A UNESCO World Heritage site

Regensburg is not as visited as many other European cities, but with its well preserved medieval centre, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006, it has a great deal to offer and is certainly worth the trip. The modern city is relatively small, with a population of 130,000, but it has had a significant part to play in the history of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. For Charles V it must have been a city that held mixed emotions, since it was here that his determined attempt to achieve a religious settlement in 1541 floundered, but also where he had perhaps his last affair, which resulted in the birth of a son, Don John of Austria.

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Places to visit in Regensburg

The Porta Praetoria, south of the cathedral, is the remains of an arch and tower belonging to one of the entrances to the old Roman fort. This 2nd century structure, restored in 1887, is the oldest stone building in Germany and gives a good indication of the massive defences that once existed.

The Old Town Hall - Altes Rathaus - is now the Reichstagsmuseum (the Imperial Diet Museum). The impressive interior can only be visited by guided tour but don’t be put off, it is well worth doing so. English tours are available - information can be obtained from the Tourist Office on the ground floor of the Altes Rathaus in Rathausplatz.

What we now see was originally two buildings: the mid-13th century Town Hall built around a courtyard with a large tower facing Rathausplatz, and the banqueting hall at right angles to it added in 1360. The finest rooms are on the first floor, as in the Italian mansions and palaces that the wealthy merchants of Regensburg so admired. Originally this was the centre for the administration of the city, used at times for the Imperial Diet e.g. in 1532, 1541 and 1546 in the reign of Charles V. It became the home of the Perpetual Diet in 1663, with the ballroom becoming the Imperial Hall (Reichsaal), and so another Town Hall was constructed next door.

Entrance is now via the later Renaissance staircase and first floor hall, added in 1564, which joins the two buildings. This is guarded by the statues of Schutz and Trutz (defence and defiance) along with the city crest of two crossed keys (symbolising the privileges of the free city). On the wall next to the staircase there are the city’s standard measurements. Each city had their own measurements based on the human body, in this case a foot, an arm and the width of spread arms. These were publicly displayed so that anyone could check against them, and were used until the introduction of the metric system throughout mainland Europe by Napoleon in the early 19 century.

A visit to the Old Town Hall shows clearly how meetings of the Diet were organised. Read More +

The allocation of rooms reflected the status of the different groups or ‘estates’ at the Diet. In the old administrative area are the two rooms provided for the Prince Electors (who numbered between 6 and 8 during the Perpetual Diet). The first room used to be the old city council chamber and the second was used by the electors only for confidential debate from which even secretaries were excluded. The original balcony was blocked up and the doors have substantial locks. Both are wood panelled, and have ceramic heaters, typical of the period, which were fed from outside the room. The Princes (secular and ecclesiastical) had a room next to the Reichsaal (the Imperial Hall), which has in it the writers’ table for clerks who recorded the discussions, while the representatives of the Free Imperial Cities were provided with small rooms under the roof.

The Imperial Hall (Reichsaal), where opening and closing ceremonies took place and all three estates met together, again reveals their relative status. The Emperor’s throne with its canopy at the front is raised on a dais with four steps; the prince electors sat on either side of him on red covered chairs raised two steps; the other princes would sit along the sides of the Hall on green benches raised one step, secular princes on one side, ecclesiastical on the other; the Free Imperial City representatives would sit towards the back of the room at floor level. The benches gave rise to the German saying ‘to put something on the long bench’, that is, to postpone it indefinitely. It was here that the Diet of 1532 ratified the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, first agreed at the Diet of Augsburg two years earlier, thus making it law. This was a first step towards a unified legal system across the Holy Roman Empire, and enabled the court to examine the cases presented independently and obtain confessions by torture.

