The city of Regensburg, which by the 11th century had developed from a fortified Roman camp to one of the most important and richest cities of the Holy Roman Empire, has two well-known landmarks.
One is the Regensburg Cathedral, which still characterizes the cityscape today and is a popular tourist destination.
Even more important, however, especially with regard to the development of the city, is the “Steinerne Brücke”, a generally recognized masterpiece of medieval architecture and also the oldest preserved bridge in Germany.
Regensburg’s wealth has always been derived from the long-distance trade in spices and especially salt.
In order not to be limited to trade over the waterway alone, but to secure it on land as well, the city’s rich merchants decided to build a bridge here and were supported in their efforts by the Bavarian Duke Heinrich the Proud.
This was an extremely important decision, because at that time there was no fixed bridge over the Danube, neither upstream nor downstream, for several days.
The project was soon to prove a blessing for the city. After all, it did not create the only bridge between Ulm and Vienna and thus the most favorable land connection of the long-distance trade routes from the south with the sales areas in the north, which made the city a main transshipment center for goods of all kinds.
Rather, the city opened up an additional source of income here through the bridge toll that merchants and other travelers had to pay.
Construction began in 1135 and was completed in just 11 years.
This was a remarkable achievement, because before the actual construction of the bridge, foundations for the piers had to be built directly in the river, which with the technical possibilities of the time was only possible at low water. Only then was it possible to erect the sixteen massive piers that still support the 308 meter long bridge today.
Of course, there are many different legends and stories entwined around their origin. They result not least from the medieval belief that the construction of structures in water was only possible with the help of the devil.
One of the stories is about a bet between the builder of the bridge and the master builder of the cathedral, who started his work at the same time. Much to the annoyance of the bridge builder, the construction of the cathedral progressed rapidly and so he decided to make a pact with the devil.
The devil promised him support and help if the master builder gave him the first three souls that crossed the bridge. From that moment on everything went as if by magic and the bridge was the first to be completed.
But the cathedral builder threw himself to his death from the top of his cathedral when he heard the bright hammer blows with which the keystone was inserted into the bridge.
But even the bridge master could no longer be happy in his life, for now he had to procure three souls as payment to the devil.
In his distress he turned to an old Capuchin who recommended that he drive three animals across the bridge. The master builder listened to this advice and out of revenge for it the devil tried to destroy the bridge again.
But he did not want to succeed and he only managed to create a hump in the lane, which is still considered a special feature of the bridge today.
Attentive visitors have certainly already noticed the “Bruckmandl” on the bridge. This is a stone figure depicting a young man – a reminder of the young man who stood here during the construction of the bridge and kept the bridge master constantly informed about the progress of the cathedral construction.
As I said, this is a beautiful story, but it cannot be true. Because the construction of the cathedral did not begin until 1273, more than 100 years after the opening of the bridge.
But the bridge itself is nevertheless a remarkable masterpiece of medieval architecture, which can still be admired today and which for more than 800 years was the only way to cross the Danube in Regensburg and its surroundings.