The pretty town of Coburg, like many others in Germany, offers picturesque medieval buildings, a charming town square and cosy cafés to while away a weekend. But Coburg’s palaces and castles tell another tale, of an ambitious noble family that spread its influence by marriage through most of the royal courts of Europe.
The town is best known as the birthplace of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who grew up at Schloss Rosenau just outside Coburg. The royal couple visited several times before Albert’s untimely death in 1861 and Queen Victoria always had a great affection for Rosenau, writing; “Were I not what I am, this would be my real home.” Victoria and Albert were first cousins and their uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, arranged numerous advantageous matches for his nieces and nephews around the royal courts of Europe. Small wonder then, that the town of Coburg has hosted so many royal and other notable visitors over the centuries.
The charming medieval streets of Coburg
When Guy and I visited Coburg in December, we started our town walk at the Martktplatz, the central town square that’s surrounded by pictureque medieval buildings. On one side is the town hall with a statue of the town’s patron, St Maurice standing on the gables. I’ll tell you his story in a moment, but you’ll spot that he’s holding the baton of a Roman marshal, although the people of Coburg say that his stick is to measure the correct size of their famous sausage. On the opposite side of the square is the Stadhaus, built by Duke Johann Casamir in the 1600s as the administrative centre for the Dukes of Coburg. It’s just that bit bigger and grander than the town hall with statues above the gables and prominent oriel windows on the corners – the Duke wanted everyone to know who was in charge around here!
Spreading out from Martkplatz, are narrow streets with many beautiful old buildings. As we wandered around we noticed the old pharmacy on the square with a symbol of the ostrich, which dates back to the 14th century and is still a pharmacy today. Near our hotel was one of the three gates around the town, that are all that remain of the inner and outer walls that once surrounded Coburg. The town walls were largely demolished in the 18th century when they were no longer required for protection and were falling into disrepair.
Nearby Albertplatz is a charming open space where we watched some ice carving and street performers as part of the Advent festivities. The houses that originally stood here were demolished to make way for the statue of Prince Albert that Queen Victoria commissioned after his death. The Queen, however, decided that there was no way her beloved Albert was to be sidelined to the second square of Coburg and so the statue was repositioned to the prime spot at the centre of Marktplatz.
The Queen unveiled Albert’s statue herself in 1865, one of six visits she made to Coburg, the place that held so many happy memories and family connections for her. While we were visiting, the Christmas market was in full swing, so Prince Albert’s statue was enclosed by a canopy to stand under and drink our Glühwein – would Queen Victoria have approved I wondered?
St Maurice in Coburg
All around the town you might notice a moor’s head on mountains, public buildings and even man-hole covers. He’s St Maurice, patron saint of the city of Coburg as well as many other towns, who was adopted by the rulers of Coburg, to appear on their coats of arms from the Middle Ages. St Maurice was the leader of a Roman Legion and originally from Thebes in Egypt, hence North African rather than the negroid appearance he is normally given.
As a Christian, he was martyred after refusing to worship Roman Gods while on campaign in what is now Switzerland – the town of St Moriz where he died was also named after him. Around 1100 the German Emperor decided to move St Maurice’s remains to his new cathedral at Magdeburg and the procession passed through Coburg, giving rise to a cult of the saint in the town. His image appears in numerous places and coats of arms to this day, adopted by the Dukes of Coburg who were always on the look-out for something to add to their prestige.
Martin Luther in Coburg
Another notable visitor to Coburg was Martin Luther, the great reformer who spent 6 months in Coburg in the safety of the Veste fortress in 1530. This year will mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the protestant reformation, when Luther nailed his theses to the church door of Wittenberg in 1517. While his patron Elector Johann Friederich and a party of nobles continued to the diet of Ausburg to meet with the Emperor, Luther studied, worked on translations of the Bible and was in constant touch by letter with the events at Ausburg.
Among the many interesting things to see in Veste Coburg are the rooms where Luther is said to have spent his time, with his portrait hanging on the wall. Since Luther had been both outlawed and excommunicated, he was supposed to stay incognito, and referred to the fortress in his letters as ‘the realm of the jackdaws” after the birds that squawked outside his window. An adjoining room was created to commemorate Luther in 1844 by Duke Ernst II of Saxony-Coburg and Gotha, which contains other paintings of Luther and the beautiful Hedwig Tumbler.
