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Bamberg, Germany: the "beer city"

Nine breweries and a UNESCO designation make it a Bavarian must-stop.

The Altes Rathaus, Bamberg's 14th-century town hall, on the River Regnitz.
  • The Altes Rathaus, Bamberg's 14th-century town hall, on the River Regnitz.

The nearly four-hour train journey north from Munich whipped us past a landscape of farmland, old Bavarian villages and rolling hills. Our destination: the historic city of Bamberg.

We booked a small room at the Arkaden Hotel im Kloster, at the top of a hill overlooking the old city, which came with a complimentary 8 a.m. wake-up call thanks to the neighboring church bell that loomed almost directly overhead.

Quiet streets of Bamberg, Germany

As we exited the hotel into the cool, crisp air and made our way down the cobblestone toward the center of town, we passed colorful homes in pastel yellows, oranges and blues. More church bells rang overhead and in the near distance. Our first stop led us to Kachelofen, a small restaurant with wooden tables and the feel of stepping into someone’s (old) living room. I ordered the leberkndelsuppe, liver dumpling soup, which became my go-to in just about every establishment we visited. The small soup had a dark beef broth and one large meat dumpling. It cried out old-town, traditional German cooking. Simple and delicious. I was hooked.

Then we ordered a local beer. Again, I was hooked. Not only was I immediately hooked on the food and the beer, I was already hooked on Bamberg.

Our next stop led us nearly directly across the street to Schlenkerla: the famous brauerei and beer hall of the world-famous Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier. Dark in color, the beer has a heavy smoke and bacon flavor that’s smooth, surprisingly easy to drink and beyond delicious. Watching as they poured the brew from wooden barrel directly into glass, it was apparent just how fresh this beer was.

We used our guidebook-learned German to ask “noch frei?” to a group of men to see if the seats next to them were available. They motioned in approval and we took a seat. Almost immediately, we were clanking glasses together, saying “prost” and engaging in conversation with these local Bambergers. They told us about their adventures fishing in Alaska and skiing the Rocky Mountains, and then grabbed a map to help us seek out future destinations on our stay.

Out in the street again, the lack of vehicle traffic made it pleasant to explore. The men at Schenkerla suggested we check out Klosterbrau – the oldest active brewery in Bamberg, dating back to 1533.

We entered the very quiet room, slow on this midweek winter day, and took a seat. Instead of sitting at an empty table, we again chose to sit next to a couple who were sitting quietly and enjoying the beer. I ordered the bock bier, which was again poured directly from a wooden barrel.

“Much better than a Bud Light, ja?” said the man sitting across the table.

He laughed, and so did we, in agreement. His name was Curt, a local Bamberger, and seated beside him was his wife Helga. Curt spoke English very well, while Helga spoke very little, so he translated much of the conversation. Immediately, they made us feel welcome.

Curt and Helga asked if we wanted to join them for a couple more brews and a look around their town. Absolutely. This has always been my favorite part of traveling: meeting locals who are happy to show off their hometown. We immediately agreed.

They led the way, taking us through old streets (the scenic route), and eventually across an old wooden bridge with water gushing underneath and a stunning view of the town hall. The hall, built in 1386, hangs over the Regnitz River, and has the A-frame architecture and wooden planks that you might expect to see in Germany. We talked about the old buildings, some dating back to the mid 1300s, and admired the place they called home.

After a twenty-minute walk, we entered Brauerei Spezial, another watering hole in the heart of the city. With seating for about 50, dark wooden walls and large tree-like beams overhead, the main room was buzzing with energy. A large wood-burning stove and the ever-present cross filled one corner, and the walls, like many Bavarian establishments, had deer antlers on display. Curt ordered everyone a round of the house bier – another smoked lager, but much more subtle than Schenkerla.

We laughed, chatted and clanked glasses, feeling exhilarated to be in this far-off land with no TVs or cell phones intruding.

After spending the evening with Curt and Helga, we parted ways, but not before agreeing to meet at 4 p.m. the following evening to continue where we left off. Before meeting back up with them, we explored the incredible Bamberg Dom, the large cathedral that towers above the city.

Inside, stone pillars dominate this nearly one-thousand-year-old church. It’s a magnificent sight, and the most powerful and awe-inspiring church we'd seen on our trip (a close second: the cathedral in Salzburg, Austria). Of course, the day also consisted of some mouth-watering pork, lots of dumplings and sauerkraut, and of course, more leberkndelsuppe. Before we knew it, it was nearing 4, so it was time to meet our new friends at the Kettenbruckstrasse (they called it the “chain bridge"). They told us that this was the exact location where the two of them met nearly 60 years before.

We were excited to see them, and greeted them with hugs. Curt was sporting a Florida Gators jacket and baseball cap. We strolled along the Donau Kanal a bit further out of the center of town, as they led us in the direction of our two destinations: Brauerei Keesman and Mahr’s Brau.

While Helga led my friend to the butcher shop to grab some meat for sandwiches, I joined Curt a couple of doors down at Keesman. He ordered a round of pilsners. Upon returning, Helga pulled out individually wrapped Kaiser rolls from their favorite bakery and the Leberkäse (a type of sausage made from corned beef, pork, bacon and onions, ground up and baked like a meatloaf) for some sandwiches. Leberkäse is a Bavarian staple; it's usually served with spicy or sweet mustard, and is a must-have snack while in southern Germany. The ones Helga made had no mustard – just meet and rolls – but were delicious. The perfect pairing with our fresh pilsner beers.

Our stay at Keesman was short, just enough for a beer and the sandwich, before we made our way across the street to Mahr’s Bräu, our main destination for the evening.

If there’s a place that screams small-town Bavarian establishment and boasts everything that’s beautiful about this part of the world, Mahr’s Bräu is it. Upon entering, the warmness from the wood burning stove/fireplace filled the air, clanking glasses were abundant and the sounds of German filled the air.

The low, dark ceiling and friendly buzz makes this place an immediate favorite. Of course, things only got better after sipping on the A'U lager bier. Perhaps the best brew of the trip – not just in Bamberg, but Bavaria as a whole. The main competition for the A'U was Schenkerla’s Rauchbier.

Again, we spent the evening in conversation, listening to stories from Curt about how he and Helga met when they were 16 years old, and how Curt lost his wedding ring some years back and had it returned by an honest passer-by. He translated for Helga as she told us how after World War II, at the age of six, she was sent by the Red Cross to live in Spain for a year, only to return to Germany over a year later as a Spanish speaker, completely unable to speak German.

It was a night filled with the beauty of travel. Meeting people, admiring the local customs, the food, the beer, the scenery, the differences in cultures between the places we call home. As our time with Curt and Helga drew to a close, our goodbyes were heartfelt and warm. We said farewell to our Bavarian friends, knowing this was an experience that would stay in our memory banks.

What else was there to do... besides sit back, smile and order two more delicious beers. Prost!

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