Free spirit

Quaint, quirky and full of life, Kate Rothwell discovers the cultural melting pot that is Freiburg

A recognition of artistic good humour can be seen and sensed throughout the city of Freiburg. Memorable examples include an artistic installation in the form of an oversized garden hose and tap, a set of stone toes with painted nails casually sticking up in the middle of a food market, a sculpture of a child hugging a fish and a cinematic graffiti montage with stars such as Marilyn Monroe portrayed alongside R2D2. Even the city’s theatre has a playful, creative addition to its exterior – a florescent sign on top of the grandiose building reads ‘Heart of the city’ one night; ‘Art of the city’ the next. The striking design of the Wiwilí Bridge is another standout piece of urban architecture that is often accentuated by brave locals sitting on top of the structure, a feat that is sometimes countered with a fine from the police.One of the city’s many canals is home to a crocodile casually sticking its cement head out of the water, but more a well-known water feature is the ‘Bächle’, a series of rivulets that run through the streets and are an obvious nightmare for anyone with small children or a childlike tendency to paddle. Keep your inner child amused by buying a toy boat to brave the waters with, instead of being tempted to dip your foot in for a splash.Discordant with Freiburg’s many light-hearted artistic features is the ‘Säule der Toleranz’ or ‘Pillar of Tolerance’; a glowing column that changes colour during the evening to warn those congregating on the Augustinerplatz, one of the city’s main squares, that they should not make any noise by the time that the pillar glows red. How effective the small, fluorescent installation is on a warm summer’s evening however, is debatable.Freiburg’s rich history is indicated in its many well-preserved buildings, which have either survived extensive bombing during WWII or been carefully reconstructed. Two such examples are the town gates; Martinstor and Schwabentor. The twenty-first century hallmark of a McDonalds logo adorns the former, but the latter leads to the forested hill known as ‘Schlossberg’, which was once the site of medieval castle but is now most often climbed by those who wish to ascend the many steps of its watchtower. Make sure to leave this visit for a less than windy day if you want to enjoy the view of the city. The ‘Bismarckturm’ or ‘Bismarcktower’, erected in honour of Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of Germany, is also nearby, but is currently not accessible to the public.A more central standout monument with a tower worth climbing is the ‘Münster’, a towering eleventh-century minster crafted from striking red sandstone that makes it stand out from cathedrals in neighbouring cities. If you’re not having lunch at one of the many diverse stalls in the gastronome’s dream that is the market hall or ‘Markthalle’, then the food market that takes place in the square surrounding the Münster, or ‘Münsterplatz’, is another great place to pick up a bite to eat.Another crimson-coloured sight on the square is the historical merchants’ hall, situated by the less visually striking but more intriguing town history museum, which is housed in what was originally the home of local artist Christian Wentzinger. Lovers of history, knowledge and art can make the most of the city’s five museums with a four euro day ticket. The Augustiner Museum houses an incredible array of liturgical items, including a stunning collection of stained glass, the carefully lit presentation of which showcases the pieces at their most spectacular. Its presentation of original stone figures from the Münster, suspended from high walls, is undeniably impressive. Even with the top floor of this large exhibition space currently being closed off, the Augustiner is without a doubt still the star of Freiburg’s museums.The Gallery of Modern Art is not exactly extensive but provides a compelling sample of twentieth century art. The archaeological museum houses a curious collection of artefacts from various centuries, with a dazzling assortment of jewellery and precious items making for the most remarkable part of the exhibition. Its setting however, in a picturesque, hilltop villa surrounded by an equally scenic park, is what gives the museum an exceptionally quaint atmosphere.Mosaics found on footpaths add to the town’s historic atmosphere, indicating what trade was – and in some cases, still is – practised along the street. A jeweller is indicated by a diamond, a baker by a pretzel, etc.Another significant feature of the city is its historic university, which is over 550 years old. A thriving student population ensures that student watering holes such as Stusi Bar are kept in business, while a locally-brewed beer at cosier pubs such as the Hausbrauerei Feierling is enjoyed by those seeking a more rustic, relaxed experience.Should you decide to leave the charms of the city itself, there is a vast wealth of nature to be discovered in the Black Forest, and the borders of France, Austria and even Switzerland are just a short train ride or two away. Freiburg offers the best of many worlds; a small, yet lively city nestled between mountainous beauty, and a crossroads of European culture. There is very little that this small corner of a vast country cannot offer.Photography by Kate Rothwell