This coloured drinking glass from the 12th century was given as a gift to Luther and was said to have originally belonged to Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia and have healing powers. Apparently it was in great demand by pregnant women, since a drink from the tumbler was said to bring the blessings of the saint for a safe birth.
A walk up the hill to Veste Coburg
From the town of Coburg, we enjoyed a lovely walk up the hill through the Hofgarten park to the fortress that overlooks the town. The Veste Coburg overlooks the surrounding countryside, with thick walls, ramparts and towers and was the residence of the Princes of Saxe-Coburg until they moved to the Ehrenburg Palace in the town in the 16th century. We spent a fascinating few hours looking around the different parts of the castle, some medieval, some more modern since this was also the home of Duke Carl Eduard of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha from 1910 who installed the modern comforts of bathrooms and electricity.
The castle is now a museum containing all the art collections and treasures of the Saxe-Coburg family with everything from Venetian glass, carriages and suits of armour, to a fine collection of medieval religious paintings. You can walk the ramparts and peer down on Coburg and the surrounding countryside just like the soldiers of past centuries – if you don’t want to go in the museum, access to the courtyards and ramparts is free. Within the walls there’s also the Burgschenke Inn, which is perfect for a slice of apple strudel or a hearty Sunday lunch, after your brisk walk up the hill!
Coburg may be a modest sized town, but it has another large palace in addition to Veste Coburg. Ehrenburg Palace was built from 1543 on the site of an abandoned Franciscan monastery, when Duke Johann Ernst decided that it would be more convenient to live in town than in the fortress up on the hill. The palace was inspired by the fashionable renaissance palazzos of Italy and was rebuilt in baroque style after a fire in the 17th century and further improved by Duke Ernst I, father of Prince Albert.
The lavish state apartments are painted in the fashionably bright colours of the 18th century, filled with portraits of the Coburg Dukes, the ceilings covered with ornate plasterwork and dripping with chandeliers. With relations in most of the royal courts of Europe, the Coburgs needed a place they could entertain in style such as the ornately decorated ‘Hall of Giants’ that hosted a meeting between Queen Victoria and Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph in 1864.
Around Coburg – the castles of Rosenau and Callenberg
Just outside Coburg we visited Schloss Rosenau, the birthplace of Prince Albert and a favourite with Queen Victoria. The castle is set on a hill, surrounded by parkland and despite the colourful interiors, beautiful paintings and Biedermeier furniture, we felt the romance and human scale of Rosenau. It was used as a summer residence by Duke Ernst I, father of Prince Albert and after he married Victoria, she ordered paintings of the castle and interiors to remind the homesick Albert of his birthplace.
The original paintings are in Windsor castle but copies were used more recently to restore the castle to its 19th century appearance, when it was renovated by Ernst I in romantic medieval style. There’s a point on the castle drive known as the Queen’s view, where the Queen would stop her carriage to have one last nostalgic look up at the castle on the hill, before driving back to Coburg.
Also a 15 minute drive from the town is Schloss Callenberg, which is the residence of Prince Andreas, the head of the house of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The rooms are decorated with beautiful paintings and there’s an unusual shooting museum here as well as rooms dedicated to portraits and memorabilia of Victoria and Albert and their large family.
Also worth a visit is the small town of Seßlach, which we visited for the Christmas market held at the beginning of Advent. It’s a pretty small town, full of picturesque half timbered houses, with cafes, inns and craft shops, a great place to stop for lunch and a wander round if you’re visiting Coburg for the weekend or driving through the region.
Where to eat in Coburg
The people of Coburg are extremely proud of their Coburg Bratwurst, a long, thin, sausage that’s traditionally cooked over a wood fire of pine cones and served in a crisp white roll. It’s made with a mixture of beef and pork, with a smoky flavour from the fire which needs only a squirt of mustard for the authentic Coburg taste. You’ll find a van selling the Coburger on Marktplatz all year round, since the local butchers take turns to have a stall there.
