Explore: Six Cities | Marburg
Community Issue | Exploring Six Cities
Quaint and intricate, Marburg is a small university town in the heart of Germany. Off the German main stage inhabited by cities like Berlin, Cologne, or Munich, the old medieval city is nestled in a valley along a quaint river, the Lahn, just north of Frankfurt. A castle has crowned the city, weathering all four seasons for almost a millennium. In light of its age, Marburg is a very “young” city with about a quarter to a third of its population being students. The German constitution guarantees its citizens free education, never mind more recent controversies and the occasional fees of overbearing helicopter bureaucracy.
The Oberstadt (engl. Upper City) forms the city core, overlooking the rest of the valley from the foot of the castle. Tight cobblestone streets dissect century old architecture reminiscent of fairy tales; the brothers Grimm called it their home as students in the dawning 1800s. They, however, thought the city to be ugly “with more staircases outside of houses than inside,” being rather drawn to the surrounding beautiful naturescapes of forested hills and rivers. The venerable architecture is much more appreciated today and the city makes sure to preserve all of its old and beautiful buildings, many of them in the “Fachwerk” style of architecture with integral timber frames and hand painted exteriors. Stifling regulations though, in the name of preservation, can conjure frustrations for those in favor of individualizing their own property.
An elevator and steep streets connect the old coffee houses, modern eateries—featuring casseroles, schnitzel, and burgers—shops, ice cream stands, and bars with the more modern outer core of the town. The river runs right through here, providing students and residents with spaces to enjoy hot summer days along its banks by drinking refreshing regionally brewed beers, conversing, studying, listening to music, barbecuing, and playing sports. Beer is very important to Germans and like most beverages it is bought in plastic crates to be returned after consumption for the bottles to be cleaned and reused. The simple joys of life in this part of Marburg push the machinery of technology, pharmacology, and scientific work—housed by the university and companies in the surrounding forests—into a distant oblivion. A cousin of the Ebola virus, the Marburg virus, was named for a 1967 outbreak in the nearby laboratories of the Behringwerke, a bio pharmaceutical company.
When school is in session, the nightlife is roaring, and bar-hopping is made easy by the city’s offerings and walkability. People drink until the early morning hours, and the really brave ones end up at the Fratzkeller, a downstairs bar in the Oberstadt that still overlooks the city and offers a cheap “bye-bye” liqueur called Ratzeputz; or at Hinkelstein, a century old barrel vaulted stone cellar off the market square named after a giant oval shaped rock suspended like a Damocles sword atop the bartenders.
On the other side of the valley, opposite the castle is an old tower on a hill lurking through the forest, bearing a giant red neon heart encircling two vertically stacked glowing pink crosses. The interactive art installation is an homage to the city’s patron saint Elizabeth that lets citizens light up the heart with a phone call, making a date night on the castle ground all the more romantic. The floral-style light sculpture was inspired by metal ornaments of the gates at the prominent St. Elizabeth church in Marburg; one of the first major gothic ecclesiastical structures in the German cultural region from the 1200s. Legend has it that Elizabeth rolled a rock from the top of a hill to determine where to erect a church. It curved down the valley towards the river Lahn and stopped in a swamp where the church bearing her name stands today.
View the exclusive 6-page photo essay on Marburg in this month's print issue.
Photography by Jan Henrik Dodenhof & Berenike Preuße