Two Thousand Years of History In Speyer
Saturday, April 15, 2017
Our journey aboard Viking River Cruises Viking Hild as almost at an end, as our Paris to the Swiss Alps river cruise tour arrives enters its final days before we transfer to Zurich for a two-night, post-cruise stay on Monday. In the meantime, however, I’ve found my newest favourite city along the Rhine: Speyer, Germany.
Over two thousand years old, Speyer was left largely undamaged by World War II due to the fact that, as our guide said, “nothing of importance happened here.” Thus, the town only lost six of its buildings. In this region of Germany, that’s nothing short of miraculous. Mainz, where we were yesterday, was almost entirely destroyed. And as a result, Speyer still appears today largely as it always once was: a sleepy, storybook town filled with shops, biergartens, and an imposing Cathedral known as the Kaiserdom.
Today, we were docked in Speyer for the entire day, which allowed us to participate in the included walking tour of the city and still enjoy the opportunity to have lunch ashore this afternoon. And, let’s face it: on this Easter weekend, with its limited retail hours, today was the only day we’ll get until Tuesday to do some real, honest local shopping.
From Viking Hild, the town of Speyer is an easy 15-minute walk away, through one of the most picturesque (one might say quintessentially German) parks you’ve ever seen. Green grass, tall trees and immaculately maintained pathways eventually lead to the rear wall of the massive Kaiserdom cathedra.
Founded in 1030, the Kaiserdom became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. It is considered to be a turning point in European architecture, and one of the largest Romanesque monuments in existence. Its impressive façade belies an important history, with a total of eight emperors, kings and their wives that are buried here, including Conrad II, Henry III, Henry IV, Henry V, and Beatrice I, to name a few.
The Cathedral is 134 metres long – the length of the Viking Hild.
Our guided walking tour also took us to the local Hauptmarkt, or Market Square, where the Saturday Easter Market was in full swing. I loved that our guide modified our walking tour to give us 15 minutes or so at the Market; as it is only here on Saturdays, it was nice to see it and to get a chance to sample some of the local foods before continuing on.
After, we toured the Judenhof – the medieval Jewish synagogue and baths in Speyer. This ritual bath was built around 1120 and is the oldest example of such a facility north of the Alps. The immersion pool of the mikvah is located ten metres below street level, and was used for ritual cleansing after periods of “impurity.”
The stairs leading to the bath complex are uneven and worn, and the use of the handrails to descend is a must. From there, a small spiral staircase empties onto the bath itself, which is usually maintained around 6°C – or, in other words, very cold. The entire facility was preserved for hundreds of years thanks to its dual-purpose as a cache for municipal weapons. It is one of the most fascinating sights I’ve seen in Europe.
Wandering Speyer is like stepping back in time, with none of the recreation, however good, that is present in other German cities. Speyer is the real deal: a look at how the average German town probably appeared prior to 1914 and 1939. It is a beautiful, walkable, extraordinary space filled with wonder at every turn, from its whimsical, Grimm’s Fairytale-like buildings; to its charming biergartens, cafes and shops. Only the local Galleria (shopping mall) suffers from the cold, postwar architecture that afflicts so many other cities.
Some images from our day in the beautiful town of Speyer: