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Speyer – visiting the 2000 year old Imperial City

Posted by Denny Koch on September 25, 2010

The famous Imperial Cathedral

In July 2010, we visited one of the oldest cities in Germany: Speyer, the 2000 years old Imperial city of Roman origin, next to the river Rhine. It is located in the Palatinate region, surrounded by the low mountain ranges of the Palatinate forest and the Odenwald.

Historical overview

Speyer is a very interesting city with a rich history. Before the arrival of the Romans, it was a very lively German settlement, located on one of the most important ancient traffic routes because of its close proximity to the Rhine and the river Neckar (which eventually leads into the Danube). The oldest archeological finds are from the Neolithic, the Bronze Age, and Hallstatt culture. Certainly the most famous and most important archeological discovery was the Golden Hat of Schifferstadt, dating back to 1,500 B.C. This hat can be admired in the Historical Museum of the Palatinate in Speyer – which we did.

Speyer has a rich Roman history, as you will learn in the Historical Museum of the Palatinate

Pre-Roman Speyer was settled by the Teutonic tribe of the Nemetes and by Celts. Around 10 BC, the Romans (who had just conquered the Gauls) erected a military garrison which was intended to protect the Rhine and  to serve as a base for further conquests on the east side of the Rhine during the reorganization after the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest. After a while, the settlement began to flourish and became the Roman city of Civitas Nemetum.

The Historical Museum of the Palatinate has a very large and impressing exhibition of Roman, German, and Celtic finds from the region and we really enjoyed our visit in the Museum. Actually, it is one of the most enjoyable historical museums we ever visited and the exhibition items are well-arranged and presented in a very modern and lively fashion.

In 346 AD, Speyer became a diocesan town and in the 969, Emperor Otto the Great granted the bishops immunity and special privileges, so that Speyer actually was controlled and ruled by the bishops. With the election of the Salian king Konrad II who became King of Germany, Speyer became the Imperial city from which the Emperors ruled over the country for centuries.

The Romanic cathedral was added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 1981

In 1061, one of the most famous Romanic cathedrals in Germany, the Speyer Cathedral, was consecrated. Today, the cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site and certainly worth a visit. In the crypt, the tombs of the old German emperors can still be visited today.

The "Altpörtel" is one of the oldest and most important city gates in Germany

During the Middle Ages and under the rule of several Emperors, many important historical events took place in Speyer: Henry IV departed for Canossa in 1071 and Bernard of Clervaux went here at the beginning of the Second Crusade in 1141. In 1143, Richard the Lionheart was extradited to Henry VI.

Later, Speyer suffered heavy destruction during several wars (the Thirty Years War, War of the Palatine Succession), when the city was occupied by Spanish, Swedish, French, and Imperial troops. At the end of the 17th century, Speyer was put to the torch, so that over 700 houses were destroyed.

Under Napoleon, Speyer fell to France but was returned to Germany later. Under the Nazi regime, the famous Speyer synagogue was destroyed in the Reichskristallnacht which marked an end to the rich Jewish life for which Speyer was famous since the 11th century. During World War II, fortunately the city wasn’t destroyed, only 2 allied bombs hit the town and the Rhine bridge was destroyed by retreating German forces. The city was then liberated by US troops and became part of the French occupation zone later.

In 1990, Speyer celebrated the 2000-years-anniversary. With the Cathedral, the fantastic museums (Historical Museum and the Technology Museum which is one of the largest in Europe and famous for the Russian Space Shuttle Buran), many buildings from the Middle Ages, one of the largest Medieval city gates (called “the Altpörtel”), lots of Biergartens, and amazingly friendly and open-hearted locals, Speyer is certainly worth a visit and a tourist attraction you shouldn’t miss if you happen to come to Germany.

HFC on tour: travelogue

Check out our image gallery for many more photos!

We arrived in Speyer by train on one of the hottest days this summer (close to 40 C / 104 F). You should know that Germany is famous for NOT having air condition in buildings, especially not in old historical towns (except from big stores and supermarkets…), so places for cooling down were rare.

