Germans can be too polite for their own good. I was taking a stroll along the idyllic Regnitz River that meanders through the beautiful medieval town of Bamberg in northern Bavaria. It was one of those magical April mornings; dappled sunlight was sparkling on the water and the air was full of twittering birdsong. I should have been full of the joys of spring but was feeling strangely nervous. The problem was the cyclists.
Bamberg is home to 12,000 students and nearly all of them own bikes. They glide up behind you as stealthily as cheetahs as ringing their bells to warn you would be far too rude. I’d just stopped to watch an enchanting brood of newly hatched ducklings find their water wings when suddenly I heard a coughing sound right behind my back; it was another dreaded cyclist. Startled, I leapt sideways, slid on the embankment and only narrowly missed joining the ducklings in their swimming lesson. When wandering around Bamberg, always keep an ear cocked for these polite coughs. They are the German equivalent of bicycle bells, and when you hear one, get out of the way fast.
To soothe my nerves, I thought it was a suitable time to embark on the main purpose of my visit; an exploration of the city’s renowned breweries. Another quality the locals have is modesty. With 69 breweries in the Bamberg region producing 450 beers, Bamberg is unquestionably the beer capital of Germany. However, you’ll rarely hear anybody boasting about it. They would rather let Munich with its thigh-slapping Oktoberfest take the accolade and be left in peace to enjoy Bamberg’s wonderful beer in traditional taverns far away from the international spotlight.
From the riverside I wandered up a steep hill to Greifenklau Brewery for an early lunch. From the wooded slopes I caught magnificent views of Bamberg’s seven hills topped by imposing abbeys and churches. It was here in the 11th century that the merry monks of Bamberg perfected the art of beer-making and throughout the city you’ll see ornate gilded inn signs proudly displaying their medieval lineage. Greifenklau dates back to a mere 1719, but has the advantage of having one of Bamberg’s most delightful beer gardens. Here you can enjoy an al fresco lunch with a magnificent view of Altenburg Castle, a medieval hilltop fortress that bristles with whimsical turrets and crenellations.
All Bamberg’s breweries offer astonishingly good value meals and for well under e10 you can mop up the beer with generous plates of German comfort food. I ordered a plate of bratwurst and a glass of Greifenklau Lager. Light and with a harmonious malt and hop balance, it’s a good choice for a quick lunch. However be warned, beers in Bamberg are served in half litre beer mugs called seidlas, so you’ll need to pace yourself during your brewery explorations.
From Greifenklau, I strolled downhill to explore Bamberg’s historic city centre, a World Heritage site that boasts 2,400 listed medieval and Renaissance buildings. The city is steeped in tradition and many houses I passed still had the Epiphany blessing 20+C+M+B+15 chalked upon their doors. The letters refer to the Three Wise Men: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, and are drawn on doors by children in the New Year. Easter had just passed and the city’s wells and fountains were festooned with yellow ribbons and hundreds of intricately painted eggs, a popular tradition known as Osterbrunnen in this region of Bavaria. Bamberg is a devoutly Catholic city and in Gothic niches carved into the corners of medieval houses, Madonna statues draped in resplendent blue dresses smile benignly down onto the streets, perhaps keeping a beady eye on the packed breweries below.
In the early evening, I headed over to Schlenkerla, one of the most popular breweries in the Old City. Dating back to 1405, the interior is typical of Bamberg’s breweries and is an atmospheric jumble of cosy saloons with sagging wood beamed ceilings and walls covered in deer antlers. The brewery was already packed with locals meeting up for civilised after work seidlas of smoked beer, Schlenkerla’s most famous product. Beer connoisseurs either love or loathe Bamberg’s smoked beer, but anyone with a penchant for Guinness will enjoy the dark, complex bitterness from the first swig. Some students came in and bought a few bottles to take away with them. I later spotted them enjoying the sunset by the river, trouser legs rolled up and with their bikes resting on the grass verges. With 450 cheap and delicious beers to choose from, it must be brilliant being a student in Bamberg, and even more reason for tourists to keep a careful look out for those silent but deadly bikes.
Rail fares from London to Bamberg start at £322 return.
For those wishing to explore Germany further, German InterRail passes are available for 3, 4, 6 or 8 days’ use within a one month period. Prices start at £155 for 3 days. Tel: 0844 848 5848 or visit www.voyages-sncf.com