Below the main buildings are the dungeons and Fragestatt (Interrogation Room/torture chamber) pretty much in their original state since they were walled up for centuries after their use ended. The dungeons, two at ground level and two below ground, would have been completely dark when the doors were shut and were used to hold prisoners before trial. For capital crimes it was necessary for the accused to confess before execution and fourteen days were allowed to obtain this confession. This could be painless, i.e. the accused simply admits guilt. If they were unwilling to do so then they would first be shown the torture chamber and its equipment, and if this failed to secure the confession they would be subject to painful interrogation. This was observed by a doctor, who had his own bench, since they did not wish the prisoner to die under torture, and also watched from behind screens by the executioner. The implements on show include various stretching devises (vertical/horizontal/chairs with spikes) and a ‘Spanish donkey’. Once the confession was obtained the prisoner would spend his (or her) last day and night in a cell which had a window that opened onto a public courtyard (now enclosed) so that they could make their farewells and have hand to hand contact through the specially designed bars. In the courtyard there is also the pillory that was put in the square outside and used as punishment for lesser crimes.

A fine example of a Gothic cathedral, St Peter’s Cathedral was mainly constructed between 1275 and 1520. It was built on the site of an earlier Romanesque church much destroyed by fire, though parts still exist e.g. the Eselsturm (Donkey Tower), on the roof of which is a statue of the architect who allegedly bet his rival building the Steinerne Brucke that he would complete his structure first. He lost and is supposed to have thrown himself from the tower. The cathedral was not completed in its present form until 1869, when the towers on the west front were raised and had spires added giving a height of 105m.

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There are many medieval carvings on the exterior west doorway and inside the cathedral itself: St Peter sitting in a boat with keys (which as crossed keys became the city’s crest); four figures of ancient Emperors (Nebuchadnezzar on a bear, Alexander the Great on a panther, Augustus on a unicorn and Cyrus on a lion); and two figures on either side of the main door known as ‘the devil and his grandmother’ which were supposed to deter evil forces entering the building. Altogether it is said that there are 100 images of St. Peter in the cathedral. A well-known sculpture is the Smiling Angel or Angel of the Assumption (1280). Originally this would have been painted, along with other statues, pillars and much of the vaulting.

There is 14th century stained glass in the south transept, such as that of St Peter (1320/30) and a little from the earlier Romanesque cathedral; the north transept has more modern 19th century stained glass. In the 17th century baroque refurbishment took place, but in the mid-19th century the cathedral was ‘purified’, which involved the removal of most non-gothic artefacts. As a result there are fewer works of art than there had been.

A guided tour is needed to see the Gothic cloisters, where the 12th century Romanesque Allerheilgenkapelle (All Saints Chapel) was built for the burial of Bishop Hartwig II. The Domschatzmuseum, in a former bishop’s residence, houses the treasury and embroidered vestments.

Immediately behind the cathedral is St Ulrich’s church. Originally built in the early 13th century, it is now the diocesan museum. It has original arches, frescoes from the 13th to 17th centuries, and numerous sculptures and paintings, the best known of which is that of the Virgin Mary, known as the ‘Beautiful Madonna’, by the Regensburg painter Albrecht Altdorfer.

The Alte Kapelle (Old Chapel), in Alter Kornmarkt, was the duke’s palace chapel, originally built for Emperor Henry II 1000 years ago (on the site of an earlier church of St Mary’s). It extends across the whole south side of the square. The plain exterior is in contrast to the extravagant rococo style of interior. The ornate 18th century late baroque decor reaches its height towards the choir and the high alter. Pope Benedict XVI had an organ donated to him installed here and it was consecrated in September 2006.

The Goldener Turm on Wahlenstrasse is the highest of the remaining ‘patrician towers’ with 9 stories. Height equalled status. It was originally only lived in up to the height of the rest of the house to which it belonged. Above that level there were store rooms and stairs to the top. It is now occupied to the top – student accommodation with a view.

The Neupfarrkirche in Neupfarrplatz, was built on the site of the synagogue destroyed in 1519. This became the city’s first Protestant church when the council adopted the new religion in 1542 and has interesting details of the religious conflicts at the time on display.

