The third instalment of our journey tracking down the Top 5 Attractions along the Romanesque Route in Germany.
“Magdeburg has Otto, but we have his father,” my guide Elmar joked.
Although Otto the Great gets much of the attention as the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, it was his father, Henry the Fowler and the Duke of Saxony, who brought together the duchies and held title as the first king of a united Kingdom of Germany. Otto went on to further consolidate his father’s achievements by expanding the family’s powerbase over the aristocracy and church, defeating the Slavs to the east, and exerting control over the Kingdoms of Burgundy and Italy.
Pretty impressive achievements for sure. But to some, Henry stands out as more important when it comes to Germany because he was, after all, the first king. And there’s no one like your first.
Little wonder that Quedlinburg Abbey (founded in 936) in which Henry rests has ever since become a sacred site for generations of Ottonian kings and emperors to pay their respects. The location is steeped in great significance beyond simple cathedral architecture. So much so that, rather infamously, it has become colloquially known as the ‘Nazi Cathedral’ because Henrich Himmler, Head of the SS, upheld the site as a sacred place in crafting a history of the Germanic people that supposedly linked Hitler in lineage to the original kings. To this end the Nazis occupied the cathedral and used it for their propagandist purposes.
When the Americans captured the cathedral near the end of the war, Quedlinburg received yet another black-eye as an American soldier, Lieutenant Joe T. Meador, absconded with several of its treasures, the fate of which were unknown until they began to emerge for sale in 1987. Fortunately a number of the pieces were repatriated and are now on display.
One may come to Quedlinburg for the famed abbey but they will definitely want to stay for the town itself. Wandering the narrow cobblestone streets of half-timbered buildings, this wonderfully preserved town evokes a sense of stepping back in time. Modern shops are few and far between. Nor will you find a McDonalds (the mayor reportedly rejected the proposition). Even the hotels for tourists tend to be small family-run, often in historic buildings, rather than modern glass and concrete towers.
That there is a significant lack of automobile traffic on the very pedestrian-friendly streets makes Quedlinburg’s lure all the more so. Consequently the town is about as quaint as one can find in the German heartland.
Sitting in the large and airy main square surrounded by rows of restaurants and cafes, slipping down a side street to Brauhaus Lüdde to sample their craft beer, or tucking yourself away with a book and espresso at a small café where pastries are baked onsite, this is a town designed for lingering and curious exploration.
That is not to say all is pristine. Quedlinburg has its share of scars. Although the town escaped bombing during the Second World War, the subsequent neglect during the GDR period meant that a number of buildings fell into disuse and decay. Still, this neglect and a lack of funding to demolish and rebuild many of the buildings in a soviet style meant that the historic bones remained after the USSR collapsed and restoration money began to flow in.
Achieving UNESCO World Heritage site status has further helped restoration efforts, especially in the touristic old section. The ability to travel through the nearby countryside on a steam train further adds to the feeling of stepping back in time.
To see occasional dilapidated buildings on the verge of crumbling alongside recently renovated old classics is part of the charm. Although there are plenty of tourists, one does not get the feeling of walking around in a reconstructed diorama but rather a well preserved and thoughtfully restored historic German town filled with locals going about their daily lives. Authentic and real. This is a town that is truly historic; restored rather than rebuilt. Hopefully UNESCO status will help ensure that Quedlinburg will remain that way for a long time to come. And if you swing by Brauhaus Lüdde, definitely try their schwartzbier!