A small city with a world class symphony orchestra. That sparse description makes Bamberg unique, but a visit to the UNESCO-listed city reveals a place full of surprises, a place where you feel that history is not some remote entity divorced from the present, but a natural part of existence. Bamberg's peculiarities of history and geography have made it a connection point between old and new, town and country, ecclesiastical and secular. You can walk through cobbled courtyards amongst buildings whose timbers are intact since the middle ages – one square has pillars filled with nails hammered into them by medieval blacksmiths, another is the site of a baroque palace, a third contains a decidedly modern gun shop, a fourth is an elegant rose garden.

Bamberger Dom at dawn © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Bamberger Dom at dawn
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

At its origin, Bamberg was a border town. It became a cathedral city in 1012 when the Bamberger Dom was built by Henry, King of Germany and Italy, with the intention of consolidating the rule of the Holy Roman Empire in the face of the Slavs. The city is built on seven hills – Henry undoubtedly enjoyed the comparison with Rome – and one of the earliest of all medieval landscape paintings, dating from 1483, can be seen in the Historical Museum of Bamberg, showing the apostles in front of the three great churches on the west bank of the river Regnitz (the Dom, the Parish Church and the Michaelsberg Abbey). Those three churches dominate the skyline to this day.

The apostles in front of Bamberg: 1483 landscape © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
The apostles in front of Bamberg: 1483 landscape
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

Henry became the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II shortly afterwards; he and his wife Kunigunde were childless and bequeathed a substantial fortune to the new diocese. Their tomb, richly carved with scenes from their life, can be seen in the Dom, close to its other great treasure, the Bamberg Horseman (thought to be the earliest full size equestrian statue in medieval Europe).

The “prince-bishops” became wealthy and powerful, with the tangible result of a city split into three by the two arms of the Reignitz: to the west, the ecclesiastical area controlled by the prince-bishops; in the middle, the area of the bourgeoisie with its markets; to the east, the Gärtnerviertel, the farming quarter within the city walls, famed for onions, liquorice root and its distinctive “hörnla” potatoes. On an island in mid-river, at the boundary between bishops and bourgeoisie, is the city’s most iconic building, the Altes Rathaus.

Altes Rathaus © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Altes Rathaus
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

Many of Europe’s medieval cities have been ravaged by war. Where a city centre has retained its original buildings, it has typically been turned into a full-on tourist site, verging on a medieval theme park at the centre of a modern city. Bamberg has escaped both these fates: just 5% of its buildings were destroyed in World War 2, and the remainder form part of a living, breathing, modern city – albeit a small one, with a population of 75,000 in the city itself and the same number again in the “Landkreis”, its surrounding circle of towns and villages. Far from being merely a vehicle for gift shops and tourist attractions, the old buildings are lived in by normal residents.

The Bamberg Horseman © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
The Bamberg Horseman
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

In part, the city survived World War 2 relatively unscathed because it wasn’t a strategically important industrial centre. That’s changed now, with the arrival of the automotive industry. Robert Bosch, suppliers of spark plugs and fuel injection systems to the world’s carmakers, have a huge facility here; tyre makers Michelin likewise. Also there are Brose, a less familiar name but a company whose electric motors probably power your car’s windows, seats or mirrors. These industries are attracted by the city’s university (which counts some 14,000 students) and its sheer quality of life: it’s considered a first choice of posting by Bosch employees of family-raising age.

With a well reputed university and this level of high technology industry, the education levels of Bamberg’s population are well above the average, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why the Bamberg Symphony has 6,000 subscribers, a percentage of the population to make other orchestras green with envy. The 1993 Concert Hall provides an attractive interior, comfortable seats and a crystalline acoustic to 1,400 people; the orchestra are only there for fifty or so concerts in a season, spending much of their time touring both in Germany and overseas.

The orchestra was founded in 1946 by German musicians displaced from Prague during World War 2. The Bohemian influence is readily audible in the warmth and lilt of the orchestral sound, and the Czech connections were reinforced in 2015 with the appointment of Brno-born Jakub Hrůša as the orchestra’s Chief Conductor. Their current recording project, pairing Dvořák and Brahms symphonies, shows the connections clearly, but the orchestra has spread its wings in the last decade or two, augmenting its core Romantic repertoire with music stretching from Baroque and classical to Mahler and contemporary pieces.

Fishermen's houses in Little Venice © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Fishermen's houses in Little Venice
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

With the advent of the Rhine-Main-Danube canal, first built in the 19th century, with a more economic version completed in 1992, it has become possible to navigate a boat all the way from the North Sea at Rotterdam past Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade and Bucharest to the Black Sea. Bamberg is at the junction of the Main and the canal, which today makes it a popular stopping point for river cruises. But the city has owed its importance to its river for a long time: as well as bringing goods in, the waterways were able to bring the rich produce of the area to market, and you can see the river's importance in the "Little Venice" area of the city, where one bank of the Reignitz is lined with pretty fishermen's houses.

Bamberg is, approximately speaking, on the border between the beer-lovers of Bavaria and the wine growers of Franconia: both are available in quantity and quality at the city’s various restaurants and bars, but beer predominates as an export of the immediate vicinity, with ten breweries in the city (beerhunters looking for the unusual should try the smoked Rauchbier: the Schlenkerla brewery is a notable building in the old town centre). Lovers of stout will be surprised to know that the region is a significant supplier of malt to Guinness. (In spite of the proponderance of beer as an export, by the way, Bambergers tend to consider themselves Franconian first and Bavarian second, so there's plenty of wine around).

Bamberg Concert Hall © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Bamberg Concert Hall
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

You won't go hungry here either: food is plentiful, fresh and seasonal – we visited in autumn when venison, pumpkin and mushrooms were the order of the day. The Fürstbischof von Erthal restaurant in the Hotel Residenzschloss won the prize for best venison, but the best restaurant view (as well as good food) was definitely from Eckerts, situated literally in mid-river. Thoughts of autumn chill were dispelled by the warmth of excellent coffee at Café Hörnla; a few metres away, the Café am Dom served memorably good patisserie.

In itself, the experience of going to a world class orchestra in a world class concert hall makes Bamberg worth the visit. But as you walk around here, that experience is enhanced by the understanding that this is a city that has been and is loved. It was loved by Henry II and Kunigunde, who chose both to be buried here and to bequeath the city a substantial chunk of their wealth. It was loved in the Baroque era, something which sees the light today in the numerous antique dealers who attract visitors from much of Southern Germany. And it is loved passionately by its residents today, as well as bewitching imports like Jakub Hrůša. It’s a city that suggests that life can be both modern and the product of a kinder, gentler age.

Detail from tomb of Henry II and Kunigunde © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Detail from tomb of Henry II and Kunigunde
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

This article was sponsored by the Bamberg Symphony