The triangular shaped Haidplatz is the largest of the medieval squares, originally the site of jousting and entertainments. It now has large residences and numerous bars which spill out into the square in fine weather. At the eastern end of the square (nearest to Rathausplatz) is the building which housed the official city scales and the councillors wine parlour. More significantly it housed the famous colloquy of 1541 which Charles V hoped would reunite the church. A painting on the inside courtyard wall commemorates its most famous participants, Dr Joannes Eck and Philip Melanchthon, a close colleague of Martin Luther.

Also in the square is the Thon-Dittmar-Palais with its late-18th century classical facade behind which two medieval/Renaissance town houses were joined. The galleried courtyard is often used for theatrical performances, while on an arch leading out of the courtyard is a small clock turret. This is decorated by the scene of an old man who believes that he can regain his youth by having an affair with a young woman. That this will not work is indicated by a statue of a young woman holding an hour-glass – time is irreversible and death (a skull) comes to us all.

On the northern side of Haidplatz is the former inn, Zum Goldenen Kruez, the Golden Cross, which provided luxury accommodation for princes attending the Diet and later royal visitors, such as Kaiser Wilhelm I and the Emperor Franz-Joseph, until the late 19th century. It is best known for the affair between Charles V and Barbara Blomberg, which resulted in the birth of Don John of Austria, who is commemorated by a plaque on the building and a statue situated between the Kohlenmarkt and the Fischmarkt. In the area running down to the river a weekly market of local fish on old stone benches took place until recently.

Fischmarkt leads into Keplerstrasse (renamed 100 years ago) which runs parallel to the Danube, full of merchants houses near to the old port. A fine example of such is the Runtingerhaus with its 200 square metre ballroom, used for cultural events today. The Runtinger family had great wealth for a short period around 1400, presiding over the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (German merchants’ guild in Venice). The Kepler Memorial Museum is at No. 5 where Johannes Kepler, the mathematician and astronomer, died in 1630 while staying in Regensburg hoping to have an audience with the Emperor to request his unpaid salary from the recently dismissed Imperial Chancellor, Wallenstein.

Steinerne Brucke (Stone Bridge) across the Danube (Donau), was built between 1135 and 1146, linking the city with Stadtamhof on the north side. A walk on the bridge provides a superb view back to the old city, with its cathedral spires, medieval towers and, in the foreground, the gateway with its tower, the adjacent Salzstadel and the Historische Wurstkuche (Historic Sausage Kitchen) which has been serving for hundreds of years. The impressive Salzstadel (Salt Store), built in 1620, was expensively restored in the 1980s. Regensburg held the monopoly for salt (often called ‘white gold’) for the whole region and this was a significant source of income. A display inside shows the route from the salt-works at Reichenhall, via Passau to Regensburg, partly by land, partly by the river Inn and then upstream on the Danube, using vast teams of horses.

Before the construction of the Steinerne Brucke there had been a ford and then wooden bridges, but these were often destroyed in winter by flooding or freezing. At 330 m. in length, it originally had 16 arches, though the one nearest the city has since been built over. The arches are supported by massive piers which, like much of the bridge, are still the originals. These reduced the space for the water to flow and so the current is stronger under the bridge. Ships had to be towed upstream with the help of a winch. A canal to the north was completed in 1973 and so only pleasure craft use this point of the river now. The bridge was protected by three towers, of which only the one on the city side remains. Soon after its opening the bridge was used by the participants of the 2nd crusade as they began their journey to the Holy Land.

According to legend the builder who had the bet with the architect of the early church also made a pact with the devil to ensure that he won his bet. If he won the souls of the first three creatures to cross the bridge would belong to the devil. Having beaten his rival, the grand opening was planned whereby the duke, the bishop and wealthy merchants would ceremonially cross the bridge. In panic the builder came up with the idea of driving a dog, a cock and a hen (in other versions it is donkeys) across the bridge. Having been cheated the devil attempted to destroy the bridge by crouching under the middle arch and pushing upward with his back. He failed to break it, but the bridge has always had a small hump in the middle. The crafty builder is commemorated by the ‘Bruckmandl’ (the little man on the bridge) in the centre of the bridge, added in the 16th century.

