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Fulda (pronounced 'Foolda') lies in the geographical centre of Germany. This has not always been the case. This remark must puzzle the readers who know nothing about Germany's recent history. How can a town move? A town can't, but borders can. Before WW2, when Germany included Pomerania (now Polish), Silesia (now Czech) and East Prussia (now Russian), Fulda was located west of the centre. After the war, when Germany was divided into different zones by the allies, it moved to the very east of West Germany. The inner German border between West Germany and the GDR (German Democratic Republic) which was also the infamous Iron Curtain ran only 30 km east of Fulda. This ended in 1989, and Fulda finally moved into the centre. Got it?
I had always known about the existence of Fulda but had never visited. Last year in June when I had to traverse Germany from south to north, I decided to interrupt the long journey and put in an overnight stay in Fulda to have a look-see.
I arrived in the afternoon, got a taxi to the nice Hotel am Dom I had found on the net and after unpacking went for a short stroll. I had planned to do the real sightseeing the following morning and to depart again in the afternoon. The first surprise was the size of the town. Considering the public awareness of the town I was surprised by its tininess. In fact, it's only as big as the town in the south of Germany where I live and which hardly anybody knows outside the immediate surroundings. It has a bit more than 64.000 inhabitants. There's a long list of towns with as many inhabitants which are also unknown to people who have no personal relation to them. What is it then that makes it so well known? It's Catholicism and Baroque. Not being a Catholic I didn't know that Fulda was the centre of German Catholicism and that every year tens of thousands of pilgrims flock there to celebrate St Boniface, the Apostle of the Germans. To be honest, I didn't even know that the Germans had an Apostle. It's also the place where all German bishops meet regularly.
Fulda has no tourist information office in or near the station. It's one of those towns where you find it only when you've already passed all the sights without knowing anything about them. It's on Bonifatiusplatz 1 in the Palais Buttlar. In wise foresight I had written to the Tourist Information and they had sent me some brochures. But I don't think that people would have problems finding their way around. The landmark is the St Salvator Cathedral which is a bit elevated and therefore good for orientation. What I noticed at once was that Fulda is not a town for the handicapped who move with the help of crutches or wheel chairs. Even pushing a pram must be exhausting. Cobblestones everywhere! Nice to look at if quaint places are what you like but certainly torture if you live there.
As it were, I saw all sights from the outside on my first stroll. I left going inside and looking at them in detail for the following day. Had I arrived early in the morning, I could have done everything in some hours. I rested my tired feet in the Ristorante Pizzeria La Romantica on the main road which has tables outside. On the other side of the street there's another restaurant also with tables outside. Nobody remembers when it started, but now Germans sit and consume outside cafés and restaurants at all times and in all kinds of weather. Well, there are worse pastimes, aren't there?
The overall aspect of Fulda is pretty. It wasn't heavily bombarded during the war, so what we see is the real thing and not rebuilt Romanesque, Gothic or Baroque architecture only half a century old. I found the people friendly and helpful. A woman told me that living in the middle of the country they were a mixture of the positive characteristics of Germans from the north and those from the south. I have no reason to complain, so it's possibly true. I asked a woman what it was like for a Protestant to live in such an arch Catholic town. She laughed and said that things were getting better thusly implying that they used to be not so good. Now, it's important to mention that I'm not writing about Northern Ireland. Since the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century there have never been open troubles between Catholics and Protestants in Germany. I guess that nowadays religious differences show themselves mostly in nepotism based on religious denominations and the looking down of noses if someone doesn't come from 'the same stable'.
The main street with pretty small shops, cafés and restaurants leads directly to the Cathedral. The first thing I noticed when I approached it where workers dismantling grandstands. The taxi driver had already told me that Amy MacDonald had given a concert in front of the Cathedral the day before for 3.500 fans. I'm sure she doesn't always sing in such a setting!
The Cathedral was built in the early 18th century when the Baroque style was en vogue. Time must pass quickly during a boring sermon, there's a lot to see inside, squiggly ornaments and gold everywhere. But it looks good due to the white walls against which the treasures are set. The crypt is the burial place of St Boniface. As I knew nothing about him, I went down to learn something. While I was reading the leaflet lying there for interested visitors, a woman came up to me and told me in a whisper that the plate covering the sarcophagus had cracked when one of the few bombs fell on the town. I have no idea why she thought I wanted to know this, but it showed me that she cared for the saint. I found that remarkable considering that he died in the year 754 (!).
Boniface was born as Wynfryth in the Kingdom of Wessex. He was a missionary propagating Christianity in the Frankish Empire during the 8th century. He was filled with missionary zealousness and in 716 set out to convert the Frisians in the north of Germany. Yet they didn't want to be converted and he returned to England. After two years he started anew but this time more in the south, mainly in Thuringia. He became Archbishop, travelled several times to Rome and founded the Abbey in Fulda. When he was nearly 80 years old, he had the not so brilliant idea to try again to convert the Frisians. They still preferred to remain heathens and murdered him and 52 of his mates. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one looking critically at missionary work. Wikipedia writes, "He is regarded as a unifier of Europe, and he is seen as a German national figure. However, there is some modern criticism of his role in the elimination of pre-Christian religious traditions of the era."
I don't intend to take you to all the churches in Fulda, but I'd like to point out the tiny St Michael's church near the Cathedral. It dates back to between 819 and 822. It has a crypt from the Carolingian period and is one of the most significant medieval church buildings in Germany. The contrast to the Cathedral couldn't be bigger. No shiny decorations here, this church impresses with plainness and simplicity.
Out of the church and across the street we come to the well kept Residence Gardens with the pretty building of the Orangery and the 6.8 m high (baroque, of course!) Flora Vase. I noticed that the colours of the flowers in the flower beds were rather subdued, white, off-white, light pink and light blue which gave the garden an elegant aura. Walking a bit deeper into the park one comes to a big picture frame standing freely on a lawn. Everybody looks through it! The sculpted landscape garden seems to be a picture, it becomes even more artful in this way, a nice idea.
It's possible to visit the Residence but I refrained. If you've never been inside a baroque castle, you have to go, no apology can be accepted. But I've already seen lots and was afraid of a baroque overkill. Opposite the entrance of the Residence on the Bonifatiusplatz (Platz = square) stands an enormous statue of Boniface holding an enormous cross in his raised right hand. I had enough of Boniface then - may he rest in peace - and decided to walk to the old quarter of Fulda which is at the other end of the main street. The streets are narrow and crooked there, many buildings half-timbered. Lots of shops and restaurants invite you to spend your money.
As it was beginning to rain, I decided to say Good Bye to Fulda. I know that there's a lot more to see. Several museums sound worth a visit. Maybe I'll pop in again. Next year I'll be travelling to the north of Germany another time. So, who knows?