I’m the first to admit it, British humour can be juvenile. For example, it’s impossible to wander around pretty Coburg and not chuckle at the numerous references to its most famous former resident, Prince Albert. The husband of Queen Victoria, the woman on the throne of Imperial Great Britain for much of the 19th century, died young and left Victoria bereft. He also gave his name, unknowingly I assume, to a male genital piercing. It’s this that made me chortle as we entered Coburg’s pleasant Marktplatz, home to a splendidly erect Prince Albert statue … I did warn you.
Albert is alleged to have had a piercing, but alas historic records provide no evidence of where. Far less amusing is Coburg’s town emblem. The “Coburg Moor” can be found adorning flags, buildings, shop window displays and even sewer covers. It’s quite a shock to see a racist caricature of an African man plastered across town. The tourist office, clearly used to bewildered tourists asking questions, handed us a leaflet to address our misgivings.
Officially, this is Saint Maurice, an African Christian executed by the Romans, and the patron saint of Coburg. Maurice was probably Egyptian and nobody has a clue what he looked like, but from the Middle Ages onwards he was depicted as a black African by European artists. His image was changed over time to be more ‘exotic’ and ‘wild’, including a large gold earring. There’s a more sympathetic depiction of Maurice as a medieval knight carved on a building in the main square.
The version used by the town today, looks a lot like the racial tropes associated with slavery and a campaign to remove it has sparked Coburg’s very own culture war. As proof that history can be terribly ironic, the Nazis replaced it with a sword and Swastika, only for the “Coburg Moor” to return after 1945. I see this in much the same light as the Dutch debate over Zwarte Pete – urgently in need of change. It was a disconcerting introduction to an otherwise attractive town steeped in history.
Dominating the town on a nearby hill is Veste Coburg, a medieval fortress that has survived the centuries in extraordinarily fine condition. Dating from at least the early 13th century, Veste Coburg would become the ancestral home of the Dukes of Saxe-Coburg. The last of whom to live here, Charles Edward, was grandson of Victoria and Albert. A more famous occupant was the leader of the Reformation, Martin Luther. He worked on his German translation of the bible here in 1530.
Close up, the fortress is imposing and the views over the town and surrounding countryside are magnificent. You wouldn’t guess it today, but in the closing days of the Second World War the castle was badly damaged by artillery fire. We ended our Coburg visit in the castle, but our day had started when we walked through one of Coburg’s remaining medieval gateways and emerged into the pretty Marktplatz.
Surrounded by historic buildings, including the Rathaus and Stadthaus, the square was host to a fruit and vegetable market as well as a van selling Coburger Bratwursts. It seems like there’s a law dictating that every town in Germany has its own ‘iconic’ sausage. We meandered down quiet and pretty streets until we arrived at the Schlossplatz, home to the main residence of the Saxe-Coburgs, Schloss Ehrenburg, as well as the Palais Edinburgh.
Nearby is Coburg’s oldest church, Morizkirche (named after St. Maurice), with a remarkable altarpiece. It felt important to visit given our misgivings about the town symbol, but it failed to offer any enlightenment. It didn’t take long before we were back in the main square – historic Coburg is tiny, the Altstadt a little over 500m from side to side. Untouristed and relaxed, had we not been returning to Berlin it would have made a good overnight stop.