Our favourite place to eat was Restaurant 1627 which provides a light and healthy alternative to some of the ‘meat and dumplings’ dishes that are a foundation of German cuisine. It’s named after the year that the house was built to supply the Ehrenberg Palace just across the road and is part bar, part restaurant. The menu is short with just a few main course, vegetarian and desert options – my pan fried fish with salad and baguette on the side was delicious with a house cocktail.
If you want something more hearty and traditional, we also tried the roast pork and Coburg dumplings, washed down with local beer, at Brauhaus du Coburg. It serves the equivalent of pub fare and is tucked down a lane just off Marktplatz with a brewery next door where you can admire the copper stills through the window. This is the place to try the Coburg dumpling, which is made of raw and cooked potato and is very soft – like a ball of mashed potato that collapses with a sigh onto your plate.
Of course, when you need a break from the sightseeing, a stop for kaffee und kuchen is a must, to cosy up in winter or watch the world pass by in summer. We liked the style of Queens Café on Albertsplatz with a wide selection of delicious cakes and light dishes – in summer it has plenty of outdoor seating on the square. We also stopped at Feyler, which has a café and impressive selection of cakes and chocolates, including seasonal biscuits like the Coburger Schmätzchen which are sold at Christmas.
Delicious Souvenirs to bring home from Coburg
These days I prefer to bring back delicious edible souvenirs from my travels, rather than ornaments that will end up gathering dust on the shelf. We stopped at the Chocolate Coburg shop (Ketschengasse 9), to stock up on my favourite marzipan chocolates and at Feyler (Rosengasse 6-8) for those spicy German biscuits which vary with the season and the locality, since every region has their own variation. In winter you should look out for the Nurenberger Lebkuchen and the Coburger Schmätzchen which come plain or covered in chocolate flecked with gold leaf.
At the Coburger Bratwurst stall in Marktplatz you’ll also find that they sell the cooked sausages in vacuum packs which you can easily pack in your luggage, so that you can savour the smoky flavour at home. We also enjoyed browsing the postcards and stationary at Veste-Verlag Roßteutscher (Steingasse 16) opposite the Ehrenberg palace, where we bought a gorgeous advent calendar with snow sprinkled local scenes.
Plan your Visit to Coburg
For more information about what there is to see and do in Coburg, visit the Coburg Tourism website and follow them on their social media channels: Facebook and Twitter. You can also find information to plan your holidays in Germany at the Germany Tourism Website.
From the UK you can reach Coburg via Nuremberg airport (1 hr 15 min drive), Frankfurt (2 hrs 50 mins drive) or Munich (2 hrs 50 mins drive) and we recommend hiring a car, which will enable you to easily visit all the castles and places of interest around Coburg.
We flew from Bristol to Frankfurt with bmi regional who fly up to three times daily between Bristol and Frankfurt. One way fares cost from £93 and as with all bmi flights, include a generous 23kg of hold luggage, a complimentary in-flight drink and breakfast snack, allocated seating and a speedy 30 minute check-in.
Where to stay in Coburg
We stayed at Hotel Villa Victoria in Coburg (so many things are named for Victoria and Albert), which was the perfect place to spend a few days while exploring the town and the castles nearby. The accommodation is in a very pretty turn of the century villa, just outside the old town walls, with convenient parking outside for our hire car (although the spaces quickly filled up). In the villa are 12 rooms and ours was a most delightful suite with adjoining sitting room and view of the city gatehouse.
The house had been beautifully renovated and we had the use of a guest sitting room on the same floor, with a tea and coffee station on the landing. We especially enjoyed breakfast in the charmingly furnished ground floor room, with pretty floral china and lace tablecloths. Across the road is a more modern residence, and guests staying there can also have breakfast in the villa, but I would check when you book that you can have a room in the older house if possible.
Despite the name, you should be aware that Hotel Villa Victoria is more of a guest house than a hotel; for instance when we arrived mid afternoon there was no-one manning the reception and we had to call the owner who gave us instructions on how to find our key. When staying here be sure to let the owners know at what time you will be arriving and make arrangements accordingly.
Thanks to German National Tourist Board who hosted my visit to Coburg and to BMI Regional who covered my flight via Frankfurt.