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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.

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