Sometimes you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Sometimes you’re presented with something that you can’t quite handle, especially as a young person with limited capabilities. Sometimes you look back on something and realise with a shock that you really didn’t know what you were doing, and that if you had your time again you may well have approached things very differently indeed.
Sometimes that thing is a relationship. For me it was a town in Germany.
I had just turned twenty and had been studying in a small town in southern Bavaria. Classes were finished for the week and I made plans to go away for the weekend. Regensburg was reasonably nearby and my Eurail pass was burning a hole in my pocket. I jumped on the train on Saturday morning and spent an enjoyable couple of hours wending my way through the Bavarian countryside.
After arriving in the town centre, I spent around 24 hours seeing the sights. I recall a pleasant medieval town with some rather spooky stonework, a large museum that was full of armour and heraldic decoration, and an uncomfortable youth hostel that I endured due to being poor and tight-fisted. On Sunday afternoon I returned to my studies, having spent a mildly engaging weekend alone in a German town.
But I was twenty and a bit of an idiot. I had no idea of the real significance of Regensburg and its place in history. I chose to spend my attention on organising my train schedule rather than understanding what I was looking at. Had I made a bit of an effort I might have realised that Regensburg is something of an historical gem and surprisingly important in the scheme of things.
It turns out that Regensburg was actually one of the northernmost outposts of the Roman Empire, and that stonework from that time persists in the foundations and walls of buildings which are still used. It was built as a camp (“Castra Regina”) in the time of Marcus Aurelius, the most noble, ill-starred and currently fashionable emperor of Roman times. This is one of those clanging incongruities that bring me up with a start – here, in the middle of Bavaria, used to be the headquarters of a Roman legion. The European landscape really is a wobbly edifice of the modern built upon the foundations of the ancient.
The historical record has a long blank period after the withdrawal of the Roman legions, as in much of Europe, but Regensburg re-emerges in medieval times as a key city the Holy Roman Empire. This has to be one of the weirdest political structures of all time – an elective monarchy (which was often hereditary), which was mostly (but not entirely) German, deriving its temporal authority from the Pope, with no central authority of the name and no standing army. As the noted French comedian Voltaire said, it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.
Geopolitical weirdnesses aside, it did have one advantage which was that each of the constituent parts was largely left alone to do what they liked. In the case of Regensburg, as the seat of the Thurn und Taxis family, it grew into a major trading centre. This was largely based on the position of the local Prince as the hereditary postmaster of the Holy Roman Empire, a position of some importance in pre-modern times with horse-powered communications. The Thurn und Taxis family came to be fabulously wealthy (they still are) and endowed the city with various grand buildings and cathedrals. Their castle is (partially) open to the public and has a truly impressive display of medieval arms and armour in its museum. I was very taken by all the metalwork – it ranges from the obviously workmanlike and functional which were probably used in battle, to the floridly ostentatious which must have been reserved for ceremonial purposes. To me it seems like any knight who can stay standing while wearing half a ton of pig iron must automatically be the winner in any given battle.
Despite spending a couple of days clearly failing to understand what I was looking at, I did have one small triumph. On the Sunday, I walked into a cafe in the centre of town to have some lunch before I got back on the train. I gave my order in halting German to the attractive young waitress, and she smiled at me. No doubt she was dazzled by my command of her language and was smiling in order to convey deep respect for my linguistic talents and possibly a desire to get to know me better. When my sausages and coffee were finished I handed over some Deutschmarks, again in German. She retrieved my change from a pouch worn on a belt, smiled again and wandered off, startled by my charm and wit. From small victories are great days wrought.
I boarded my train in an upbeat mood. Sometimes it’s possible to be ignorant and shallow, and still have a good time.