Romans and Mozart slept here

The woman leaning out of the upstairs window gazed down at us with medieval stillness and severity. Against the matte, deep honey walls, the color of Gjetost cheese, her fragile black shoulders and white lace collar, wispy white hair caught back in a bun, and cream-colored, ascetic, wrinkled face stood out clearly.

Aside from this woman the Fuggerei, the oldest social settlement in the world , seemed deserted. Our tour group clattered down the flat, bare streets; footsteps and voices echoed that had never sounded loud before.

And yet people do live here in these row houses with their steeply pitched red tile roofs. There's a waiting list, in fact. To rent one of the tiny, charming apartments here costs about 1.71 marks -- that's a bit over $1 -- a year.

The Fuggerei was built in 1519 by Jacob Fugger, called simply "the Rich" in a day when words had meaning. He was, in fact, the richest man in the world (at 70 million marks, no mean sum even today). He was, according to our guide, four times as wealthy as the Medici, his contemporaries. The Fuggerei is still administered by his descendants, and most of the original requirements for living there still hold. One must be poor, a citizen of Augsburg, respectable, married, Roman Catholic, at least 58 years old, and pray every day for Jacob Fugger.

The medieval rules still apply as well. The residents can easily double their rent by keeping late hours; anyone who is not home by 10 is fined 50 pfennigs; by 12, one mark.

Augsburg and Trier are the oldest towns in Germany. In 1985 both will celebrate their 2,000th anniversary. The name Augsburg came from Augustusburg, after the Roman Emperor, whose stepsons founded the town. The many Roman artifacts found here are displayed in a museum of their own in a double naved church, once a Dominican friary.

Augsburg is a city with a past. On the main street is the home of Jacob Fugger, now a museum filled with portraits and paintings from the 15th through 18th centuries. Some of the more famous artists are Durer and the elder Holbein (the latter also had a house here). One of the Durer paintings is a portrait of Jacob Fugger himself, showing an alert, cleanshaven face, like that of an astronaut.

Mozart's family came from Augsburg; in fact there are still Mozarts in the town's telephone directory. The composer's grandfather had lived in the Fuggerei at No 14, the "4" represented by a curious hieroglyph that looked like a circle with feet -- the upper half of an 8, our guide explained. A highlight of present-day Augsburg is the Mozart festival in June and July, held in the rococo ballroom of Jacob Fugger's home. This room, with its high, frescoed ceiling, seen through the glitter of crystal chandeliers; its delicate green walls covered with mirrors and gold leaf arabesques and set with paintings and fabulous birds; and its candles for every day of the year, looks like a place a 15-year-old Marie Antoinette would have danced and flirted. In fact, that doomed Queen spent some happy times here in Augsburg.

Wolfgang Amadeus himself was a frequent visitor. Apparently the following notice once appeared in the Augsburg newspaper: "Mr. Mozart will do his best to entertain his fellow citizens for a few hours."

Another famous son of Augsburg was Bertoldt Brecht. He was born here, and apparently received a failing grade in German essays at the school. Our guide told us with amusement that the antipathy between the avant-garde author and the staid, cultured town of his birth had been mutual. Apparently that problem has passed with time as Brecht's plays are regularly, and one assumes proudly, presented at the town's theater, the Red Gate.

Augsburg did not escape World War II unscathed. Willi Messerschmitt was a professor here, and the Messerschmitt factory nearby was the focus of much Allied bombing. The parts of the city that were destroyed have been rebuilt, and the new areas are as charming in their way as the old. It is still largely a city of steepled roofs punctuated by onion dome churches. This style, common in Middle Europe, Switzerland, and Bavaria, was first seen here in a design of cobbled streets and statues and fountains developed by architect Elias Howe. It is a delight for the traveler interested in art and history.

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