Bayreuth: Composer Wagner would be proud of his town’s many attractions
Northern Bavarian town offers palace, opera and thermal spa
By GAYLE S. PADGETT | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 6, 2009
German composer Richard Wagner once declared: "Come to Bayreuth for my awesome operas, the most excellent Opera House, the totally cool Hermitage grounds, the hip New Palace and then chill at the Lohengrin Thermal Spa."
OK, maybe those weren’t his exact words. But if the 19th-century composer were around today, I’m sure he’d agree with them because any of these attractions would make a trip to this German city worthwhile.
I recently accompanied my husband on a business trip to the northern Bavarian town, about 45 minutes from Grafenwöhr. I hadn’t been to Bayreuth in more than 10 years and was pleased to find it had become even more inviting. On this spring visit, the imposing buildings along the cobbled streets in the pedestrian zone sparkled after a light shower, the cafes were bustling with business, and office workers strode through the lush cityscape, seemingly oblivious to the world-class attractions in their midst.
The most famous attraction is the annual Bayreuther Festspiele, or Bayreuth Festival in English, which attracts hordes of opera aficionados from around the globe. The 2009 season began July 25 and continues through Aug. 28. As usual, it includes only Richard Wagner productions and sells out years in advance.
The festival is a hot item among Europeans (particularly the French) and Japanese, who easily outnumber Americans. So when I asked Stefanie Ritter of the tourist information center whether it was possible to get a ticket and she replied "Yes," my ears pricked up.
"First," she continued, "you wait six or eight years and then.…"
I laughed out loud and Ritter looked puzzled. I explained I meant for this summer. Now she was laughing.
Later I discovered there is another way — the return ticket. The hitch is, according to the festival ticket office, "You must camp out by the ticket office overnight" to get one. Not being camping material, that option was definitely out. Wagner was just going to have to wait.
Not to worry though, there are plenty of other reasons to visit Bayreuth, such as the phenomenal Margrave Opera House.
The day of my visit, I discovered a neatly typed notice on the front door: "Closed for testing." While I snapped photos from across the way, I noticed a small group gathering in front. Then the door opened and a woman stepped inside. I hurried over to investigate.
When the woman emerged, she held the door open and the small group filed in. I stepped up and asked whether I could join them. The leader, who turned out to be an official city tour guide, paused at length and then tilted her head toward the inside. I scampered in.
The theater was completely dark, except for some lights on Grecian pillars on stage. The pillars faded from purple to blue to green and so on through the color spectrum. I was hoping for more than pretty pillars. The guide whispered to a technician, and suddenly the theater flooded with light. All heads tilted skyward as everyone gasped; the extravagant rococo décor is breathtaking.
The extraordinarily preserved opera house, completed in 1748, was constructed under the direction of Margrave Friedrich von Brandenburg-Bayreuth and his wife, Wilhelmine. Pretty much everything in the auditorium is curvy, shiny and golden. A highlight is the central loge (first family seating), accessed by gilded stairs that sweep up from either side, with angel statues hovering overhead, along with the ornate coat of arms.
Another of Bayreuth’s star structures is the Neu Schloss (New Palace), also commissioned by Friedrich and Wilhelmine. The somber exterior of the grand structure, built in 1753, belies the fanciful interior. The walls
the fanciful interior. The walls of the walnut-paneled banquet room, for example, are lined with flat-trunked palm trees, their golden fronds curving into the ceiling.
About three miles from central Bayreuth is the Hermitage, a complex of buildings and gardens built by Friedrich’s father and greatly enhanced by Wilhelmine. It includes the stunning U-shaped Sun Temple, its facade covered with thousands of small stones like a mosaic. The Sun Temple has a beautifully landscaped courtyard with a large pool and numerous fountains, and extensive shady arbors nearby.
Elsewhere on the heavily wooded grounds are the Court Garden — an early version of the English-landscaped garden — grottoes and a delightful waterworks that comes to life periodically throughout the day.
After strolling around the Hermitage grounds, you’ll be ready for a break. Nearby is the Lohengrin Thermal Spa, which has a huge indoor pool, an oversized whirlpool, a looping serpentine current pool with strong jets that swiftly propel you along, and an outdoor pool. In addition, the spa offers a list of luxurious wellness treatments, including the chocolate-based "Sweet Relish Without Remorse," the mud-based "Oriental Rasul Bath" and the "Kaiser Bath," involving a golden tub for two, candle light and champagne.
Remember to take two towels (one for the sauna, the other for the shower), bath shoes, a light robe and a bathing suit for the pool areas. In the sauna area, the dress code requires your "birthday suit": To the point, the English-language brochure states, "The sauna is a naked area."
Then, before you head back to the real world, take time to relax in the peaceful outdoor pool area. If your timing is good, you might snag one of the wicker hut-like chairs for two with pull-out cushioned drawers for your feet. After a day of sightseeing and a muscle-fatiguing stint in the spa, you will really appreciate the final pampering.
Gayle Padgett lives in Heidelberg, Germany.