Other places to visit include St Emmeram’s Monastery, the oldest in Regensburg, Schloss Thurn and Taxis, St Jacobskircke, and the Historisches Museum der Stadt Regensburg.

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St Emmeram’s Monastery is the oldest in Regensburg and was for centuries one of the main seats of learning in Europe. Founded in 739 it remained a monastery until the early 19th century. The scriptorium was well known for the production of high quality illuminated manuscripts in the early middle ages. In 1295 it became an Imperial Abbey, and thus represented at the Imperial Diets. The monastic church is still in use. With three aisles and three choirs, it has remains of the original 8th century building and crypt, 11th century carved stone reliefs and a 12th century vestibule. The west transept has a painted wooden ceiling showing St Benedict of Norcia (founder of the first monastic order). Much of the church was remodelled in Baroque style by the Asam brothers in the 1730s. It has a detached bell tower which is unusual in Germany. When the monastery lost its independence in the first decade of the 19th century it was transferred first to the Principality of Regensburg and then to Bavaria. Many of its treasures and books were moved to Munich.

The Thurn and Taxis family bought the monastic buildings in 1812 and converted them into a luxurious palace. The Schloss Thurn und Taxis (guided tours only – 4 different routes available!) shows all the wealth of the family that developed and monopolised the European postal service from the early 16th century (Franz von Taxis 1459-1517) and from the investments, especially in land and breweries, that they made with their vast income. Still lived in, it is supposed to have more rooms than Buckingham Palace, is beautifully decorated, full of fine furniture, containing the old cloisters of the monastery, and a collection of sedan chairs and carriages (in the Marstallmuseum).

St Jakobskirche is also known as the Schottenkirche or Scot’s Church after the Irish Benedictine monks who founded it. The name can be explained by the fact the word ‘Scoti’ or ‘Scotti’ is the Latin word for those who came from Ireland, originally raiding the coast of Roman Britain. (Scotland takes its name from one of these groups that established a settlement on the west coast.) The church is adjacent to the medieval city west gate, and it became the home church of all Scottish and Irish monks in Bavaria and Austria until the monastery closed in the mid-19th century. The building is mainly 12th century, with low arches, a Byzantine apse, an 1180 crucifix, but with a coffered ceiling from the 17th century. The famous Romanesque Schottenportal, protected by a modern glass porch, has many sculptures and reliefs – hangmen, mermaids, and monsters, as well as the usual Christian images – which have defied convincing interpretation.

The Historisches Museum der Stadt Regensburg (Historical Museum) housed in a former monastery, has a detailed scaled model of the city, archaeological finds from Roman and medieval times, and art from the Danube school, including work by Albrecht Altdorfer.

Outside Regensburg

The Walhalla, built by King Ludwig I of Bavaria between 1830 and 1841 in the style of a Greek temple based on the Parthenon is at Donaustauf, 15km east of Regensburg. Intended as a monument to the German people, it has 128 busts and 65 tablets inscribed with the names of individuals who had contributed to the glory of the German nation. Additions are still occasionally made today.

The Befreiungshalle (Hall of Liberation) at Kelheim, 30 km north of Regensburg, was also commissioned by Ludwig I for the glorification of the heroes of the Wars of Liberation from Napoleon, with specific reference to the Battle of Nations (18th October 1813). Started in 1842, it was officially opened on the 50th anniversary of the battle. 84 steps go up to a vast doorway which opens into a 49 m. high domed hall.

The Danube gorge from Weltenburg Abbey to Kelheim with 40 m. high cliffs through the limestone rock formations can be visited by boat or on foot and has been designated an area of natural beauty. Weltenburg Abbey dates from the 7th century, though most of the existing buildings date from the 18th century.

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Bavaria - Regensburg


Before 1000 A.D.

