Certainly for me, one of the reasons I’ll venture forth to trod on foreign soil is to combine pleasure seeking with information gathering. On my recent trip to Germany, one experience in the ancient Bavarian city of Augsburg, which traces its roots back to Caesar Augustus and the Roman Empire, certainly checked both of those boxes.
Augsburg has such a unique history and several distinctive features. Like Berlin and Dresden, it was heavily targeted by Allied bombing during World War II. In one of the town’s squares featuring one of the city’s many fountains with a statue of Augustus, the clock tower called the Perlachturm, constructed in the year 989, stands nearby, a tower once used by bombardiers as a target.
The city also has more than 50 miles of canals, water paths many years ago provided a water source for town residents to reduce the frequent trips to the fountains to draw water.
And, of course, the Golden Hall on the top floor of the city hall near the Perlachturm, with its 46-foot-high ceiling and so much gold leafing, paintings and ceiling murals, was so impressive.
But what interested me the most was the walled community called The Fuggerei, the oldest social settlement in the world and one that comes with a very interesting story.
In order to understand The Fuggerei, it helps to understand the eponymous nature of the name. While the early development of Augsburg can be credited to the four centuries’ worth of affiliation with the Roman Empire, there was also a prominent banking family, the Fuggers. It’s impossible to walk around the city without seeing the Fugger name on buildings, street signs and statues. The Fuggers were known not only for their wealth but for their altruism as well.
The founder of the Fugger dynasty, Jakob Fugger, began as a master weaver. His namesake son took over his father’s company and demonstrated such entrepreneurial skills the family owned the most prosperous trading house in all of Europe. The father acquired the moniker Jakob Fugger the Elder, and the son, Jakob Fugger the Rich.
And, it was the son who decided to use some of what the family had accumulated to help laborers and craftsmen who’d fallen on hard times by developing a social settlement that has endured in Augsburg for almost 500 years.
Jakob the Rich was interested in helping those whose troubles were not of their own doing and who continued to strive to get back on their feet financially, which sets it apart from many social programs that have become more hand out than hand up.
The dwellings in the gated community are available as they have been since the very beginning for those in need who apply for assistance. The rent is a mere one Rhineguilder a year, less than one euro in today’s most common European currency, and a promise to say one Lord’s Prayer, one Hail Mary and one Nicene Creed for the Fugger family.
After I entered the main gate, while our tour director paid the more than four times the annual rent paid by its residents, four euros per person, to tour the community, thanks to the excellent presentation by our tour director, I learned so much about the Fugger family and The Fuggerei.
The gate we entered was one of seven that provides access into the walled city. All are locked at 10 p.m., and one is monitored on a rotating-responsibility basis to allow entrance for a small fee, which the gatekeeper gets to keep, to anyone who tarries too long in returning to one of the safest environments in these uncertain times imaginable.
I was amazed by the quaintness and charm of the rows of buildings, which were divided into 140 apartments for the current 150 residents who can remain until they can support themselves for that same annual cost of a little less than a euro a year and those promised three age-old prayers.
The apartments we toured, although not luxurious, were whistle clean and very functional, with each consisting of one or two bedrooms, a main hallway, a small living room, a small kitchen and a restroom.
Since the community serves as both a residential community and a tourist site, one of the apartments is set up to show the living quarters as originally they were, say, when, one of The Fuggerei’s most famous residents, the great grandfather of Wolfgang Mozart, once lived.
The Fuggerei has its own church, park, administration building and, ever a German necessity, a gastronomy (restaurant) with a Biergarten (beer garden) off the eight lanes that intersect the buildings with their distinctive red shingled roofs.
The concept of initiating a program to prevent Augsburg residents from becoming paupers was groundbreaking nearly 500 years ago when Jakob the Rich initiated it. Since then, most countries have initiated programs designed to help those in need.
And, of course, that’s the humanitarian thing to do, as long as the idea remains what Jakob the Rich intended and doesn’t become a program which provides assistance while at the same time killing the initiative that all individuals should safeguard, the desire to fend for themselves.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.