South-West Germany

South-West Germany 
(and Luxembourg)

Baden-Würtemberg, Hessen, Rheinland-Pfalz

June 17th - 22nd, 2020

I had just arrived in Panama in early March, when the global coronavirus pandemic started to shut down the entire world. I managed to get one of the last flights from Central America back to Europe, and arrived in Germany on March 16th, for what I expected would be an extended period of global lock-down. Fortunately, Germany acted fairly decisively and quickly at that stage, and managed to get at least the first wave of the pandemic reasonably under control. When lock-down restrictions started to be eased in late May, and hotels re-opened in June, I was at least able to begin travelling in Germany again. Although I grew up and spent the first 24 years of my life in Germany, there are still a lot of places I had not seen yet. So I decided to use this opportunity to explore more of my home country. And I also set myself a new goal to try and visit all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Germany. I certainly have my work cut out there, since the country is home to 46 of them. This is my first Germany blog post about my 6-day road trip through parts of the South-West and the world heritage sites this region has to offer.

Maulbronn Monastery
I left Munich in the morning for the 2.5 hour drive to the small Swabian town of Maulbronn, which is home to the astounding Cistercian Abbey of Maulbronn. The Abbey is considered to be one of the best-preserved and most complete medieval monastery complexes in all of Europe. Construction started in 1147 and it combines several architectural styles from Romanesque to late Gothic. Maulbronn Monastery was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1993. 

The abbey church is the earliest construction in Germany that included Gothic style elements. The building therefore played a major role in the spread of Gothic architecture throughout northern Europe.

The whole complex includes a small village, located inside the monastery walls, consisting of these incredibly beautiful half-timbered houses, which mostly stem from the 16th and 17th century.

My next stop was the city of Heidelberg in the state of Baden-Würtemberg, where I spent two nights. Heidelberg is among the most picturesque as well as historically important cities in Germany (and somewhat a major failure on my part that I had never been there previously.) The beautifully preserved baroque city center with its narrow streets, nestled along the river Neckar, is overlooked by the ruins of the enormous Renaissance castle. Heidelberg is also home to Germany's oldest university, which was founded in 1386.

Schloss Heidelberg is a huge Renaissance palace that was built on top of a much older medieval castle on a hill overlooking the city and the river. The castle was destroyed during the Thirty Years' War and the Palatine War of Succession in the 17th century, and today is probably Germany's most famous ruin.

There is a more than 100 year old funicular train that takes you from the city up to the top of the Königstuhl mountain. You can enjoy great views of the city and river valley from the top of the Kaiserstuhl, and the castle is an intermediate stop along the funicular route. 

In the early evening I walked up the famous 'Philosophenweg', which meanders up the hill on the other side of the river, and from which you have these amazing views across the whole of the old city, the castle and the old Neckar bridge, built in 1788.

If you keep going up the mountain after the Philosophenweg ends, you reach a strange Nazi monument. The so-called Thingstätte is a huge amphiteater cut out of the rock, that was meant to be used for nationalistic parades and other perfomances.  

Speyer Cathedral
After leaving Heidelberg I made my way to the nearby town of Speyer to see its famous cathedral. The Imperial Cathedral of Speyer is considered to be one of the most important examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe. Construction began in 1030 and continued throughout the 11th century. The building had a huge influence on the developments in architecture in 11th and 12th century Europe.

For a period of 300 years Speyer cathedral was also the burial place of the German emperors. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981, among the the first three monuments in Germany to receive that honor.

The building is equally impressive from the inside as it is from the outside. The enormously high nave is flanked by massive red sandstone pillars. 

Below the main church building is the crypt, which contains the remains of eight German kings and emperors and their wives, who were buried here between 1039 and 1308. Supported by 20 columns it is the largest Romanesque crypt in Europe. The remarkably realistic statue of Rudolf von Habsburg (1218 - 1291), which was likely carved during his lifetime, is very unusual for this period. It shows the king as an old man with a pained expression on his face, which was meant to show the weight and burden of his responsibilities as a ruler.

