REGENSBURG, EASTERN BAVARIA’S OFF THE RADAR GEM
Located just 90 minutes by train from Munich, Regensburg is an eminently walkable city where you’ll never be far from a brewery, beer garden, or Bierkeller. In addition, for beer lovers, it is an ideal base for visiting Kloster Weltenburg and Schneider Weisse in Kelheim as well as exploring the woodlands cradling the Zoigl tradition of the Oberpfalz.
The city of Regensburg is located in eastern Bavaria at the confluence of the Danube, Naab, and Regen rivers. A river cruise is a popular activity in Regensburg. Visitors to this historic city are also attracted by its wonderful cathedral, its Roman remains, excellent shopping, and its strategic location in close proximity to other top tourist attractions in south Germany.
It is the capital of the Upper Palatinate subregion of the state in the south of Germany. Regensburg is the fourth-largest city in Bavaria after Munich, Nuremberg, and Augsburg. Founded as an imperial Roman river fort, the city became the political, economic, and cultural capital of its region; it is still known in the Romance languages by a cognate of its Latin name of “Ratisbona” (the version “Ratisbon” was long current in English). It later housed the Perpetual Diet of Regensburg under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire.
UNESCO has designated the medieval city center as a World Heritage Site. While it is one of the top sights and travel attractions in Germany, most Americans are unaware of it.
Regensburg was bombed by the Allies during World War II on August 17, 1943, during the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission, and on February 5, 1945, during the Oil Campaign. Although both targets were badly damaged, Regensburg itself suffered little damage from the Allied strategic bombing campaign, and the nearly intact medieval city center was barely touched. The city’s most significant loss is that of the Romanesque church of Obermünster, which was destroyed during a March 1945 air raid (the belfry survived).
Regensburg is located at the intersection of the Bavarian Forest, the fertile flatlands of the Danube, and the rolling hills of the Franconian Jura. With its twin spires, the Cathedral of St. Peter dominates the skyline of this city crisscrossed by cobbled streets, and the Stone Bridge spanning the Danube is a testament to the city’s once vital role as a commercial center. The Stone Bridge was a marvel of medieval engineering that opened up major international trade routes between northern Europe and Venice between 1135 and 1146.
The long history of Regensburg reflects more than two thousand years of political, economic, and religious developments from Roman Antiquity through the Middle Ages. In recognition of its role as a trade center, Regensburg was named Free Imperial City in 1245. It held the title of the capital of Bavaria until the thirteenth century. Its importance declined after the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 but it retained its regional significance as a bishopric and capital of the Oberpfalz. Regensburg is currently home to regional offices of companies like Siemens, and it has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 2006.
The Best Attractions in Regensburg
In Regensburg’s medieval Old Town center (Alte Stadt) stands the Domplatz, the Cathedral Square, near the famous Stone Bridge (Steinerne Brücke). This has been the hub of the city for centuries, home to the 13th-century Cathedral of St. Peter (Dom St. Peter).
Known as Regensburg Cathedral (Regensburger Dom), this impressively preserved church is notable for its two 105-meter-high spires. Combined with the historic west front built between 1395-1440, these features have led to its being labeled as the finest Gothic church in all of Bavaria.
In addition to its spacious interior, its most notable features are its 13th- and 14th-century stained glass and the Annunciation figures on the two western piers of the crossing. Along with the lovely 14th-century cloister is the Romanesque All Saints Chapel with its wonderful wall paintings, and the north side houses St. Stephen’s Chapel, which dates back to 800 AD.
The Cathedral is renowned for its boys’ choir, the Domspatzen, and for its hanging organ, the largest of its kind in the world. The opportunity to hear music from either source is a highlight of any visit. The site also offers guided tours and visitors are invited to attend mass. Also of note is the Cathedral Treasury housing textiles and gold objects from the 11th to the 20th century.
The Old Stone Bridge
You can see Regensburg best from the 310-meter-long Old Stone Bridge (Steinerne Brücke). The impressive 12th-century bridge has spanned the Danube for 900 years and is considered one of the wonders of medieval engineering. The oldest of its kind in Europe, the bridge is now used only for pedestrian traffic and offers great views of the Danube and the many boats that pass below.
A visit to the Bridge Tower Museum is highly recommended. This fascinating museum is arguably the city’s smallest and is located in Brückturm, the last remaining tower of the bridge. There are artifacts and documents related to the construction of the bridge, as well as a 17th-century tower clock that has been keeping time continuously since 1652. At the top of the tower, you will be able to see the city and bridge.
