““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
"Something has taken place at Bayreuth which our grandchildren and their children will still remember," wrote composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky after attending the first performances of Wagnerian operas at the playhouse there.
The Wagner Festival in Bayreuth has attracted Europe's elite throughout its 131-year history. For Germans especially, perhaps even some who aren't fond of opera, it's the place to see and be seen. Indeed, the operas staged every summer have turned Bayreuth into the de facto capital of German culture.
Wagnerian operas, like fine single-malt scotch, are an acquired taste. Some people, however, not only acquire the taste but consider Richard Wagner to be the genre's greatest genius. The composer himself, never lacking in ego, would no doubt have agreed. So would his patron and friend, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Not atypical of artistic geniuses, however, Wagner was something of a flake. His life through early adulthood was threadbare and debt-ridden. He left more than one city in a rush to avoid creditors. It wasn't until he became friends with Ludwig II that he escaped from poverty. The king squared his debts and gave him the wherewithal for a proper presentation of his works.
Their original idea was to construct a theater in Munich to stage the operas. It would likely have happened if it weren't for Wagner's affair with the married illegitimate daughter of his friend and fellow composer, Franz Liszt. She later obtained a divorce and married Wagner, but the affair in its early days inflamed Munich society. Combined with the composer's eccentric behavior and what some in the court thought was his unduly strong influence on the king, the latter was compelled to exile him from the Bavarian capital. Ludwig II, himself a rather flamboyant character, remained loyal to his friend following the expulsion and is said to have attended future opera performances in secret. He also continued Wagner's financial support.
Once settled in Bayreuth, Wagner oversaw the design and construction of his now-famous playhouse. He paid particular attention to acoustics and to accommodation for the large orchestras his compositions required. He also supervised the building of his own home, which he named Wahnfried. It translates, roughly, as "respite from madness," something there's little doubt he needed.
Walking the Old City
Wagner's playhouse occupies a sunny, south-facing hillside overlooking Bayreuth. It is actually the town's second opera house. The first still stands in the heart of the central district: the Margravial Opera House. It was built between 1744 and 1748, during Bayreuth's Golden Age.
Margravine Wilhelmine, the sister of King Frederick II of Prussia and wife of Margrave Frederick of Bayreuth, did more than anyone to make it golden. She was involved in all aspects of theater-as writer, director, composer, actor and benefactor-and took an active interest in the construction and operation of the opera house. Designed by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena of Bologna, Italy, who was considered the most important theater architect of his day, the old opera house is said to be Europe's most beautiful extant baroque theater.
A short walk from the Margravial Opera House brings you to Wagner's villa, which sits on the grounds of Margravine Wilhelmine's New Castle. Wagner and his wife are buried in the garden behind the house, which is adjacent to the castle grounds. Dotted with sculptures and full of greenery, it makes for a great stroll.
Another interesting stop is the unimpressive modern city hall. The panoramic view from its rooftop is great. Then there are the museums. In addition to those devoted to Wagner and Liszt, others focus on art, history, archeology, geology, natural history and freemasonry, not to mention beer brewing, tobacco and even typewriters. There's enough in Bayreuth to wear out the most indefatigable museum addict.
A short drive west from the city center brings you to the suburb of Donndorf, where you'll find the Fantasy Castle, which dates from 1765. Hiking the castle grounds offers a chance to stretch your legs and stroll among the many fanciful fountains in the gardens. An equally short drive in the opposite direction takes you to the Hermitage, offering more baroque splendor surrounded by superb gardens, as well as a small luxury hotel.
Touring and Recreation
The Fichtelgebirge-fir-forested mountains-begin near Bayreuth on the city's eastern side and extend across the Czech border. Like forests everywhere, this one in the Franconian Alps used to be larger. Much of it has been cleared for timber harvesting and farming. Driving through the area, you'll encounter villages with names like Kolmreuth, G?ssenreuth, Wildenreuth, Lorenzreuth and Hutschenreuth. One is simply called "Reuth."
As well as fir trees, the Fichtelgebirge is known for the quality of the clay in its soil and the fine bone-china industry that it spawned. The porcelain road winds through the forest and past the factories and outlet stores for some well-known names in dinnerware. According to the maps available in local hotels, the porcelain road begins north of Bayreuth in the town of Hof and heads southeast from there. However, we found the route from Hof to be a boring drive. For better scenery, we suggest a more direct route: the Fichtelgebirgerstrasse (B303) going east from Bayreuth through the forested mountains to the Autobahn A93, which you take north to Selb. Located just a few miles from the Czech border, Selb is where you'll find the Rosenthal, Hutschenreuther and other factory outlets offering a large selection of excellent china at attractive prices.
