Mainfranken: Hearty food and excellent wine
September 22, 2005
Of Germany’s rivers, the Rhine, with its wines, is probably the best known to Americans.
But it is not the only river that weaves its way through vineyard-filled hills. To the west, there is the Moselle, and to the east, the Main.
A stretch of the Main runs through the Franconia region of Bavaria. Known as Mainfranken — “Franken” is German for Franconia — it is an area of rolling hills, attractive walled towns, hearty food and excellent wines.
On a recent late summer day, we traveled through the heart of Mainfranken, a rough triangle between Würzburg, Schweinfurt and Kitzingen, and stopped in the towns of Dettelbach, Volkach, Prichsenstadt and Iphofen.
Dettelbach, an old walled town, has seen better days. Half-timbered houses with peeling paint contrast with the brilliant white of the renovated 16th-century town hall. But the worn facades add to its charm, stirring up images of the old Germany, before much of it was destroyed in the war.
Check out the odd towers of the town’s St. Augustinus church. It has a tall square tower and a smaller round tower attached by a wooden bridge. Legend has it that stairs were forgotten in the square tower, so the round one, with stairs, had to be built to get to the top of the taller tower.
At the foot of the church is one of the reasons to visit Dettelbach, the Eiscafe Galeria. Although the owner is German, he makes Italian-style, homemade ice cream. Try the spicy Muscat (nutmeg), or, for a flavor of the area, the Silvaner, with a taste of the wine popular in the region.
And when in Dettelbach, have a Muskatziner, a cookielike treat flavored with nutmeg. It was once baked for the people making the pilgrimage to the church on the outskirts of town.
Leave Dettelbach and head toward Volkach, skipping the highway. Look for signs to Nauses am Berg and Escherndorf. It is a beautiful drive along the “Bocksbeutelstrasse,” through the vineyards and vintners’ villages along the Main. A Bocksbeutel is the short-necked, big-bodied wine bottle common in Franconia. Vines climb the hills on one side of the road, fruit orchards line the river on the other.
Volkach, with cobblestone lanes and tower gates guarding each end of town, is a Franconian jewel. At its center is the Marktplatz with its beautiful 16th-century town hall and the Virgin Mary-topped market fountain. Popular with tourists and locals, the self-service Weinkrug tavern, offering some of Volkach’s best vintages, such as the “Ratsherr” and “Kirchberg,” is next door.
Volkach’s main street, Hauptstrasse, is lined with restaurants serving traditional fare. The wine and beer garden Hinterhöfle is one of them. Try Franconian bratwurst here, either in the traditional way, fried and served with sauerkraut and bread, or Blaue Zipfl, boiled in a stock made with wine and onions and served with the onions and bread.
Stations of the cross lead through vineyards up to St. Maria im Weingarten, a hilltop pilgrimage church with a famous 16th-century Madonna by Tilman Riemenschneider.
The Main makes an “S” here, a spot known as the Volkacher Mainschleife. There are more than 30 miles of biking and hiking paths here, as well as cruises and canoeing on the Main and the Mainschleifebahn, a train that runs along the river and through the vineyards for six miles on weekends from May to October.
Walk through Prichsenstadt’s massive 15th-century Vorstadttor — a gate in the town wall — and into an old-fashioned Franconian town. Take away the cars, and it would be hard to guess what year it is.
“Stadt,” or “city,” is a bit of a misnomer, as the town might be one of the smallest in Germany to have an outer and inner gate protecting it. Some call it Rothenburg without the tourists. While that might be a bit of an exaggeration — there is no wall to walk on, for example — it is not far off the mark.
Flowerpots line the streets and wrought iron signs for taverns, bakers and butchers hang from the facades of houses. These signs, once common everywhere, are still often found throughout Franconia. Very graphic, like the one at the Bausewein butcher’s — a cow’s head with two axes behind it — the signs were used to identify establishments in times when many people could not read.
Visitors can stroll through the town, visit the 16th-century church, see the 17th-century, half-timbered town hall and enjoy the peace.
A massive gate also protected Iphofen from outside dangers. But it is from inside that you can really appreciate the Rödelsee- tor.
Two towers — one with a conical roof, a gate and a house, all half-timbered — make up this barbican that was separated by a moat from the Mittagsturm gate and the town proper.
Walk through the Mittagsturm gate, one of four in the city wall, and you come to the church of St. Veit. It took almost 200 years to build — from 1414 to 1612. Inside is another Riemenschneider statue, a curly-haired John the Apostle. He holds a chalice with a snake crawling out of it. The legend is that John was offered a poisoned welcoming drink. When he said a prayer before drinking it, the poison turned into a snake that then crawled out of the cup.
Next door is the late-Gothic Michaelskapelle, a chapel that once was the cemetery church. Check out the ossuary in its basement. Push the light switch to the right of the door and you can see skulls and bones piled up inside.
Iphofen is an old city, first mentioned in a document in 741. It was also an important town, the seat of a prince-bishop. This probably explains its huge marketplace and town hall, which used to be the bishop’s palace.
Wine is another thing that brought Iphofen prominence. Supposedly it was forbidden to drink beer here, as the wine was so good. There are still more than a score of vintners here today.
Iphofen, with its many restaurants, is a good place to end a day. We had a hearty Franconian meal at the Goldene Krone, with a view of the market fountain topped with a baroque statue of Mary.
And despite being in Iphofen, we had a delicious, refreshing Franconian beer.
If you go ...¶ Where: This part of Franconia, in northwestern Bavaria, is in a rough triangle between Würzburg in the west, Schweinfurt in the northeast and Kitzingen in the south, all easily reached off Autobahn 3.
All four towns have free parking on the outskirts, all within a short walk to the city center.
¶ When: You can visit any time of the year, but spring through late fall is best. A good time to visit is during a wine fest. Prichsenstadt and Dettelbach have theirs over the Corpus Christi holiday — in Germany, the second Thursday after Pentecost about eight weeks after Easter; Iphofen’s is in July; and Volkach’s is in August. Both Volkach and Iphofen celebrate the end of the grape harvest season on Oct. 8 this year.
¶ What to eat: There are plenty of places to enjoy Franconian cuisine, but many don’t serve between 2 and 5:30 p.m. (the Hinterhöfle in Volkach does).
¶ For more information: Dettelbach’s Web site has a page of its history in English, otherwise, like the other three, it has a thorough site in German. Go to: www.volkach.de, www.iphofen.de, www.dettelbach.de and www.prichsenstadt.de.
— Michael Abrams