State of the Art: Bayern

Panorama view over Munich, Bavaria, Germany. Photo by Sina Ettmer Photography/

State of the Art is a series introducing Germany as a whole, but also highlighting an individual state or “Bundesland” every month.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, both East and West Germany reunited in 1990. The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) included 11 states and Berlin, in its geographically isolated location. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was comprised of five states and today’s Germany has a total of 16 “Bundesländer.”

This month our journey will lead us to Bavaria with its two sections Bayern and Franken.

Bavaria officially named “Freistaat Bayern” (Free State of Bavaria) is Germany’s largest state with a size of 70,500 square kilometers and 13 million inhabitants. It basically consists of two sections with Bayern in the south and Franken (Franconia) in the north. Never, ever make the mistake of calling a Franconian a “Bayer” or you will find yourself in the “boiling hot water” of the Main River, which naturally divides the two in about the middle of the state.

Historically seen Franken belonged to Preussen (Kingdom of Prussia) from 1792 to 1806, while Bayern was a kingdom of its own from 1806 to 1918. Bavarians sometimes still refer to Franconians as “Prussians.” While both areas have a lot in common, there are cultural and geological differences.

The capital is Munich with its Landtag (State Parliament). Markus Söder of the Christian Socialist Union (CSU) is the Minister President of the state who has been in office since 2018 and is up for re-election in October this year.

Augsburg and the Fuggers

Our journey begins in the southern section and the Fugger City of Augsburg. With its 296,000 inhabitants it is the second largest city in the Bavarian section and the third largest in the whole state. It is one of Germany’s oldest cities founded by Romans in 12 B.C., and there is an array of varying architectural styles to be discovered within the city center including medieval guild houses. The city hall with its Golden Hall is from the Renaissance Age.

The wealthy merchant family Fugger brought prestige and fame to the city as a business metropolis in the 16th century and is said to have had close ties with the Medici family in Italy. The oldest social settlement in Europe is the Fuggerei, which was established by Jakob Fugger in 1521 for low-income families. He determined that the annual rent would always be one guilder for an apartment and about 150 people still reside there paying 88 cents Euro per year. The area, museum and church have become a popular tourist attraction.

The three Renaissance fountains in the city, the Perlach Turm (tower) and the three water towers, including the Grosse Wasserturm was built in 1416 and is the oldest of its kind in Germany. The “Altstadt” has a Mediterranean atmosphere and is free of cars and large department stores. The narrow alleys only house small shops, cafés, tanner shops, jewelry stores and art galleries and are lined with shallow water canals which mark the historical importance of water in Augsburg. The city is also famous for its “Augsburger Puppenkiste” (puppet theater) and the characters became popular “celebrities” on German television as early as 1954. For more interesting facts, visit:

Oktoberfest in September

Further east we’ll soon reach Munich (München in German), the largest city with 1.4 million inhabitants. It is most famous for the world’s largest folk fest, the Oktoberfest, which draws up to six million visitors and 7.8 million liters of beer are sold per year. Prince Regent Ludwig of Bavaria, later king, married Princess Therese of Saxony and decided to celebrate in an unusual way with a horse race. The wedding ceremony was held October 12, 1810, and October 17 a large horse race for the populace took place in honor of the royal couple on the Theresienwiese (slang Wies’n) named after the bride.

It was so popular that the residents of Munich cried for more and after time the festival grew into an annual large folk festival with beer tents, rides and candy booths. There is a total of 17 large and 12 smaller tents. The largest is the Hofbräu Festhalle with a capacity of 10,000 people and experienced waitresses can carry up to ten Mass, equaling twenty kilos (one liter of beer weighs one kilo plus about the same weight of the glass) at one time. The first transportable roller coaster, the “Olympia Looping” was set up in 1989. The festival always starts with the parade of the heavy brewery horses on the third Saturday in September when the Lord Mayor taps the keg shouting “O’zapft is!” Every tent is newly built with fresh timber each year and construction of the impressive structures starts in July. With a few breaks in between, the festival will take place for the 188th time this year from Sept.16 to Oct. 3.

