From Maulbronn, I’ve now travelled 60 kilometres in distance, and another century back in time. I’m in the little town of Speyer on the River Rhine. My excellent guide for the morning, Friederike Walter, asks if I have a fear of heights. We’re about to head up a whole lot of stairs to the top of the world’s largest Romanesque cathedral still standing.
Luckily, there’s a halfway stop along the way: the lovely high-ceiling Imperial Hall, with nine enormous frescoes by Johann von Schraudolph along the walls and a well in the middle of the floor, with a clever contraption that lifts pianos up for concerts. The acoustic must be fantastic.
Top of the world in Speyer
The view from the top is very much worth the climb. Through the arched openings, I see the Rhine as it comes around a bend, I see the rooftops of medieval Speyer, and I see industry in the distance: the BASF factory on one side, the Philippsburg Nuclear Power Plant on another. Old and new. Then and now. All in one panorama.
The cathedral is light and bright and airy inside and out, and with much less ornamentation than usual in these imposing Catholic basilica. Sometimes visitors touring Europe’s cathedrals are a bit disappointed at the lack of gold and treasure here. Me, I prefer its clean, uncluttered beauty.
UNESCO likes it, too: the cathedral was added to the World Heritage list in 1981. Here’s the essence:
Speyer Cathedral, a basilica with four towers and two domes, was founded by Conrad II in 1030 and remodelled at the end of the 11th century. It is one of the most important Romanesque monuments from the time of the Holy Roman Empire. The cathedral was the burial place of the German emperors for almost 300 years.
The Speyer Cathedral website has a slightly more dramatic presentation:
Die Geschichte des Domes ist eine Geschichte von Zerstörung und Aufbau, von Krieg und Frieden, von Glanz und Elend und spiegelt die Geschichte der Stadt Speyer ebenso wie die der ganzen Region und des Landes.
If my school German still serves me right, this translates about so:
The history of this cathedral is one of destruction and construction, of war and peace, of brilliance and misery. It reflects the history of Speyer Town, and even that of the entire region and of the state.
The state in this case is Rheinland-Pfalz, or Rhineland-Palatinate in English.
Speyer Cathedral Crypt
The construction of the cathedral was begun by Conrad II, and later expanded by his grandson, Heinrich IV. This was not without controversy. Who did he think he was, this Emperor, insisting on both worldly and holy power? Even emphasising his assertion with such a magnificent structure in a tiny village? (Speyer at the time had only 500 inhabitants.) And so began the so-called Investiture Controversy, a power struggle between the church and the state in the Middle Ages, which in turn led to years of civil war in Germany. And Heinrich? So angry was the Pope with this disrespectful ruler, he was excommunicated.
The excommunication was finally revoked and Heinrich could be buried in the cathedral alongside his father and grandfather. After Heinrich IV, another five rulers were buried in the cathedral, as were four queens and a number of bishops. They’re here in the crypt, a full sized church in itself.
Other things to see and do in Speyer
- Speyer is about a 1-hour drive from Frankfurt, or 1.5 hours by train. The French border is a half-hour drive south along the Rhine River.
- The cathedral and crypt is open Mon-Sat 9-17 November-March and 9-19 April-October; 12-17 on Sundays all year.
- You can enter the cathedral free, but climbing to the Imperial Hall and the observation platform on top costs €6. I had a guided tour of Speyer Cathedral and highly recommend it.
- There are plenty of accommodation options in Speyer. I stayed at the Hotel am Technik Museum, located in the grounds of – you guessed it – the technical museum. There’s a caravan park on the grounds as well.
- Sadly, my time in Speyer was short, but when I return, I want to visit the Technik Museum. There’s a Lufthansa 747, an old Soviet Antonov aircraft, a submarine and much more. And that’s just on the outside.
- I also want to have a look at the curiously named Wilhelmsbau Raritätenkabinett, housing an assortment of oddities. A curiosity cabinet: speaks to the child in you, doesn’t it?
- Furthermore, I want to visit the Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer (Historical Museum of the Palatinate), housed in a fabulous four-wing castle in the city centre, just steps away from the cathedral. I’m particularly interested in seeing the exhibition Detektive, Agenten & Spione (don’t even have to translate, do I?), which begins this Sunday (11 October) and lasts through July 2016.
- There are various cycling routes in and around Speyer, including routes along the Rhine, and World Heritage routes to Maulbronn, Lorsch and the Messel Pit (posts on the latter two coming up shortly).
- Finally, Speyer is a pleasant little town to wander about, with plenty of shops and good food. And there’s wine.
Disclosure: On this journey through German history, I was a guest of UNESCO Germany and the German National Tourist Organisation. Of course, anything I write is entirely up to me. Goes without saying, really.