Located in southeast Germany is a beautiful region Globetrotters should explore at least once on their German vacations… the state of Bavaria. In northernmost Bavaria lies a town with a rich history that intimately connects Germany to Great Britain.
I visited Germany twice for several months before I turned four. At the time, my maternal grandparents lived there, as did several second and third cousins. My mother spoke German and the country became something of a second home to me, as deeply embedded in my childhood memories as my aunt’s rural home outside Edmonton, Alberta or the small treehouse where I’d play with second cousins on my father’s side. Germany had a romantic appeal, one that ran counter to the dispassionate stereotype that is so deeply associated with the country in our pop culture. This romantic appeal is largely due to the town at the centre of our travels to Germany – Coburg.
Located at the northern tip of the Upper Franconia region of Bavaria, Coburg is a city of around 40,000 and has a rich history. Much of the city’s importance is due to the regional politics of the early modern period. Coburg was the capital of the duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and later Saxe-Coburg and Gotha until the early twentieth century. It is home to the Veste Coburg, a massive medieval castle sitting on the hillside that remains in terrific condition. The castle has centuries of influence within the region. For instance, Martin Luther hid within its walls for six months in 1530 when he was avoiding Catholic authorities during the Reformation. As well, Coburg is in the midst of celebrating 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church in Wittenberg.
Suggested Group Itinerary:
12-Day Germany From the Reformation to the Rhine
But it’s not the imposing castle or the fact that Coburg’s historical buildings were largely undamaged during World War II or even the link to Martin Luther that makes the city such a fixture in mine and many other people’s romantic imaginations. It’s that Coburg was the home of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria of Great Britain.
Prince Albert was the second son of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and first cousin to Queen Victoria. Albert married Victoria in 1840 after years of arrangement by their uncle, Leopold I of Belgium. This forever linked the royal family of Britain to the small region that has such familial importance to me. It also explained why my mother of entirely German ancestry was so fascinated with Britain’s royal family.
When you visit Bavaria, you’re likely to be caught up in the romantic appeal of Neuschwanstein Castle and the other creations of the Swan King of Bavaria, Ludwig II. As anyone who has watched a Walt Disney film knows, Neuschwanstein bears a remarkable resemblance to the castle from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. This is deliberate; Disney modelled their castle off Ludwig’s creation, which itself was designed to match descriptions from fairy tales. Neuschwanstein is fantasy made reality. The castles that played such an important part in the lives of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria are equally romantic, but with a richer history.
Schloss Rosenau or Rosenau Palace in Coburg is one of such castles in the region. It’s the birthplace of Prince Albert and served as a home away from home for Victoria, himself, and their nine children. In fact, Queen Victoria was so fond of Rosenau and Coburg that she was reported to have said, “If I were not who I am, this would have been my real home; but I shall always consider it my second one.”
Schloss Rosenau was first constructed as a medieval castle in the early fifteenth century and was converted into a country house in the intervening centuries. It remains a perfect spot for Globetrotters to visit on German vacations. Not only does it boast gorgeous architecture, but you’ll also see antique furniture used by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, such as a cradle said to have held Prince Albert as a baby. And compared to Neuschwanstein Castle, you’ll feel practically like royalty yourself, treated to small private tours where you can survey the house at your leisure instead of being overwhelmed by the crowds that visit Neuschwanstein every day.
While Schloss Rosenau sits on the outskirts of Coburg, Ehrenburg Palace is a castle right in the shadow of the Veste in downtown Coburg. It acted as the main seat of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. It was built as a medieval convent, then renovated into a Baroque castle, and finally transformed into its current Gothic Revival form in the nineteenth century. Sitting right in downtown Coburg, the castle acts as the city’s picturesque centrepiece. It houses a museum and art gallery, which contains many paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, and other important Flemish and Dutch painters.
Even if the romantic link between the British Royal Family and this small German duchy doesn’t hold much sway over your heart, the surrounding countryside and the lovely town itself will charm any lover of European travel. As I previously mentioned, Coburg was largely untouched during World War II, which means its original architecture—Gothic steeples and Bavarian homesteads with wood trimming—remains intact.
Veste Coburg is a must-visit location for any Globetrotter passing through Bavaria. It’s one of Germany’s largest castles and boasts a massive museum within its walls. The Veste stands on top of a large hill in the centre of Coburg, which makes for a nice hike as you approach its gates. Inside the courtyard you’ll see cannons lining the perimeter and have the option of visiting the museum or strolling the yards. The museum itself is a literal treasure trove of history and medieval artifacts.
One of the first things you’ll notice within the museum is how different the medieval armour is from what you see in Hollywood movies. Medieval knights were often quite short as many were young gentry, standing around 160 centimetres. So as you look over the countless suits of armour and weapons within the armoury, you’ll suddenly find the notion of a knight on horseback a little less intimidating. Within your tour of the Veste, you’ll also be able to see the room where Martin Luther stayed. There’s a popular story that Martin Luther threw an inkwell at an apparition of the devil during his stay at Wartburg Castle, but the historian at the Veste will like to insinuate that it might have happened in Coburg.
If you’re the sort of Globetrotter who prefers marketplaces to castles, and food and drink to medieval history, Coburg still has you covered. The downtown market is a bustling picture of pastoral European life where you’ll find plenty of sausage, cheese, and baked goods to fill your stomach. In the market you can also try Coburg’s famous bratwursts, which are roasted over pinecones, topped with mustard, and served on fresh Kaiser rolls to give them their distinct taste. And with the surplus of beerhalls in the downtown, serving some of the best Hefeweizen (wheat beers) in the world, you’ll have plenty of options to enjoy a stein.
While my familial connection to the Coburg region is partially responsible for my affection for it, Coburg and the surrounding area will cast a spell over any Globetrotter looking to enhance their German vacations. Bavaria as a whole is a constant reminder that Germany has a romantic side. That behind its efficiency and its impressive modernism lies a boisterous, romantic heart. If you’re planning a European vacation with Bavaria in your sights, a stop in Coburg will prove to be one of your trip’s many highlights. It’s a region that epitomizes the way that old Europe can combine pastoral charm with romantic history. It’s where fairy tales leave the storybook and become reality.