads and created by using contrasting tastes, the result is pleasantly unexpected.
The restaurant is not only the owner of Fizzz award, but has also a very interesting design. Street art work was carefully selected, matching the casual hip mix of furniture which combines leather and wood, and feather-like pastel pillows. Either from indoors or outdoors, the view is predominated by a heavy copper alembic. Pure alchemy...
When it comes to the beers, there are over 100 waiting to be tasted at Liebesbier and if you are undecided, there are experts keen to advice. Last but not least, the local is children friendly, with a huge playground opened nearby, where the little ones burn some energy.
After the Catacombes tour, I've been offered the choice of a free bier and decided for the classical AKTIEN Zwick'l. It's relatively darker and heavy but has a special taste which is very different of the typical sour beer taste - which I don't fancy at all.
There are many cafés in the old city area that I did not have the chance to taste, but at least I had a hipsterish flat white at the newly opened coffee house part of the Maisel beer complex - Crazy Sheep.
Bayreuth-Upper Francony cuisine has a long love story with meat, any kind of it but especially pork and beef. But the meat is nothing without the addictive sweet sauce which brings quite an exotic taste to the dishes, a note that I haven't associated before with the German cuisine.
For the lovers of international cuisine, Bayreuth offers, as everywhere a fine selection, which includes Asian, Turkish or Mexican. I even found some bubble tea which was a perfect choice for the summer days.
I am personally very limited when it comes to creativity, but however I enjoy to clean my busy mind trying to get a different grasp of a world most of the time closed to me. I don't have special artistic talents, but playing with colours makes me good. At the newly open Paint Me workshop on Kirschplatz I had the chance to create something nice, trying to decorate a cupcake in colours of my own choice. The ambiace is very friendly, with guidance offered in English and Hungarian, in addition to German. With bookings to be made preferably one month in advance, it offers an opportunity to try, at least once in a while something different.
And this is how strong women are building their stories, buy daring to go out of their comfort zone, isn't it?
Disclaimer: The trip was gifted by Bayreuth Tourism Board but the opinions are, as usual, my own