From Plzen we drove to Nuremburg, a city famous for both the rise and fall of the Nazis. The Nazis chose the city as the setting for their rallies because Nuremburg was long held to be a quintessentially German city. The Allies chose the city as the setting for the war crimes trials for exactly the same reason. Nuremburg indeed has a long and noble history as the cities numerous monuments attest. After visiting so many tiny old medieval cities, the size of old Nuremburg was astonishing. The old city was enclosed within a massive double row of walls, complete with moat (now a park), interspersed with huge round watch towers. It seemed to take forever to drive around the old city and find our way (and not simply because of our navigational challenges). We found a parking spot near the central market square and headed out.
I’d originally intended Nuremburg to be a short stop on the drive to Berlin, but shortly after we started exploring the old city Shelly began to feel a little unwell. With her stamina flagging we decided we’d find accommodation and stay the night. Shelly opted to relax while I went out to explore. I had been keen to visit Nuremburg for some time as the city not only preserves not only its medieval architecture, but a number of important Nazi buildings. On the outskirts of the city lie the enormous National Socialist Party Congress Hall and Zeppelin Field. The enormous Congress Hall started construction in about 1935. Nazi rallies had already been held in the nearby Zeppelin Field (which had been a parade ground and Zeppelin landing field - hence the name - since the beginning of the twentieth century) but Hitler wanted a purpose built congress hall that would demonstrate in steel and marble the power and prestige of the Nazi party. The site was poorly chosen - specifically because it needed to be near the Zeppelin field parade ground - the lakeside ground was swampy and required driving of thousands of concrete piles into the mud to secure the foundations. This resulted in years of delay and eventually construction was abandoned when the Nazis got a little distracted by a war, but the vision of its creator is clear from the unfinished shell.
Hitler was a mediocre artist and his taste in architecture was equally shallow. He wanted the Congress to be a new Colosseum; a shining marble colossus of imperial power. But the Congress is nothing like the Colosseum. Walking around the shell, which is occasionally used as a setting for outdoor concerts (which is still quite controversial) but is mostly just provides a home for stray dogs, I was struck but how awe inspiringly boring the building actually is. It is astonishingly plain, It is simply an exercise in size over substance. Rarely have I encountered a historic building whose preservation seems so unwarranted.
So I wandered across to the other side of the lake to the Zeppelin field, glancing ever backward to the looming bulk of the Congress. It still made no sense. Zeppelin field is also an oddity. The field itself, once home to those stirring Nazi rallies famously captured in the propaganda films by Lennie Refenschtall, is now a football (soccer) field. The stands, where the Nazi leadership once stood still remain - stark, white and bare marble. You could walk right the way up to the podium where Hitler gave his speeches and I did so. Like the Congress, the Zeppelin field was cold and bare. There was no substance to it. Now it was just a desolate urban graveyard; a transitory home for local toughs, drunks and bums, and the occasional curious tourist. As I walked away I tried to imagine what this place had been like during those rallies and it occurred to me that like King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstien palace, Zeppelin field and the Congress were really nothing more than stage sets. But whereas Ludwig set his stage with dazzling extravagance, the Nazis had nothing. Without the Nazi flags, without the choreographed, anonymous masses, without Hitler, they weren’t even places. Hitler of course would have appreciated that. In his mind, HE was the German nation. The buildings he left behind therefore reflect his vision. And it’s empty.
We walked the city that night and took in the castle and the market square; all the buildings beautifully lit up. Of course, all the buildings have been restored as Nuremburg was flattened during the war. Although Nuremburg is famous for its sausages, we had schnitzel and a pork knuckle, as we’d pretty much had our fill of sausages. I wanted to try the local beer, a strong dark ale, but was myself beginning to feel poorly. The first signs of the dreaded swine flu were upon me, so we had an early, alcohol free night.
The next day we took a lengthy walk around the town. Being so big there was no way we could see all of it and I would be happy to go back spend more time in this very interesting town. I need to clarify though that Shelly doesn’t share the same opinion of Nuremburg as me and was quite pleased to bid it adieu. She had other destinations in mind - Berlin and shopping!!