It is believed that the first settlement on the site was Celtic in origin – Radaspona –which is reflected in the Latin form of the name Regensburg, Ratisbon, still used in French, Spanish and Italian. When a Roman camp was destroyed in the 2nd century, it was replaced during the reign of Marcus Aurelius in AD 179 by a massive legionary fort for 6000 soldiers, known as Castra Regina, after the River Regen which joins the Danube here. It was a defensive point on the Danube which marked the northern line of the Roman Empire in central Europe. The fort measured 450m. by 540m., covering the area of the old city, (Altstadt), between Obere and Untere Bachgasse and the Schwanenplatz. After the collapse of the Roman Empire and the abandonment of the fort (date unknown – perhaps mid-5th century) many Roman soldiers, traders, and farmers remained and intermarried with the Bavarians.

Thus the old Roman fort formed the basis of the first Bavarian capital, ruled by the Agilolfing family. The walls were described as impregnable in the late 8th century by Arbio of Freising, the first biographer of St Emmeram, a Christian missionary from Aquitaine who was murdered in 652 and after whom the first monastery in Regensburg was founded in 739. Regensburg became a bishopric in the same year, growing as Bavaria expanded. In 788 the Agilolfings were removed by Charlemagne when he took over Bavaria, so the city was already of significance when Charlemagne was crowned ‘King of the Romans’ in 800 at the very start of the Holy Roman Empire. It continued to develop as a political, religious and commercial centre - being the capital of Louis II, and the centre from which the Czech people were converted to Catholicism after 14 Bohemian princes were baptised in the city in 845. By 900 its growth was such that the walls were expanded to double the enclosed area. In 1096 some of those involved in the 1st crusade, led by Peter the Hermit, en route to the Holy Land, arrived in Regensburg and set about an enforced conversion of the Jews who lived there, killing any who resisted.

11th to 15th centuries – Regensburg’s continuing importance

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During the 11th and 12th centuries new buildings in the Romanesque style were constructed, such as the extension of the Alte Kapelle (Old Chapel) of the ducal palace and the Allerheiligenkapelle (All Saints Chapel) in the cathedral cloisters. New monasteries were founded and wealthy merchants constructed town mansions with towers – the patrician towers – in the Italian style. This continued into following centuries with the most famous and highest remaining tower, the Goldener Turm (Golden Tower) being built in 1260. Regensburg’s commercial importance had been enhanced by the construction of the Steinerne Brucke (Stone Bridge) between 1135 and 1146 facilitating the north-south trade route from Italy across the Alps into Germany and northern Europe. This, together with the east–west route along the River Danube, resulted in considerable wealth. Trade in gold, silver, cloth, wine, iron, salt, slaves and weapons meant that by the 13th century Regensburg was the largest and richest city in southern Germany. The influence of its largest trading partner, Italy, is still clear today.

Although the ruling Wittelbach family, who became rulers of Bavaria in 1180 (and remained so until 1918), moved the capital from Regensburg, eventually to Munich, this did not initially damage its wealth or continued development. In 1245 Emperor Frederick II granted it the status of an Imperial Free City, with a right to govern itself and elect its own mayor. In 1275 the new gothic St Peter’s Cathedral (Dom) was started (on which work continued for 100’s of years). The 14th century saw the construction of the Town Hall (Altes Rathaus) which was to become the seat of the Imperial Diet and provides a fascinating insight into the workings of the Holy Roman Empire and its legal system. Much of the old town was built in Gothic style at this time.

The city has been preserved so well because the sources of its wealth began to decline in the 15th century. By the time the Renaissance style had fully developed Regensburg was no longer able to support such large scale building projects. Locally, the hostility of the Bavarian rulers meant that they did all they could to hinder development, building towns nearby and creating trade barriers in the form of taxes. Trade routes began to change, with Augsburg and Nuremburg developing manufacturing and becoming trading rivals. The development of sea routes to India and the east (around Africa) and later the opening of the Atlantic routes, meant that Regensburg (along with other southern German cities) was no longer so well placed to benefit from increasing trade. By 1486 the city handed itself over to the Duchy of Bavaria, though ten years later its independence was restored at the insistence of Emperor Maximilian. As was often the case, Jews were made scapegoats for the city’s financial woes and in 1519 the council voted to expel them from the city. The church built on the site of the old demolished synagogue in Neupfarrplatz later became the first Protestant church of the city.

