Gareth Huw Davies

Travel / Travel Features

Coburg – the town that made Queen Victoria smile

Schloss Callenberg, Coburg

Schloss Callenberg, Coburg

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were married 175 years ago, on February 10th, 1840. This, one of the one of the great royal love stories, began in Coburg.

The small duchy in Bavaria, representing unalloyed happiness for the young couple, is one of the principal stops on the new “British German Royal Heritage Route“.

Albert, second son of the Duke of Coburg, was born and raised in Coburg, and the young Victoria made many happy visits. After his death it was one of the few places to lift the sad widow’s mood. She came back, and found solace there.

The abiding image most of us have of Victoria is of a dumpy, black-clad figure of severe aspect in her later years. But the Queen could be, and was, amused. There’s a photograph to prove it. It shows her at the railway station at Coburg, southern Germany in 1894.

She had just arrived for a glittering family wedding and her normally dour face is lit with the widest of smiles.

This small duchy on the edge of Bavaria lifted the sad widow’s mood. It is a key location in one of the great royal love stories. Her beloved husband (and first cousin) Albert, second son of the Duke of Coburg, was born and raised in the town.

The Young Victoria wrote: ‘Albert is an angel . . . to look in those dear eyes, and that dear sunny face, is enough to make me adore him.’ Soppy stuff maybe, but never was a queen so smitten.

Visit this town of 44,000 today and you find references to Queen Victoria everywhere.

A larger-than-life statue of the Prince Consort stands in the middle of the Market Square surrounded by rich Renaissance buildings. This was one of Victoria’s first tributes to Albert after he died tragically young, of typhoid, in 1861. Well before the Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial were completed in London, she was in Coburg, in 1865, to unveil the statue.

The Young Victoria wrote in 1846: ‘If I were not the person who I am, my true home would be here.’ In all she visited seven times, causing Prime Minister Disraeli to advise: ‘Madam, you cannot rule the Empire from Coburg.’ She is certainly remembered there.

Coburg today retains most of the old buildings Victoria would have recognised. There is a theory that the town was largely spared by Allied bombers in the Second World War because Victoria’s grandson lived here.

Her town residence – Ehrenburg’s sumptuous Hall of Giants, crammed with mirrors, Italian plaster-work and marble columns – is where Victoria met Emperor Franz Josef of Austria in an early attempt to sort out Europe.

Visitors can see the queen’s suite, including the first (mahogany) water closet on the European mainland – for her use only.

Royal protocol required that Albert slept apart, upstairs. He had his own private staircase and presumably used it. After all, they did produce nine children.

This is a four-palace town. Victoria never liked the clifftop Veste Citadel – she considered it too militaristic – but she did admire its ‘glorious and extensive views’.

A few miles outside the town, in the countryside is Rosenau, with its fairytale turret and crenulated facade. This may have been the couple’s favourite place. Albert was born here in 1819. He was christened in the private chapel, and spent many of his early years, as Prince Albert of Sachsen-Coburg and Gotha in the house.

This castle was splendidly restored in the 1990s, with the active support of Prince Philip and Prince Charles.

It was in such a poor state of repair that all the restorers had to go on to make an accurate restoration was a series of nine paintings of the castle’s interior from the Royal Library at Windsor.

Close by is Callenberg Castle, the home of the last of the original line of Coburg’s former rulers, Prince Andreas.

On my visit there, I met custodian Dr Ewald Juetter. He had something to show me, only recently, and never shown in public. He picked up a faded envelope, bearing the initials ‘VR’ and gently slipped out a lock of hair from the head of the woman who once ruled half the world.

The walls of Callenberg celebrate Victoria and Albert in their 20 years of marital bliss. There are marble busts, side by side in noble, classical profile. (These objects, and the others I mention, are on permanent display.)

One pair of paintings presents them as they might have looked when their eyes first met in 1836. (They married four years later, when both were 21.)

Look at enough Coburg paintings and you find links to almost every royal family in Europe, from Portugal, via Norway to Romania. As is well known, Kaiser Wilhelm was Victoria’s grandson. The link caused the British Royal Family to change its name from Saxe-Coburg to Windsor in 1917.

Coburg has other attractions. There’s the Johann Strauss connection – the king of waltz became a Coburger so he could marry his third wife here.

The Goebel family moved their Hummel porcelain figurine factory to the edge of town. And the town hosts the biggest samba festival in Europe.

Royalty, however, is the town’s strongest suit. And the links to England prevail. Coburg’s Mausoleum is a replica of the one at Frogmoor, near Windsor, where Victoria and Albert now lie. The main tomb belongs to Alfred, Victoria’s second son, who died here as a reluctant Duke of Coburg in July 1900.

Close by lie Albert’s father Ernst and mother Louisa. She was banished by Ernst for taking a lover – although he was a scandalous womaniser himself. When she died, the brothers insisted she lie alongside their father and his second wife.

I passed back under Ketschen Gate, near where the ‘Victoria smiles’ photo was taken. This was her last visit, to a society wedding Hello! and OK! would have killed to photograph, attended by all the crowned heads of Europe, most of them her relations. But only one photograph matters.

German National Tourist Board