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A quick visit to Coburg and Bayreuth

More travel reports from Beyond the Blue Book.

I'm continually fascinated by all the petty royal realms that formerly consituted the country we now know as Germany. Coburg, the former capital of the duchy of Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha had long been on my list of towns to explore, mainly for the magnificent Veste Coburg. But it also fascinates me that this little duchy (added on as an appendage to northern Bavarian in the 1920s) was able to punt so far above it's weight in European history. Descendents of the duccal crown sit on the thrones of the United Kingdom (through Albert, Queen Victoria's husband), Belgium (which still maintains the royal house name of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to this day, whereas the British crown changed it to Windsor), Sweden, and the former crowns of Portugal, Russia, Prussia and Bulgaria.

We often read inquiries on this website for information about going "off the beaten path". Here's the thing about that- you need to assume some risk. Not every town or region in Europe equally merits a visit. But sometimes, that risk pays off big. With Coburg, I hit the jackpot.

It's happened several times over the past few years. I wake up in the morning, decide to visit "town X" that day, and when I arrive, without knowing anything about it beforehand, there's some kind of fest going on. For Coburg, it was the penultimate day of the Samba Festival. Not so much a dance festival as one in which various rhythm groups from around Germany (and the world) come to perform throughout the city. So, the entire city echoed with the sound of pounding drum rhythms. I assumed the samba fest was connected to the World Cup in Brazil, but it was just a coincidence. It's an annual event. This being Germany, of course, there were plenty of places to buy beer and various types of food. A new discovery for me was the Dresdener Handrollen, freshly baked bread filled with melted cheese and bacon bits. Amazingly delicious, even though my dog managed to steal part of it.

Fest aside, Coburg is simply gorgeous, as befits the capital of such an influential duchy. Even though it's now a part of Bavaria, it's separate history shows in the architecture. Whereas Bavaria as a whole tends to lean Baroque, Coburg looks more like many of the similar towns in the neighboring state of Thüringen- more Neoclassical, more Belle Epoque of the German Empire period, more Gothic, more Fachwerk. Overall, a very bright, colorful, well preserved but historically diverse city.

I wanted to vist the one-time royal palace of Schloss Ehrenburg, but it was closed because of the fest. Plus, the main performance area occupied the Schloss Platz, so even to get a good view of the exterior, I would have needed to pay €12. Ah... no, not going to do that. The cathedral was also closed, but due to renovations.

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Fortunately, the main reason for my visit, Veste Coburg, was not affected by the festival. I think this might go to the top of my list for the best castle in Germany.

To reach the Veste, you can either ride a street train, drive to a parking lot, or walk uphill from the Schlossplatz through the beautiful Hofgarten. I chose the last option. If you've visited Neuschwanstein, the uphill walk here takes a little longer, and is somewhat steeper.

The castle, quite simply, is as magnificent as it is huge. If you want a castle frozen in time from the late Middle Ages... this isn't it, because it continued to serve as a royal residence all the way until the end of WWI. But that didn't matter at all for me. It's a beautiful structure. The highlight is the Hunter's Room, which features some of the most intricately carved woodwork you'll see anywhere. The castle also houses a huge collection of art, royal knick-knacks, carriages, sleighs, armor,and historic weapons both for war and hunting, including the first time I've ever seen armor constructed specifically for dogs. The armory also houses equipment made for common foot soldiers, not just the knightly gear we usually see. Martin Luther also took refuge here for several months, and this famous picture of him hangs in his former chamber.

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Next, onto Bayreuth. If you know the name of this town, you know why I visited.

Bayreuth also served at one time as a royal capital, but in the more distant past than Coburg. It was at one point the seat of the Margraviate of Kulmbach-Bayreuth, ruled by a branch of the Hohenzollern family, of Prussian fame. Whereas Coburg blew me away immediately, Bayreuth took me a little while to warm up to. Most of the preserved/rebuilt (it got pummeled in the war) section is Neoclassical, but constructed from a dull tan type of stone- if you've ever driven through northeast Germany, you've probably seen similar architecture. After the color and grandeur of Coburg, Bayreuth felt like a little bit of let-down.

I arrived late in the afternoon, so I knew my primary interest wouldn't be open- Richard Wagner's villa , Wahnfried. Yes, I know the guy was an anti-Semitic, womanizing, ego-manaical narcissist... but I don't care, his music still blows me away. Wahnfried sits adjacent to the beautiful Schlossgarten, of the not-so-impressiveNeues Schloss. Turns out, getting there late in the afternoon didn't matter, because the villa is currently closed for renovations. You can still walk up to the grave of Wagner and his second wife Cosima. The gravestone is surprisingly unmarked. Kind of a astonishing that a narcissist like Wagner would end up in such an unadorned structure for eternal rest.

Because of the time, I did not attempt a visit of the famous Festspielhaus or the Eremitage. And frankly, I don't see the point of visiting concert halls or theaters if you're not attending a performance. Seems to me like eating a hamburger without the patty.

I came around to Bayreuth eventually, but I was never knocked over by it. The city was also kind of dead when I first arrived. Around dinner, though, things started to get a little more animated. The town hosts a large university, so maybe during the academic year, it hops a little more. In addition to Wagner, I learned after-the-fact that Bayreuth also serves as the final resting place of Franz Liszt.

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In summary, if you're headed between Berlin and Nürnberg, add Coburg to your list of possible destinations. The Veste will awe you, and the elegant town below the castle deserves at least a cursory stroll. Go out of your way to see this town (or nearby Bamberg), not Rothenburg odT. As for Bayreuth, if this music or this makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up everytime you hear it (guilty as charged, here), I guess you have no choice, you have to visit Bayreuth. Everyone else, though... save it for your 5th trip to Germany.

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Good enlightening report. Liszt Haus/Museum can be seen in Leipzig.

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Nice to know someone else loves his music!

You do some of the best trip reports. Added to my list of places to visit. Thank you.