Charles V

During the reign of Charles V Regensburg hosted the Imperial Diet on a number of occasions, most notably in 1541 when Charles organised the last real attempt to reconcile the differences between the Catholic and Protestant churches (see more in Chapter 21 of 'Charles V: Duty and Dynasty: The Emperor and his Changing World'). The failure of the colloquy to achieve agreement resulted in Charles’ despairing of a peaceful settlement and the ensuing religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries, such as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which did so much harm to Germany. Regensburg itself converted to the Protestant faith in 1542, although it still remained the seat of the Roman Catholic bishop and had several monasteries. At a later Diet in 1546, Charles stayed at ‘Zum Goldenen Kruez’ (the Golden Cross Inn) in Haidplatz. It was here that the 18 year old Barbara Blomberg, the daughter of a local belt maker, became pregnant and gave birth to Charles’ youngest child, Don Juan of Austria, the following year (Link to Charles V – Family – Wife and children).

After Charles V

Despite its relative decline, Regensburg still remained a city fit for the Imperial Diet. Although suffering damage and loss of trade when occupied and retaken in the 1630s by both Imperial Catholic and Swedish Protestant forces during the Thirty Years War, it became the home of the Perpetual Diet in 1663. This was the forerunner of the German Parliament, though representation was still based on the three ‘estates’ of the Holy Roman Empire: the elector princes, the other princes (both secular and ecclesiastical), and the free imperial cities. Regensburg, for example, consisted of five ‘independent’ states which were represented at the Diet – the Protestant city itself, the Catholic bishopric and three major monasteries (the latter four as ‘princes’ of the church). The Diet brought many visitors to the city – the Emperor or his representatives, princes and delegates from other cities attending the Diet, and foreign ambassadors. Unfortunately they did not generate much wealth for the city since they did not pay taxes and employed their own servants.

Regensburg remained the seat of the Imperial Diet until 1806 when the empire ceased to exist with the abdication of Francis II, after defeat by Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz in December 1805. Even before that Regensburg had lost its independent status in 1803, when it was handed to the Archbishop of Mainz and Arch-chancellor of the Empire, Carl van Dalberg, as compensation for the loss of Mainz to the French. He unified the town, bishopric and the monasteries into the Principality of Regensburg and introduced some measures of modernisation, such as equal rights for Protestants and Catholics (Catholics had been excluded from these rights since the Reformation).

With continued war between Napoleon and Austria, the battle of Ratisbon (Regensburg) took place on 23rd April 1809. As French troops advanced on the city from the south, the Austrians, who had taken the city two days earlier, began to withdraw. Artillery and heavy equipment was taken over the Stone Bridge and a temporary pontoon bridge over the Danube was created two kilometres to the east for the infantry. The Austrians were able to hold the bridge and the pontoon for several hours, thus making their escape, and so French attentions were directed against the city’s defences. The artillery bombardment damaged the walls but it took four assaults to break into the city. This was followed by hand to hand fighting and then by looting. Napoleon was lightly wounded in the left ankle during the battle. In all French casualties were about 2,000, while the Austrians had 6,000 killed, injured or captured. Napoleon could now march into Austria. In 1810 van Dalberg handed the Principality of Regensburg over to the Kingdom of Bavaria, the Grand Duchy of Frankfurt having been created for him.

The 19th and early 20th centuries were periods of further stagnation for the city. It was largely ignored by the kings of Bavaria. Although resented at the time, this neglect has meant that Regensburg largely kept its medieval centre untouched by modernisation and the depredations of later armies. This remained true during World War 2, when little damage was done unlike in so many German cities, although the Romanesque church of Obermunster was destroyed. Since then Regensburg has gradually developed, with new industries in electronics, light engineering, vehicles, and services (e.g. BMW, Toshiba and Siemens), and the university, which opened in 1967. Between 1969 and 1977 Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger (elected Pope in 2005, taking the name Benedict XVI) was professor of theology at the university. Tourism has grown in importance in recent years, with the preservation of so much of its historic centre resulting in it being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.