Knights, chimes and breweries

Apart from the Oktoberfest, the city has a lot in store for visitors. Its Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady) with its twin towers rises high above the large pedestrian area near “Stachus” and “Karlstor” and is situated close to Marienplatz with the new City Hall built in Neo Gothic style. The clock built in 1908 has become a popular tourist attraction and at 11 a.m. and noon a door opens, a life-size knight with a lance pushes a competitor off his horse, coopers show a dance while the crowd cheers, enacting two historical scenes from the 16th century, and chimes set in. The Hofbräuhaus is located around the corner and Viktualienmarkt, a daily produce market established in 1807, is just across the square. The BMW automobile manufacturer has its home in Munich and there are a total of 19 breweries, each with its own “Brauereikeller” (brewery cellar).

Olympics, a Chinese tower and the alps

Munich was host to the Olympic Summer Games in 1972 and the spacious park with the Olympic hall and stadium are now used for pop concerts and other large-scale events. Other attractions include “Schwabing” with great nightlife and student flair close to the university. The “Englischer Garten” is a spacious park that is 3.75 hectares larger than Central Park in New York and was established in 1789. It has a large beer garden with a Chinese Tower, small streams, a lake and 78 kilometers of walkways and riding paths. Munich has several art museums, two castles and a futuristic sports arena with changing colors. There are beaches along the Isar River and numerous bustling beer gardens in the summer. To literally (snow) top it off, the Alps are located 264 kilometers further south, but under a special weather condition called “Föhn” you can enjoy an ice clear view of the mountains and Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak, from the city.

Castles and a crazy king

There are soft rolling hills to the south that eventually lead to the Alpine region, including well known Garmisch and Berchtesgaden, as well as Bad Reichenhall with its salt mines. You will discover several lakes including Starnberger See, where infamous King Ludwig II, builder of Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee Castles, was found drowned in the shallow water under mysterious circumstances in June 1886. It is said that he was mentally ill and highly indebted the kingdom with his outrageous construction projects.

Germany. The famous Neuschwanstein Castle. Photo by Naumenko Aleksandr/

Other places of interest include Königsee, a lake high in the mountains, ski resorts and Chiemsee to the West, while the Holocaust Memorial Site Dachau is located north of Munich. Rosenheim is a quaint city worth a visit, Regensburg along the Regen and Danube Rivers to the north-east has a fabulous Medieval city center with a humungous Greek style “Wallhalla” hall nearby on a hilltop, also commissioned by Ludwig II. Passau lies across the border to Austria and is a popular starting point for exciting Danube cruises. AUDI automobiles are built in Ingolstadt and the Bayerischer Wald is a forest with hiking trails and leisure vacation spots.

Middle age flair and a meteorite

Travelling north we will gradually reach the Main River and the Rhein-Main-Donau-Kanal that links the three rivers. Our journey will lead us to the Franken part of the state, with another large wine growing region in Germany, cozy towns and a number of places of interest.

The town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one of the best-preserved Middle Age towns in Germany with a complete city wall surrounding it, various well-kept buildings, small shops and a “torture museum,” historically interesting, but not recommended for highly sensitive individuals.

Nördlingen is rather spectacular and was founded in the year 898, constructed in the crater of a meteorite that hit about 15 million years ago. The crater has a diameter of 23 kilometers and the city was constructed in a circular shape at the pit, surrounded by a well-preserved wall and a small chain of hills around the perimeter. It has a picturesque old town and is worth a stop on your way to Nürnberg.

There are several U.S. Army units, such as Vilseck and Ansbach, while Grafenwöhr is used as a training site for the military. Many a baby born of U.S. military families came into the world in the former hospital in Fürth in the 1950’s to 1970’s.

Franken at its best

Nuremberg (Nürnberg) is the capital of the Franken region and the second largest city in the whole state with 500,000 inhabitants. It was first mentioned in the year 1050 and quickly became a business metropolis in the 12th century.

