All the old university cities in Europe, whether Bologna, Krakow, Siena, Heidelberg or Oxford, have a few things in common. Typically, they are quite small, they have narrow streets and cannot boast an abundance of grandiose architectural masterpieces. The stones of their streets and squares, the roofs and walls of their houses, their boulevards and parks seem to be permeated with a special atmosphere and a reverent hush. Even an ordinary yellowed autumn leaf, swirling by the will of the wind across the pavement, feels like it could be a crunchy parchment fallen from the folds of an ancient manuscript.
It feels like the scientific and spiritual knowledge of the past, has cemented itself into the very fundaments of the cities’ masonry for eternity. Along with the letters and figures, formulas and lines of scholarly treatises, the thoughts, feelings and hopes of those who decided to learn the sciences and search for truth here, it hovers in the air and resists the pressure of the new age, an age that has brought tinsel, idleness, crowds of tourists, vanity and multi-story shopping centers to these grand seats of learning.
Freiburg, in the south of Germany, is the fourth largest city of Baden-Württemberg. Set in the very heart of enlightened Europe, between the woods of the fabulous Black Forest and the Rhine Valley, it is close to Switzerland — just 50 kilometers from Basel, and only 15 kilometers from the border with France.
The city is almost 900 years old, and the university has been in existence here for 560 of those years. During its long life Freiburg, which also experienced French and Austrian rule, has seen everything: good and bad rulers, exiles and conquerors, great minds – scientists, philosophers and poets. Thanks to the university, in the Renaissance the city was known as the center of humanism.
In the First and Second world wars, Freiburg suffered extensive damage. The bombings by the Luftwaffe in 1940 and the British Royal Air Force in 1944 brought terrible losses to the city. Yes, that’s right, you read that correctly – the Luftwaffe. There is convincing evidence that on May 10, 1940, German military aircraft bombarded the German city with the goal of shifting blame to the French, declaring that Holland and Belgium (the airfields of which were used by the French air force) violated the neutrality, and thereby justifying a swift military invasion of their territory. But let’s move on from these dark pages of history.
Today Freiburg is alive and beautiful. It has been reconstructed, and its old buildings, mosaic pavements, streets, squares and fountains, architectural ensembles where gothic and neo-Gothic, Renaissance and historicism are united have been restored. As in any European city, there is a medieval center with a town hall, a market square near the cathedral, a picturesque artisans’ quarter, the gates of the old city. It also has a university, museums, theaters and galleries.
Ghosts of the past
If you stroll at a leisurely pace around Freiburg, from the door of the Whale House (Haus zum Walfisch), on Kartoffelmarkt square, you might glimpse a man in a cloak with wide sleeves emerging with a spring in his step. On his head he’s wearing a Dutch beret. He’s utterly absorbed in his own thoughts and hurries off to an evening sermon in the church. This is the theologian, thinker, humanist, writer and wit Erasmus of Rotterdam. He lived here and taught at the university in the 15th century.
Passing the Town Hall Square and the galleries of the Franciscan Monastery of St. Martin, don’t be surprised at the sudden smell of smoke and the sound of soft claps coming from the monastery windows, in which a man in a cassock suddenly appears with a mortar and pestle in his hand. This is the monk Berthold Schwarz, the European inventor of gunpowder, who conducted experiments here in the middle of the 13th century.
Having reached the old city's Swabian Gate (Schwabentor) with a tower, the wall of which is decorated with the image of St. George fighting a dragon, if you are lucky, you will notice the figures of girls holding hands – one higher, the other slightly lower. This is where the young ladies Marina and Anastasia Tsvetaeva used to walk at the very beginning of the 20th century, when they lived and studied in Freiburg in the boarding school run by the Brink sisters.
And when you are in the University quarter, near the old university building, you can meet the young Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov in person, who is in excellent spirits and mumbling under his breath some stanzas from the future "Ode to Victory Over the Turks". The Russian genius and polymath studied in the Freiburg Mining Academy under Johann Friedrich Henkel. Lomonosov was tall, he possessed remarkable strength and was distinguished by an abrupt, somewhat unbridled disposition, was quite fond of drinking and stirring up scientific arguments. In short, he left a lasting impression on the German professors.
In the here and now
The atmosphere and mood of the city are ideal for a weekend trip. Among the best hotels for a short stay is the five-star Colombi Hotel with its Michelin-starred restaurant Zirbelstube. It is located in the heart of Freiburg and within a ten-minute walk to most of the sights. There are many wonderful little places serving German cuisine in the city, but all the same it’s worth heading up to Schlossbergrestaurant Dattler, on the Schlossberg mountain. After a five-minute jaunt by cable car you’ll find yourself in a restaurant with a marvelous atmosphere, delicious food, wonderful local wines and a breathtaking bird’s eye view of the city.
Lying in wait for those willing to explore outside the confines of the city is the countryside around Freiburg with its picturesque towns, marvelous scenes of the Black Forest, vineyards, wineries and old cellars where you can taste the local Silvaner, white Grauburgunders and Weissburgunders and of course the red Spätburgunder. And those who want to combine some health with their relaxation may well wish to take advantage of the opportunity to undergo an examination at the famous University Medical Center Freiburg, one of the three largest in Germany.
The Cathedral of Our Lady
You won’t regret a single minute spent in this man-made miracle. You can literally feel the greatness of the cathedral, whose construction took more than three hundred years. It has absorbed the Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles and in spite of everything survived the 20th century. While its walls and sculptures of light sandstone have blackened with age, the stained-glass windows still fill the interior with color, and the spire of the main 116-meter-tall tower still looks to the sky.
Text: Maxim Kornevoy