An urban oasis with roots in the Renaissance

The romantic skyline of this Swabian capital is peppered with perhaps more Zwiebelturm (onion domes), Gothic spires, watchtowers, and steeples than any town in Germany. That's hardly surprising. At age 2,000 (in 1985), it has had a lot of time to acquire such adornment. Along with Trier, Augsburg is Germany's oldest town.

But one of the best-loved features here doesn't add a thing to Augsburg's serrated cityscape - at least as seen from the confluence of the swift Alpine rivers, Lech and Wertach, that form the tongue of land upon which the town rises.

The Fuggerei, touted as the oldest social-welfare settlement of the Occident, is a sequestered, walled-in, low-lying ''city within a city,'' as locals call it. Built in 1519, it has in recent decades been surrounded by the downtown buildings and traffic of a modern-day city of 250,000.

This labyrinth of gardens, fountains, and tiny German houses marries the wealth of 450 years of history to a refuge of quiet and calm, tucked away in the center of a lively, bustling town. Many of the nearly 300 residents have waited decades - some since birth - to live in one of 52 gabled houses on eight flat, stark streets. Mozart's grandfather was among the fortunate ones, moving into No. 14 sometime in the mid-l8th century.

If the attractions of living there fail to catch your fancy, consider the Fuggerei's peculiar terms of residence:

One must be poor, a citizen of Augsburg, respectable, married, Roman Catholic , at least 55 years old, and pray every day for founder Jacob Fugger. If that sounds discriminatory, consider the rent: one Rhenish guilder (1.71 deutsche marks (DM)) - roughly $1 - a year.

Founder Jacob (The Rich) Fugger was, according to my guide, Gerda Rutsche of Augsburg's tourist bureau, the richest man who ever lived. His fortune (70 million DM) was reportedly four times that of his contemporaries, the Medici.

Considered the greatest merchant of the German Renaissance, Jacob Fugger, along with his brothers Ulrich and George, established the Fugger Foundation with the assets of a charitable fund belonging to his trading company. The original motive was to create a model institution for other towns to follow. It was to be an example of Christian love and responsiblity for fellow-townsmen impoverished through no fault of their own. The model has not only lasted, but Ms. Rutsche considers it ''the most outstanding social establishment of all time.''

The settlement is laid out like a tiny medieval city, with fountains, churches, a small park, administration building, and houses used for hobbies. It has four gates which are shut from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. for peace and security.

Each house has its own entrance, small rooms, sleeping and cooking alcoves - and most have small gardens in the back.

Townspeople love the name Fugger - one branch of the family still occupies Wellenburg castle outside town - and express pride over the settlement's longevity. When 70 percent of the Fuggerei buildings were destroyed in World War II, townspeople rallied to renovate and rebuild them, using only foundation money - none from public, church, or state sources.

The resident of one house, Mrs. Annie Vollmann, says the 700 DM per month she gets in social security is just enough to live on, and without the Fuggerei she couldn't afford the only alternative: a home for the elderly. She applied for residence when she retired at 60 and was accepted 17 years later. The average wait is 20 to 30 years.

Mrs. Friedel Hagen, who lives across the street, has never been happier. ''It's fantastic to live in the middle of a large city, surrounded by birds, gardens, and quiet,'' she says.

Steep, red-tiled roofs, shuttered windows, gas lamps, and iron doorbells rung by hand are the only adornments of these plain buildings. Most tenants can't afford improvements. The maximum monthly income allowed for admission of a family (no singles except widows and widowers) is 2,000 DM, (about $700) and only unmarried children may accompany parents. Once accepted, one must still abide by the strict medieval rules: anyone who is not in at the gate by 10 p.m. is fined 50 pfennigs; by midnight, 1 DM.

The retention of personal liberty and the independence of every family, say administrators, are basic principles. The fact that each dwelling has its own entrance attests to this. Though most of the original flats were destroyed by various fires through the centuries, the one at Mittlere Gasse 13 has survived - with wooden walls, ceilings, corridors, and doors dating from 1519. There is also a small, three-room Fuggerei museum intended to convey the atmosphere of the flats from the 16th to the 18th centuries. A fourth room contains models, lithographs, documents, plans, and excavated articles meant to complete the historical picture of the Fuggerei - and to preserve its enduring example of practical charity for modern citizens.

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