East of Strasbourg are the pleasant green regions of Swabia and Anspach, where if it were not for the occasional vineyard on a pudding-bowl hill, you might almost think you were looking at the English countryside. The fields are irregular, cows sit in the meadows, the houses are pointy and the hedgerows are full of large trees. Strasbourg is close to Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Munich, but if you choose the lesser-known town of Ulm, you will have the pleasure of seeing one of the very few cathedral spires anywhere that is even taller than Strasbourg’s. That is because Ulm, which is about two hours train ride from Strasbourg, boasts the world’s tallest church spire.
There are two miracles about the cathedral at Ulm, firstly that it was built at all, and secondly that it survived World War II. Of course Germany has done a wonderful job reconstructing many of its historic buildings (including the churches and castle at Nuremburg) but here in Ulm after the bombs destroyed much of the ancient city centre, this soaring Gothic creation remained standing, with its three fantastically ornate spires, statues, friezes, paintings and wood carvings. The tallest spire is a staggering 161 metres high, and if you have a head for heights you can go up it and enjoy the view all the way to the Alps and to Germany’s highest peak, the Zugspitze.
The cathedral is still in many ways at the centre of Ulm life. There are excellent concerts going on there all the time – midday organ recitals and chamber concerts by distinguished artists. The cathedral has an exquisite Lady Chapel which makes an ideal setting for intimate recitals. It also has some extraordinary wooden statues of the Sibyls of antiquity, in the chancel. The cathedral square is used for markets and bustles with life. The town is colourful, picturesque and filled with flowers.
EARLY FEMINISTS OF ULM
Another building that luckily survived is the cheerfully painted Rathaus (Town Hall), with its marvellous Renaissance astronomical clock on the facade. It tells you the day, the month, the hour, the minute, and the phases of the moon. The ground floor of this building is now an excellent restaurant, where you can get traditional wine and food. I had the mega-sausage with lentils and tiny pasta shapes, very tasty indeed. Another good place to eat in the Brauhaus Drei Kannen. This old brew-house whose name means the Three Tankards, has a sheltered courtyard where they serve many local specialities. I enjoyed their “maultaschen”, large pasta parcels filled with a savoury mixture of meat and vegetables, traditionally eaten on Thursdays.
From the Town Hall, it is a short walk down to the old Fishermen’s quarter, where many old timber-framed houses survive, with their high triangular roofs and heavy oak beams.
There are small canals and leaning over one of them is the Scheifes Haus, the official wonkiest house in the world. A plaque on a wall commemorates how the women of Ulm in the 14th century fought for their right to work as butchers, and eventually won, overcoming a guild ban. When you come to the waterside, it is hard to believe that this tame and gently flowing green river is the mighty Danube. Locals swim in it and hold canoe races, yet this same stream flows all the way to Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and the Black Sea, growing all the time.
ART AND FESTIVALS
Ulm has a prestigious modern art gallery, housed inside the Ulmer Museum, which includes the Kurt Fried Collection. There is also the very significant Siegfried Weishaupt collection in its own gallery which opened in 2008. Like all German cities, Ulm holds an unending sequence of festivals around the year. In June they hold a special Tag der Rose (Day of the Rose). In July there is the Folk Festival and the Danube Festival, and in the second half of August there is the Ulm Wine Festival. The celebrations of the grape harvest are exuberant and people dress up in traditional costume, men in leather shorts, women in dirndl skirts with low-cut blouses. There are many outstanding wines of this region and do remember that when you order a glass is it is about half a pint. The Ulm Christmas Market is held from 24th November until 22nd December and it is spectacular.
From Ulm you can get back to England in one day’s leisurely train travel. Take the 7.43 from Ulm to Paris (yes, it is a direct, non-stop service) arriving at Gare de l’Est at 12.35. The next Eurostar leaves Gare du Nord at 13.13 and arrives in London at 14.39 UK time but if you would rather linger in Paris just long enough for a Gallic lunch of moules-frites in some nearby brasserie, you can do so and take the 14.43 Eurostar arriving in London two hours later at 16.00. This is in fact five o-clock French time but it is still astonishing that you got up in Germany and have arrived in London by tea-time… by train!
Recent posts in Europe