Explore Porta Praetoria, the oldest tower in the town, built by the Romans in AD 179 and still connected to a portion of the old town walls. Near the bridge are two other noteworthy buildings: the Sausage Kitchen (Wurstkuch), which has been selling its delectable treats since the 12th century; and the historic Salt Warehouse (Salzstadel) built in 1620, which is fully restored and used for community events.
Regensburg And Beer
Regensburg’s UNESCO world heritage status isn’t its only claim to fame. A beer town with a long and illustrious history, Regensburg is a solid beer town. According to some scholars, the Romans built a brewery here when they founded Regensburg as Ratisbon in the second century CE. There has been beer in Regensburg’s veins at least since the Spitalbrauerei was established in thirteenth century.
Regensburg is not a beer pilgrimage site like Munich or Bamberg, but it is home to nearly half a dozen breweries, a Bierkeller, and a bratwurst house adjacent to the Stone Bridge, the Wurstlkuchl. Regensburg, however, is best known for its riverside beer gardens. Both the Spitalbrauerei and the Alte Linde beer gardens offer stunning views of the cathedral, the Stone Bridge, and the medieval Altstadt – some of the best in Germany.
Germany’s richest and last feudal aristocratic family, Thurn und Taxis, also resides in Regensburg. Their fortune was made as monopolistic postmasters with a private postal system spanning Central Europe until 1867. Additionally, they brewed beer.
THE BEER SCENE IN REGENSBURG
Picture a bustling scene on the Stone Bridge just beyond the beer garden as merchants transport their wares across in ancient times. Getting goods to the docks in Regensburg is a long haul from the Alps and the northernmost part of the Danube. Other visitors arrive by boat from farther afield, from as far downriver as Vienna. It is getting close to noon. Both merchants and dock workers make their way to the Spitalbrauerei at the northern end of the Steinerne Brücke to quench their thirst and satiate their hunger. Later in the evening, some return to the party with a view of the city across the river.
In the heart of the Stadtamhof district with its colorful four-story houses, the Spitalbrauerei is located on the grounds of the St. Katharine Hospital and serves beer with a view and has done so for 800 years. It is the last remaining Central European hospital brewery founded in the Middle Ages, where beer was served to the weak, the sick, and the elderly. St. Katharine Hospital was founded by Bishop Konrad IV in 1226, and the founding documents included a provision for serving beer as a nightcap to hospital patients and benefices.
Initially, the monks brewed only enough beer to meet the brewery’s charter. After the Thirty Years’ War, they and the secular brewers who had joined them began selling beer to fund their charitable activities. When you eat or drink here, you’re supporting the efforts of all five institutions under the Katharinenspital umbrella: the parish church, the St. Katherine pensioners’ home, a forest, an archive, and, of course, the brewery with its beer garden. So feel free to make a charitable donation.
Spitalbrauerei’s Helles offers a hint of residual malt sweetness balanced by a smooth bitterness. Its mild spicy hop flavor and floral geraniol notes are complimented by a hint of fresh-sliced country bread and a hint of sulfur minerality – perfect for a warm day in the beer garden. With its clove, allspice, custard, and caramel flavors balanced by a subdued acidity, Weizen is a well-spiced affair. The Pils is less impressive – soft and a touch buttery, and lacking that distinctive crispness.
The Spitalbrauerei’s generous portions will not leave you hungry. It comes with three luscious dollops of cheese spread accompanied by a soft, chewy pretzel, in addition to the creamy Matjes (pickled herring) that the pescatarians will enjoy.
There is nothing like the tranquility of Bischofhof’s courtyard garden beneath Regensburg’s cathedral. Several large chestnut trees provide shade from the sun, as do vine-covered trellises and colorful flowers surrounding the cobblestone terrace. Order a beer and gaze up at the cathedral’s ornate Gothic towers while you drink.
I recommend the Hefeweizen Hell, a Weissbier with a citric zing. Though the caramelized lemon zest doesn’t quite mesh with the complex herbal spice ensemble of clove, mint, and cinnamon, the beer is unique and worth a try, especially if you enjoy brighter wheat beers.
Zoigl by Bischofhof is a hazy amber Kellerbier that’s not a “true” Zoiglbier. However, Bischofhof’s interpretation offers hints of malted milk, biscuits, as well as herbal hops sprinkled with pepper. Despite its malty flavor and caramel notes, this beer contains a peppery hop bitterness as well as a faintly piquant effervescence.