Technology Museum

The accessible Boeing 747 is one of the highlights of the Technology Museum

Our hotel was a former army barrack, located next to the Technology Museum. Speyer isn’t a very large city (population 50,000) and all interesting sites can be reached on foot. Most parts of the Old Town are closed to cars anyway, so you can enjoy walking through old streets and along historical buildings without being disturbed by too much traffic. The Speyer Cathedral is really huge, so you can’t get lost… you will always see the towers of the Cathedral, wherever you go. In addition, one of the most famous Technology Museum exhibits is an accessible Boeing 747 high above the outdoor area, which can be seen from many places as well.

The Technology Museum is very impressive. Many planes, helicopters, and other exhibits are accessible, you can even climb into a submarine by the German Navy. In addition, there is an IMAX 360-DOME in the museum where you can watch awesome documentations about the moon, the alps, jet fighters, the Nile, the universe on a 360 degree screen dome.

Messerschmitt Bf-109

The Museum consists of several halls and 100,000 square metres of outdoor area. The main hall is the former railway station of the French city Lille which was moved to Germany in 1915 and later used by the French as a tank production facility. Other exhibition halls are former hangars because the entire area was used by the French Army until 1984 – which is the reason why the Technology Museum hotel is located  within several former barracks.

Despite the size, the Museum is maintained by a non-profit association with more than 2000 members world-wide. Many exhibits are donations by other countries, governments, and armies, or by private collectors. Restoring and maintaining the exhibits is funded by the entrance fees and donations. Entrance fee is 13 Euros, which isn’t too expensive – you definitely get something for your money. You can even combine your visit to the museum with staying in the Museum hotel, there are special offers available.

Some impressions from the museum (for more images, check out our photo gallery!):

Inside the first hall

Half-tracked German motorcycle

Andreas, riding a train

Inside the submarine U9

The Russian Space Shuttle "Buran"

The (in)famous Russian helicopter "Hind"

One of the largest transport planes ever built: The "Antonov" from the outside...

Some of the most famous exhibits – besides the Boeing 747 and the Space Shuttle – are an accessible Antonov An-22, the submarine U9, the Russian helicopter Mi-24 (“Hind”), several historical trains, vintage cars, motorcycles, and planes, from old biplanes to WWII planes (like Ju-52, Messerschmitt Bf-109, Do-24) up to modern fighter jets.

Bringing the large exhibits to the museum (most are shipped over the Rhine) is always a spectacular event; the shipping of the Russian Space Shuttle was even aired on television in the evening news.

…and inside!

We climbed several planes, ships, helicopters, and – of course – the space shuttle Buran in the special “Space Flight Hall” with a special exhibition about the history of space flight. The hangars and halls don’t have any air condition (they are simply too old, too large and it would be too expensive for such a small non-profit association to cool them in the summer and to heat them in the winter. That  means you have to dress according to the season when you visit the Museum.

We then visited a funny 3D-Simulator with an “Under-Water-Experience”, wearing HUGE 3D glasses in a small cabin which was then lifted and shaken like a flight simulator . After that we went to the IMAX cinema and watched a documentation about the Moon. It was an US documentation and especially designed for being projected to a 360 degrees dome, so we were suitably impressed.

Enjoying Palatinate cuisine

Evening in the Old Town

After spending most of the day in the museum, we returned to our hotel, took a shower, and then left for the Old Town to search for traditional Palatinate food and beer.

It happened that there was a large festival in the town, the so-called “Brezelfest” – the Brezel (known in anglophone countries as “pretzel”) is a specialty from Southern Germany, so you could translate this festival with “pretzel festival.” The Brezelfest is an annual event, but this year, they celebrated the 100th anniversary, so the entire city was decorated with pretzel flags, you could buy fresh Brezel everywhere, there was a fair on the fairground behind the cathedral, and a historical spectaculum in the parks around the cathedral with people dressed (and celebrating) as Knights, Romans, musketeers, or Salians, portraying the long history of Speyer. There was a stage besides the old city gate where several bands performed, for example the United States Army Europe Soldiers’ Band.

Middle Ages reenactment at the Brezelfest

Close to the Cathedral, we discovered an old brewery named “Am Domhof” with 3 different house beers and traditional German cooking. Most people were outside in the beer garden, but we took a table inside the old massive building (which was first mentioned in the year 1340) because we hoped for a cooler surrounding within the old thick walls (it was still oppressively hot outside despite the late hour).