The Fichtelgebirge is also known for recreational opportunities, particularly hiking, biking and climbing. One route through the mountains is called the Burgenstrasse. We wondered why, with a name such as that, we didn't spot any castles. As it turns out, the Burgen-or castles-are rock formations, not buildings.
Speaking of rock formations that resemble castles, there is another scenic drive that runs through the mountains south of Bayreuth on the Bundestrasse 470. To get to it, we took the A9 south from Bayreuth 20 miles and turned west on the B470. The stretch of two-lane road between the A9 to the A3 offers fine vistas of dramatic rock outcroppings with recreational opportunities and spots along the way for dining when it's time for a break.
From the Wagner Festival to a walking tour of the old town to a drive through the surrounding mountains to the recreation and thermal health spas, Bayreuth offers a unique getaway.
Traveler Fast Facts
What it is: A small city known for its yearly festival of performances of operas by Richard Wagner, continuously staged (except for a brief hiatus after World War II) since its inception in 1876.
Where it is: In the Upper Franconian region of northern Bavaria, near the border with the Czech Republic. The town is surrounded by the Franconian Alps.
Ambience: An old city of baroque architecture with two opera houses and museums surrounded by a contemporary city with and a university.
History: When Wagner was drummed out of Munich for his bad behavior, he settled in Bayreuth, thus putting it on the map.
Flying in: The typical airline passenger arrives at Frankfurt or Nuremberg, respectively about three hours and one hour away by car. Some business jet travelers can land just minutes from the center of Bayreuth. The runway at Bayreuth Airport has recently been extended to 3,923 feet and terminal buildings have been improved. The weight limit is 5,700 kilos (up to 10,000k with prior permission). These figures limit accessibility to relatively small jets. Owners of larger craft will need to land on the 8,800-foot tarmac at Airport Nürnberg (Nuremberg) and hire a helicopter or limousine. Alternatively, you could pick up a rental vehicle in Nuremberg and drive the 84 kilometers through scenic Bavarian countryside to Bayreuth. The trip is about three-quarters Autobahn and since no speed limit applies, how long it takes would depend largely on how heavy your foot is. The city of Bayreuth owns and manages the airport. For more information, call +49 9 20 86 57 00 or visit
Traveler Report Card
Accommodations (B+): There are excellent hotels in Bayreuth, but we have to leave room in our grading system for Sardinia and St. Moritz. Compared with other hotels in antique settings with baroque ambience, the grade is A+ for those in the old-town area.
Food (A): Although less well known for sauces than the French, German chefs make some really excellent ones. Their menu tends to be weighted toward pork, however. Fish, fowl and other meats are on the menu, as well as a vegetarian dish or two, but those who have a religious or simply gustatory aversion to pork would no doubt give Bavarian fare a lower grade overall.
Activities (A): There are the two opera houses and a vast array of museums in a great town for a walking tour. Other options include an excellent golf course, health spas with swimming pools, hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing in the Fichtelgebirge.
Quietude (A+): There are quiet locations in the countryside, but some of the best lodging is in old luxury hotels in the middle of the old town area, adjacent to the pedestrian zone. It's not absolutely quiet, but neither is it what you would call "noisy."
Where To Stay
Among the most noteworthy of the many lodging choices in and near Bayreuth:
Bayrischer Hof Hotel. A modern, 49-room facility within 15-minute walking distance of the festival house (transportation is available). It has an indoor swimming pool, a sauna and a well-regarded French restaurant and hosts champagne receptions before performances. Info: +49 9 21 78 600,
Hotel Eremitage. One of the most interesting places to offer lodging and dining in or near Bayreuth, this is the Hermitage Summer Palace. Wagner's wife, Cosima, used to dine at the restaurant. Margravine Wilhelmine, herself, used to stay with guests in summer, sometimes dressing in monks' robes in keeping with the hermitage ambience. Six guest rooms. Info: +49 9 21 79 99 70,
(Note that the Web site is in German.)
Hotel Goldener Anker. A 16th-century building in the heart of old Bayreuth, a short distance from the Margravial Opera House. Vehicle access and parking are available from the back, but the front of the hotel is on the pedestrian zone. In keeping with its status as an antique building, there is no elevator. The staff is known for paying excellent attention to guests. For some, certainly for those who want to feel surrounded by baroque ambiance, the 35-room Golden Anchor is the best hotel in town. Info: +49 9 21/6 50 51,
Pflaum Posthotel. A Relais & Chateaux property with wellness spa 38 kilometers south of Bayreuth. A bus to the festival is provided. This five-star, 100-room hotel is known for its excellent kitchen and offers some unique suites for lodging as well as an on-site golf course. Info: +49 9 241 72 50,
Schlosshotel Thiergarten. A traditional hunting castle converted into a high-end,
nine-room hotel. Located in the countryside a few minutes south of Bayreuth, just off the Autobahn A9. Info: +49 9 209 98 40,