Brewery Kneitinger has earned a loyal local following both through its charitable work and its beer – in particular, its Bock. As well as the goats. You’re wondering about goats, aren’t you? In October, Kneitinger taps its beer after parading a ceremonial cask through town on a cart drawn by goats. Goats and Bock go together. In the States you are probably familiar with Ayinger Celebrator with the little plastic goat hung around the bottle neck.
Kneitinger beer can also be enjoyed at Arnulfsplatz’s Mutterhaus, although the surroundings at the Alte Linde beer garden (a Kneitinger outlet) are better on a sunny day. It’s as if the spires, medieval tower gates, and stone bridge were painted on a canvas backdrop, framed by tree branches arching overhead. The view from this beer garden is among the best in Central Europe. With chocolate notes of roasted cocoa, Kneitinger’s Dunkel Export is a perfect drink to unwind as the Danube flows by. Although it’s a bit of a wallflower, the Helles is clean and well-brewed.
Looking for authentic local specialties? That’s right. That’s exactly what “Wurst & Bier” is all about! Enjoy sausages from their own production as well as a selection of beer from the Regensburg breweries in a rustic, comfortable atmosphere near the Danube.
This small building abutting the city wall served as an office during the construction of the Stone Bridge. Over time, it became an inn where masons working on the cathedral stayed, sailors traveling through Regensburg, and dock workers loading and unloading the barges that transported commerce through the Holy Roman Empire.
Only 28 guests can sit in the tavern today. Beyond bratwurst, the food selection is limited, but you’re here for the brats. The beer on the menu comes from the Familienbrauerei Jacob in Bodenwöhr, a village deep in the woods of the Oberpfalz which you are unlikely to visit on your own.
THURN UND TAXIS
Thurn und Taxis once owned two renowned breweries and marketed one of the last Roggenbier (rye beer) in Germany, a beer that caught the eye of the late British beer writer Michael Jackson. He wrote the following in 1998:
“The oddly-named royal family Thurn und Taxis for many years owned a well-known brewery in Regensburg, Bavaria, and a smaller one not far away in Schierling. The latter, which had its origins in a thirteenth-century convent, became known in the late 1980s for a beer made with a blend of 60 percent rye and wheat. This brew [was] intended more as a distinctive variation on a dark wheat beer […] with a bittersweet rye character. In the late 1990s, the Thurn und Taxis brewing interests were acquired by Paulaner of Munich.”
However, the story doesn’t end there. Let’s take a look back at the history of this “oddly named” family. When Emperor Maximilian assigned him the task of establishing the first European postal system in the fifteenth century, Franz von Taxis (1459–1517) set his family on an illustrious path. Thurn und Taxis dynasty became extremely wealthy off of their postal monopoly after the arrangement benefited both parties.
Thurn und Taxis lost their postal monopoly when Regensburg became part of the Kingdom of Bavaria. As compensation, King Max I Joseph (the same Max that gave rise to beer gardens) ceded some lands of the former Benedictine monastery of St. Emmeram in Regensburg to Prince Karl Alexander von Thurn und Taxis in 1812. As part of the castle’s acquisition, the family also acquired the monastery brewery of St. Emmeram, one of many the family acquired over time.
We now move into the 1990s, a decade when the Thurn und Taxis’ extravagant spending caught up with them. When the highly renowned Prince Johannes Baptista de Jesus Maria Louis Miguel Friedrich Bonifaxius Lamoral, the 11th Prince von Thurn und Taxis, Prince zu Buchenau and Krotoszyn, Duke zu Wörth und Donaustauf died, his widow Princess Gloria discovered a mountain of debt. The breweries, as well as other family possessions, were sold off.
Schierlinger was acquired by Kuchelbauer in 1996 and the Regensburg brewery and the Thurn und Taxis label by Paulaner in 1997.
Thurn und Taxis still has its headquarters in Regensburg, but it no longer has any association with the Thurn und Taxis royal dynasty, or with Brauhaus am Schloss, the tavern on the grounds of the Thurn and Taxis family castle.
What about that Roggenbier? Paulaner brewed Roggenbier under its own name for a brief period in the 2000s, ceasing production entirely in the 2010s. The fact that Roggenbier has all but disappeared at a time when craft brewers strive to revive historical styles is rather perplexing. Perhaps it’s time to convince German brewers to revive the style.
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