The fair

The waiters were very friendly and nice and tried to satisfy our needs before we even registered we had those needs. We ate a fantastic meal and tried all 3 different beers (a heavy dark one, a light one which was naturally clouded, and a yeast variant). All three beers were exceptionally good.

After spending some hours in the rustic atmosphere of the brewery, we decided to visit the fair and fairgrounds with the medieval reenactments. It was becoming dark by now, and the fair was very crowded, so it was hard to get another beer there. Since this was the 100th Brezelfest, there were some historical carousels and attractions next to hyper-modern ultra brutal rides. We visited a very retro boxing booth were people could volunteer to box against Russian professional boxers (if they knocked them down within one round, they would get a prize money, but of course all volunteers, mostly drunk and boasting young men, were beaten within minutes or even seconds…), ate some sweets, and then we left the fair to search for a beer garden. We found it in the Old Town  in a quiet corner were we drank another beer before we returned to the hotel at the Technology Museum.

The Romanic Cathedral of Speyer

Inside the Cathedral

On the next morning, we got up early, enjoyed a rich breakfast buffet in our hotel and then went to the Imperial Cathedral of Speyer. It was very hot again, despite the early hour, so we were truly relieved when we entered the cold Cathedral.

The Speyer Cathedral (official name: Imperial Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption and St Stephen), is the largest and oldest Romanic church world-wide and was declared UNESCO World Heritage in 1981. It is the seat of the Roman Catholic bishop of Speyer. It was built-in 1030 and consecrated in 1061. Since then, the spacious crypts beneath the Cathedral served as a burial site for various Salian, Stauffer, and Habsburgian kings and emperors.

The Imperial Cathedral

The church was ransacked and occupied during several wars, and heavily damaged more than once.  In the great fire in 1689, when Speyer was put to the torch by French troops, Gothic elements which had been added later, were destroyed, and parts of the church collapsed. There were plans to build a pompous baroque palace instead of restoring the Cathedral, but in the end, the palace was built in Bruchsal close to the Black Forest. Franz Ignaz Neumann, son of famous architect Balthasar Neumann, rebuilt the Cathedral in 1772. Later, Napoleon’s troops ransacked the church again and later used it as an army hospital. During the 19th century and again in 1957, the church was restored to the original Romanic style with the intention of restoring the initial architecture and interior.

First, we visited the church itself, which is very plain and unadorned (typical for the Romanesque style). Then we went down to the crypts (were we had to pay a small entrance fee which is used to maintain the monument) and viewed old hand-colored bibles from the 11th century and of course the Imperial tombs of the old German emperors Konrad II, Henry III, IV, V, Beatrice I who was second wife to Barbarossa, Philipp, son of Barbarossa, King Rudolph of Habsburg, Adolph of Nassau, Albert I of Germany.

We took our time to wander through the crypts because the hallways and tunnels beneath the church were the coldest location we found in Speyer.

The Emperors' tombs

Inside the crypt

Historical Museum of the Palatinate

The Historical Museum of the Palatinate

The Museum opened at 10 a.m. and it was only a few steps from the Cathedral. Because of the weather, or the Brezelfest, or both, we had the museum almost to ourselves which was very cool.

The Museum has several sections for the most important eras of the Palatinate History, from early history to Roman, German, and Celtic settlements, up to the Middle Ages and modern times. The Cathedral treasury is located there as well.

We started on the top floor where exhibits from the 16-19th centuries were displayed. We then worked our way down into the lower sub-basement levels and were surprised how large the museum actually is. There were always more levels and more sections deep down below the museum, just when we thought we had seen it all and the entire building was much larger than it appeared at first glance from the outside.

The famous Golden Hat

After viewing paintings, clothing, weapons, letters, uniforms, and other items from the  Thirty Years War and other conflicts, we went down into the Wine exhibition. The Palatinate is one of the most famous wine regions in Germany and the museum displays a collection of historical winepresses and other things related to wine, as well as the oldest wine world-wide, a bottle with a slimy yellow something inside which could be dated back to Roman times. The bottle of wine was unearthed during excavation for building a house near the town of Speyer and it was inside one of two Roman stone sarcophaguses.

