Nürnberger Felsengänge - Nuremberg rock-cut cellars

Last summer while travelling through Germany I spent some time in Nuremberg. It was on a lovely summer's day that our little group was led through the "Nuremberg rock-cut cellars" by an elderly man. We were an odd group: an Asian tourist and his daughter who spoke only very little German, a young German law student, an elderly American lady who turned out to be from Nuremberg originally, but had fled to America, sometime in the beginnings of WW II. Now she had returned for a quick visit, as a travel companion for an even older lady who was visiting relations in Germany. It felt odd watching her, with her dark "typical American" sun-glasses in her hair, hearing that accented German voice commenting on whatever the guide told us... speaking about the war, hardship, fear, danger... and yet, she put up an almost impenetrable shield of ladyship and distance. She felt and identified as American, yet she was German.

The sun was shining strongly and we were all "hiding" from it behind the Albrecht Dürer memorial where the entrance to the Felsengänge, as the "rock-cut cellars" are called in German, lies hidden. We'd soon be longing for the sun's warmth. Finally our guide arrived, led us down the stairs and opened a heavy metal door to grant us entrance to the cool and damp passageway that lay behind. First formalities such as tickets had to be taken care of, but then we were led deeper and deeper into this maze of interconnecting cellars and adits, their stories and Nuremberg's history.

Nuremberg is built on a thick slab of sandstone. Most houses are made from big blocks of this reddish soft and therefore easily worked on building material. Very early (apparently the first records stem from 1380) people began excavating cellars underneath their houses, for several reasons, mainly as storage space, but maybe also as some sort of a party-cellar. Eventually cellars grew together, connecting passageways developed, a second, a third and even a fourth underground level were added, creating a whole man-made cave system. The city soon realized that selling the land on different levels was a great way of making money, and so it was possible that the cellar underneath your house belonged to your neighbour who had big-time noisy parties down there, keeping you up all night, not so much because of the noise but because you were not invited...

We all snickered at this while the Asian father gave a quick translation to his little girl.

In the Middle Ages Nuremberg housed 30 to 40 breweries which needed storage space to let their beer ferment and mellow at a more or less constant temperature. Beer was very important in the Middle Ages as the drinking water from springs and fountains was mostly contaminated with all sorts of diseases. Beer though had been heated and was thus sterilized. Mainly the breweries were the driving force in excavating the cellars, creating long adits which were built wide enough to provide storage space for casks at both sides and to accommodate corridor in the middle. Later rail tracks were added to the corridor. The different levels of the cellars are connected by narrow winding staircases and wide shafts for the beer casks.

In the 20th century a pickle factory used parts of the maze to store and even pack gherkins.

Sandstone is very porous, letting water pass which led to high and varying humidity levels which in turn made storing goods problematic. This problem was resolved by a simple yet genial airing system. Shafts were dug to the surface, both on the northern and southern side of the buildings. The air in the sunlit (warmed) southern shafts rises slowly. Fresh air enters through the cooler northern shafts. This simple air conditioning system kept the cellars dry without raising the temperatures.

During WW II a few cellars were altered and used to store precious art (Nuremberg Historic Art Bunker). But most of the rock-cut cellars were turned into air raid shelters. Few changes were necessary, mainly the airing system had to be altered as the shafts offered too many "possibilities" to enemy forces. All but a few of them were sealed. The few that were left had modern airing systems installed, to filter out poison etc. During WW II when Nuremberg was pretty much turned into rubble by fierce allied bombing attacks, "only" 6000 people were killed. (I think the worst attack happened during a very limited time span near the end of the war, but I can't find the exact dates.)

Our guide describes how the people of Nuremberg went underground when the air raid alarm went off, taking only the most important things with them. Thinking that this time also it would just be a false alarm. Underground they didn't hear the destruction of their city that was brought to them by the detonation and burning of the fire bombs. When leaving their shelters nothing had prepared them for the complete and utter destruction of their city they'd encounter.

The German American lady nods in agreement. You could only take the most basic things with you. And you'd just sit there and wait...

By now we are all very cold. The damp and chill air has crept deep into our bodies and the vivid recounting of recent history has added to that cold feeling inside. We are all glad to leave the narrow confines of the rock-cut cellars and appreciate the warming sun.

Now only dare I ask why our guide knew so much detail about these cellars. And now only do we learn that he "had been there". There is hurt in his eyes when he speaks about the senseless destruction of his and other cities and of the many lost lives. (Germany was already well on its knees when the most destructive air raids were flown by the allied forces. They were of an entirely vengeful nature.)

The American German lady quickly hides her eyes behind her dark glasses. She and the Asian tourist generously tip off the guide and leave. I thank him and together with the German law student I walk out into the sun.


  • my memory
  • http://www.showcaves.com/english/de/misc/Felsengaenge.html
  • http://www.museumsgalore.nuremberg.de/felsengaenge/geschichte.html
  • http://members.aol.com/iaeste/info.htm

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