Lorsch Abbey
The next item on my list of UNESCO World Heritage sites were the ruins of the Abbey of Lorsch, a small town in the state of Hessen. The abbey was founded in 764, and is one of the very few remaining monuments from the Carolingian era of 8th and 9th century AD.

The Königshalle, built around 900 AD, is an extremely rare example of Carolingian architecture and one of the oldest free standing buildings in all of Germany. You can visit the inside of the hall (if you ask and buy a ticket in the museum across the street) and see the remarkably well preserved 1000 year old murals.

Lorsch Abbey was one of the wealthiest and most important monastic centers in 9th century Europe. It continued to flourish into the 12th century, but lost its importance after being incorporated under the Electorate of Mainz in 1232. It was abandonded as a monastery after the Reformation in the 16th century. Lorsch Abbey was given World Heritage status in 1991 due to its age and historical importance, and because there are very few monuments from this era left anywhere north of the Alps.

Trier and its Roman Monuments
The city of Trier, located at the western edge of Germany along the banks of the river Moselle and near the border to Luxembourg, is believed to be the oldest city in Germany. It started out as a Celtic settlement in the 4th century BC, and was captured by Rome in the 1st century AD. Named Augustus Treverorum, the city grew to be one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire by the 3rd and 4th century. Trier continued to be an important religious center after the Romans left and into the middle ages, as it was the first bishop's seat north of the Alps. Today it is a small but lively city with a population of just over 100,000, filled with ancient Roman and medieval monuments.  

This is the oldest building in all of Germany. Built around 180 AD, the Porta Nigra was the northern gate to the Imperial Roman city of Augusta Treverorum. During the middle ages, the building was transformed into a catholic church, which is the main reason it survived this long. It was Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804 who decided that the Porta Nigra should be converted back to its Roman form.

Trier Cathedral is the oldest church in Germany. The central nave was built during Roman times, while the rest of the structure was built in the Romanesque style in the early middle ages.

Right next to the cathedral is the Liebfrauenkirche. Built in the early 13th century it is one of the earliest Gothic churches in Germany.

Trier's Roman Monuments together with the cathedral and the Liebfrauenkirche were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1986. One of the most impressive of the Roman ruins can be found a bit outside the city center - the Roman Amphitheater, where up to 18,000 spectators watched gladiator contests. There are huge catacombs underneath, from where gladiators, horse drawn carriages and wild animals could be lifted up into the arena via elevator platforms.

Other important Roman monuments in Trier include the 'Römerbrücke' and the remains of the huge Imperial Baths. The bridge, which crosses the river Moselle, was originally built in the 2nd century AD and is the oldest standing bridge in Germany. The top part of the bridge was rebuilt later, but the pillars are still the original Roman structures. 

After Trier, I wnet on a day trip across the border to Luxembourg - my first time crossing an international border in almost 3 months.

With a population of just over 600,000 and a land area slightly smaller than Hong Kong, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which is the official name, is one of the smaller countries in the world. The capital city, which is also named Luxembourg, has a population of just over 100,000. It is one of the four official capitals of the European Union, and it is the seat to several important EU institutions, including the European Court of Justice.    

The old town of Luxembourg is built on top of a very steep rocky outcropping. Due to this strategic position and the huge fortifications built up over the centuries, it became one of the most formidable and largest fortresses in Europe. The old town with its fortifications was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994.

I spent an afternoon walking around the historical town and down through the Grund quarter, which lies below the huge and vertical cliffs of the old town. 

Völkingen Iron Works
On my way back home to Munich I spent a night in Saarbrücken, and went to see one more world heritage site in the nearby town of Völklingen. This was certainly not the most picturesque site I've ever visited, but fascinating nevertheless. The Völklingen ironworks were among the first industrial monuments given UNESCO World Heritage status. They are the only complete example of an integrated ironworks built in the late 19th and early 20th century in Western Europe.

Started in 1873 the Völklingen ironworks played an important role in Germany's industrialization. During World War II thousands of prisoners of war and slave laborers were forced to work here under appallng conditions. After the war, the ironworks reached their peak production during Germany's economic boom in the 1950's and 60's. Operations were shut down in 1986, but the site was preserved in its entirety, and today functions as a fascinating museum of industrial history.

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