We then visited the Stone and Bronze ages. The section was nicely decorated with much to explore, very child-friendly and interactive. Wax figures, dressed like Neanderthals, were seated in a large room and when we came too close, a loud voice boomed over a hidden speaker: “DON’T TOUCH ME!”. This was very funny and we of course were compelled to move as close as possible whenever we saw a wax figure. 😉

The oldest wine in the world (325 AD)

The early history section displayed old arrowheads, pottery, cult objects, weapons, and everyday objects. The highlight (and the museum’s most important exhibit) was the Golden Hat (only four of these are known world-wide) which is interpreted as a ceremonial hat of a priest of high trans-regional authority.

We then moved on to the Roman section where Roman statues, weapons, everyday objects, as well as  Old Germanic and Celtic finds were displayed. We tried out an old Roman board game (I won, but afterwards we found out that we got the rules completely wrong…so Andreas said it doesn’t count), and could experience how life was for a Roman soldier in the military barracks. Despite being intended for children, we put on Roman helmets (made of felt) and robes and moved around in the re-built barracks where we learned how Roman soldiers slept and ate. We had our fun with Roman soldier wax figures and learned how heavy a Roman shield was – and decided that we didn’t want to cross the alps wearing such a heavy shield and Roman army sandals.

After spending much time in the Roman section, we viewed the Cathedral treasury which was very well presented in an atmospheric setting and  lighted by artful and subtle light. The treasury contains the treasures from the Emperors’ tombs, crowns, and personal property of the Emperors as well as a modern reconstruction of Henry IV’s face. In addition, there are liturgy robes of the bishops and important Christian artefacts and reliquaries.

Roman reenactment, HFC style

More Roman reenactment

"You! There! On your way!"

It was not allowed to take pictures from the treasury, but you could freely photograph in the rest of the museum, even with flashlight. We were really delighted by this modern, interactive, and very well-thought out museum which is a must-see if you visit Speyer.


Brezelfest decorations

After spending most of the day in the museum, we were forced back to the red-hot streets. This day should be the hottest day this year, even hotter than the day before so our timing was perfect for a sightseeing tour…

We moved along the main street (which is a via triumphalis, used by the Emperors for parades on special occasions) from the Cathedral to the Altpörtel which is one of the highest and most important city gates in Germany. It is 55 metres high (180 ft) and was built-in 1176. When Speyer was still surrounded by a city wall, it was one of 68 wall and gate towers, but now it’s the only tower left. The name was thought to be derived from the old Roman “alta porta” (=high tower), but how exactly it came to the name “Altpörtel” name is unknown (“alt” means old in modern-day German, but “Pörtel” isn’t a modern German word at all). Since the tower was first mentioned in 1176, its name has been “vetus porta” (=Latin: old gate) in contrast to the destroyed “nova porta” (new gate).

Speyer from above (Cathedral and main street)

The gate survived the destruction of the city during the War of the Palatinate Succession. Beneath the Altpörtel is a dungeon with a torture chamber. The tower can be climbed, which is very popular because of the nice panorama view. The entrance fee is very moderate with 1 Euro or 50 cents for students.

We climbed the tower and then we enjoyed the view over Speyer with the Cathedral, the fair and the Boeing at the Technology Museum. In the distance, we could see the hills of the Palatinate Forest and the Odenwald, the surrounding mountain ranges.

After enjoying the panorama, it was time for us to say good-bye to Speyer. We really enjoyed our short trip into this old town, rich of history and with exceptional museums.

Denny and the old Emperors

We can recommend this old Imperial City wholeheartedly to all visitors who are interested in Roman and German history, in medieval Europe, in Technology, and in church architecture. In addition, you get the Rhine for free, and – if you come in July – the annual Brezelfest which is one of the most famous fairs and festivals in the upper Rhine region.

Certainly not one of the typical well-known tourist attractions in Germany, but definitely an insider’s tip!

And don’t forget to check out our image gallery – with many more Speyer photos 🙂

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