Erlangen From the planned baroque city to Medical Valley

Café Mengin, Erlangen's most celebrated café
Café Mengin, Erlangen's most celebrated café | Photo (detail): Christian Frank © Erlanger Tourismus

Despite the people of Erlangen being critical of their humble hometown, the Franconian city actually has quite a lot to offer. Bodo Birk, who is responsible for events at the KPB, a municipal agency responsible for cultural activities including the International Comic Salon and the Erlangen Poetry Festival, tells us about his city.

Mr. Birk, do you like living in Erlangen?

Part of being a good citizen here is to complain about our fair city. If you admit that it is nice to live here it would mean you have come to terms with the provincialism of the place, or that you yourself are perhaps even provincial…

The city has lot of things that make it livable. The university and Siemens are a big part of the atmosphere here. There are a lot of young people, a pretty high level of education and a certain international feel here. The Old Town, the castle grounds, the street cafés…all of those give it what you could even call a “Mediterranean” flair. Erlangen is a city of short distances. You can get almost everywhere on foot and a bike will get you to the rest.

Erlangen is the smallest of Bavaria's big cities in terms of size. Is there any way in which it is the biggest?

It is actually forbidden to ask that question to people from Franconia. Modesty and understatement are the nicer ways to describe our well-developed sense of dissatisfaction here in Erlangen. You could say that we are the best at “hiding our light under a bushel” and playing things down.

Erlangen is almost always in first place when it comes to jobs, economic vitality, research, medicine, purchasing power and private affluence. We don't even believe it ourselves, though.

Other than the city's festivals of course, what are the things visitors to Erlangen shouldn't miss?

The Erlanger Bergkirchweih is certainly one of the best festivals in Germany. It takes place under the old trees on the castle hill (Berg) and goes for about 10 days around Pentecost. It really transcends all social strata. You get students partying with professors, Siemens directors and laborers, old locals and international guests. And when “the Berg” closes down each night at 11 p.m., thousands of revelers make their way to the After Berg Party in the Old Town. There are sort of only two options: get involved or go home.

On the other 355 days of the year you can enjoy the other side of the castle hill with its Heinrich Kirchner sculpture garden. In fact, the green spaces in Erlangen are nice in general. The castle gardens in the city center, for example, transforms into a sort of second living room for students as soon as the first rays of sun come out, and every year on the last weekend in August it hosts the Erlangen Poetry Festival. Right next to that are the botanical gardens with its old greenhouses and mysterious plants.

Which building here impresses you the most?

The Margrave's Theater. Behind its imposing 1950s walls is the oldest active baroque theater in southern Germany. It is always a real pleasure to take guests up onto the stage and watch their faces when the curtain rises and they look out at the gilded auditorium, the putti, and the margrave's box.

In the 17th century a good number of Huguenots settled here. Is their presence still felt in the city?

Yes, the Huguenots were well-educated people and were very influential in Erlangen's commercial development. Their settlement here was the inspiration for the “Erlangen Neustadt” (lit. new city), which is still one of the best-preserved baroque planned cities and is an urban monument of European importance. You can still see traces of the Huguenots in the overall cityscape as well: the main plaza is called Huguenots Square, there is a Huguenots Church and the city's most celebrated café has a French name, Mengin, even if it is pronounced with a Franconian accent nowadays.

Apparently Erlangen has the world's highest density of hospitals. Nearly ever fourth employee here is somehow involved in medical technology or health care. But where does one go to find a bit of healthy greenery?

Erlangen really is an El Dorado for hypochondriacs. The university clinics define the cityscape and there are signs on every street corner for the “Skin clinic”, “Head clinic”, “Ear-nose-throat clinic” etc. Siemens has a division here focused on medical technology and as a result there a number of other smaller related companies that have settled here. They call it “Medical Valley”.

But there are also green valleys north of Erlangen. Just outside the city limits is the start of Franconian Switzerland, a low mountain range with narrow valleys, bizarre rock formations and castle ruins on every peak that were well appreciated by the poets of the Romantic period. You can take a good afternoon excursion to Walberia, Franconia's main mountain, or have a glass of Franconian Landbier (lit. country beer) on the banks of the Wiesent. That is the best therapy, I would say.