It is famed for its Christmas Market on the main market square as well as the Imperial Nürnberg Castle, towering high above the city. Heavily destructed during World War II, many of the ancient buildings, including several churches, have been reconstructed to regain its original cozy atmosphere with narrow alleys, small pubs and semi-timbered facades. The Golden Fountain and the Gothic Church of our Lady are further attractions. Visitors can visit the large underground tunnel system or tour the medieval prison located under the old town hall. Another historic location is the Documentation Center Rally Grounds with the Zeppelin Field used during the Third Reich. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Germany’s most famous painter, lived in a town house in 1509. As one of the few buildings not damaged, it now houses an art museum where visitors are guided by Dürer’s “wife” Maria during their tour. Lakes and reservoirs with beaches or café gardens nearby offer relaxation and thermal spas welcome guests.

Operas and Porcelain

Further north, we’ll come across the small town of Bamberg which has a picturesque old town and a surprisingly vivid atmosphere with 16 percent of its inhabitants being university students. Würzburg, a former residential city has a castle and a lovely old town section. The Richard-Wagner-Festspiele is an Opera Festival held in Bayreuth every year, dedicated to the last ten operas composed by Wagner. King Ludwig II was a devoted fan and had an opera hall constructed within Neuschwanstein Castle in his honor, but a performance never took place.

The “Deutsche Porzellan Strasse” (German Porcelain Road) lies in the top north-east corner. The road will lead us to the small town of Selb, where fine porcelain lovers may know the brands Hutschenreuther, Heinrich and Rosenthal, all fabricated in the town only four kilometers to the Czech border. Rosenthal also produced porcelain parts for electrical lines in Landstuhl until 1991.

With the proximity to the former Eastern Bloc, Selb was also home to one of the largest refugee camps, mainly for women and children fleeing the Soviet invasion of former German territories, now in Poland, towards the end of World War II and just happens to be the birthplace of the author of this article.

A village divided

Speaking of difficult times, the tiny village of Mödlareuth with merely 50 inhabitants, belonging to Thüringen in the north and Bavaria in the south, became victim of separation from 1949 until 1990. First a barb-wired fence was built in the middle of the small stream that divided the village but allowed the residents to go back and forth. Later it was replaced by a high wall separating the two. Taking a ten kilometer detour into account via the border patrol point, West Germans could visit their East German relatives across the steam. East Germans, on the other hand, would have to obtain a written permit in Plauen in Thüringen and travel about three hours in one direction to visit their family, turning this venture into an odyssey. The village has developed into an open-air museum with original sections of the wall and a surveillance tower. It greets its visitors with a historic movie about the events leading up to the separation, while a few former East German border guards lead guests through the premises. An absolute must-see location for those interested in post-war history.

Listening in

Our journey around the state will end at Hof near the junction where West Germany, East Germany and (former) Czechoslovakia met during the Cold War period. In January 1955 the Air Force Security Service Command moved Det. 6, 6915th Radio Squadron from Landsberg near Munich to Kingsley Kaserne in the city of Hof. The small city was located merely five kilometers to the East German border and therefore this U.S. installation is said to be the closest ever to the Iron Curtain. After a number of organizational changes, the Kaserne was transferred from the U.S. Army to Air Force and renamed Hof Air Station.

During the Cold war era, language talented Air Force members were taught Russian or Czech and then moved on to Germany to be stationed at Hof Air Station. Many of them worked in shifts at the reconnaissance unit in nearby Döbraberg and intercepted Soviet radio messages. In 1971 the 6915th Security Group was de-activated, and the base was turned over to the German air force, and is still active there today. Former members stationed with the unit have grouped together as the Hof Reunion Association, have held several reunions in Hof, with one planned this year in September, to remember the times they shared in Germany in the 1960’s.

Meanwhile Hof has developed into a lively business hub in the center of Germany with a quaint Franconian atmosphere and delicious Fränkische Bratwurst, a regional specialty not to be missed. It also serves as the gateway to more discoveries in Thüringen or in the Czech Republic and lies along the autobahn enroute to Germany’s capital Berlin.