A Day in Speyer

For the first time in decades, while in Germany a month ago, I spend a day in Speyer, an easy one hour train ride from my father’s house. Only vague recollections of a former visit persisted in my memory, but as soon as I arrive at the Main City Gate (Altpörtel in German, literally: old portal), they are refreshed.



The prospect before my eyes must be one of Rhineland-Palatinate’s, if not of Germany’s, most iconic. This medieval gate with foundations reaching back to the 13th century, opens onto an ample avenue, named Maximilianstraße, the main west-east artery.

Maximilianstraße with Cathedral

Maximilianstraße with Cathedral

It is bordered by an amalgamation of age-old and modern buildings and culminates in the heart of this city, which is also one of Central Europe’s most awe-inspiring edifices: The Imperial Cathedral of Speyer. This exemplifies one of three sacred structures in the state built in the Romanesque style, alongside Worms and Mainz. Among those it is the tallest, most spacious, and, in my humble opinion, most beautifully colored. Its polychrome sandstone hues offer a warm welcome, even when it’s raining cats and dogs, as is the case when I am there.

Imperial Cathedral

Imperial Cathedral

Romanesque architecture reached its acme in the 11th century and is characterized by semi-circular arches, as opposed to the pointed equivalents of the Gothic design which followed it. To me, the former appear more massive and create a down-to-earth feeling, compared with the soaring sensation engendered by the latter. Indeed, upon entering through the heavy bronze door of this colossus nearly a thousand years old, I feel dwarfed and awe-struck, an effect most likely intended by the builders.

Choir and apse of Cathedral

Choir and Apse of Cathedral

After my steps and gaze travel through the towering central nave, choir and apse, I descend the stone stairs into the crypt whose geometry and dimensions wow me no less. The sheer size of this subterranean space also sets it apart from the cathedrals of Worms and Mainz. What all three have in common are hefty stone tombs in which the remains of former secular and spiritual rulers rest for eternity.



One of the chapels is dedicated to relics, body parts of saints, a custom as alien to my understanding as it is intriguing.

Relic of Saint Paul Josef Nardini

Relic of Saint Paul Josef Nardini (1821-1862)

I would linger longer at this church if the Emperor’s Hall with its famous frescoes, and the observation platform in one of the towers were not closed for the winter season. I am not alone in my admiration: In 1981, the cathedral was added to the illustrious list of UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage Sites.

In close proximity to the main thoroughfare, additional destinations abound. I direct my steps past churches from more recent centuries, as well as memorials to prominent citizens. One of them, hitherto unknown to me, was Sophie la Roche (1730-1807), a woman writer who achieved fame in the 1700s. Her novel, Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, catapulted her out of oblivion, and into the limelight of the German literary stage. She founded the first German women’s magazine, Pomona: For Germany’s Daughters, and had significant interactions with and influence on the likes of Wieland, Klopstock, Goethe and Schiller. How I had never heard of her I do not know, but I am currently remedying my ignorance by reading her biography.

Sophie La Roche's Former Residence and Museum

Sophie La Roche’s Former Residence and Museum

Speyer, Worms, and Mainz represented major centers of Jewish learning and culture in the Middle Ages. They were known as ShUM cities, an acronym derived from the initial Hebrew letters of their medieval names, Shpira, Warmaisa, and Magenza. All three suffered similarly in the wake of the Anti-Semitism that ebbed and surged throughout the ages, which resulted in the repeated destruction of residences and places of worship.

Mosaic of Medieval Speyer at the Museum

Mosaic of Medieval Speyer at the Jewish Museum

The Judenhof (Jewish Courtyard) commemorates the horrendous history of the local Jewish residents with a museum, the ruins of the erstwhile synagogue, and the oldest ritual bath north of the Alps. The synagogue was completed in 1104 and served the Jewish community for nearly 400 years, until one of many waves of banishment.

Ruins of Synagogue

Ruins of Medieval Synagogue

The structure was then repurposed by the town fathers. Except for surviving portions of the walls, it was destroyed in the Palatinate War of Succession in 1689 which wreaked havoc on vast expanses of this state. The ritual bath (mikvah in Hebrew) dates to 1120. Its second use as municipal arsenal after 1500 protected it from hostile interventions, and its underground position from the conflagration of 1689.



Successors to the medieval synagogue were destroyed by the pogroms of November 1938, known as the Night of the Broken Glass. Since 2012, Speyer has a new Jewish religious home, a hopeful symbol of acceptance and peaceful coexistence. Because of their legacy, the three sister cities are being considered for world heritage status by UNESCO, and a decision is expected in 2021.

New Synagogue

New Synagogue

I regret that the fading hours of the day put an end to my exploration. The verdant park surrounding the cathedral which links it to the promenade along the nearby Rhine River, the Historic Museum of the Palatinate, and further alluring sites will have to wait for a future trip.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:


My Favorite Windows

Whenever I am in Germany a journey to Mainz is a personal necessity, for nostalgia’s sake, and always includes a few must sees. From my father’s house I travel about 22 miles by train, profiting from the expedient public transportation system, and disembark at the station named Römisches Theater, on account of the surviving ruins of an ancient theater, one of many relics in this erstwhile Roman hub and present-day capital of Rhineland-Palatinate.


The proximity of the railroad tracks to the urban center facilitates sightseeing. Through the Augustinerstraße with its eminent rococo church and its half-timbered, centuries-old houses, I reach the core of downtown Mainz.


Its central plaza becomes the picturesque stage for a farmer’s market on three days each week throughout the year. My eyes feast on the color spectrum of fruits, vegetables, and flowers, on countless appetizing breads and cheeses.


The square is flanked by ornately decorated villas and one of three Romanesque Catholic Cathedrals along the Rhine River, along with Speyer and Worms (see previous post). Each Saturday at noon, an organ matinée invites visitors to take a contemplative pause. In Colorado I miss this widespread availability of free music in one venue or another, and gladly make use of the opportunity.


Adjoining the market place opposite the cathedral is a museum, named after Johannes Gutenberg. The city’s most famous son also lent his name to the local university, my alma mater, where I met the love of my life nearly 27 years ago. In the 1400s, Gutenberg invented printing by moveable type, at least in the Western hemisphere (the Chinese preceded Europeans in this technique by hundreds of years). This revolutionized the printing process and resulted in the supreme rule of books which lasted for centuries and has only recently been slowed by the advent of digital letters. I am happy that my re-exploration after many years shows the museum as informative and interesting as I had hoped (more about the spellbinding history of paper and printing in a future post).


Following a 10 minutes’ walk, I reach St. Stephan’s Church which towers over the hilly southeastern flank of Mainz. Originally dating back to the year 990, the current incarnation rose from the rubble of bomber attacks in World War II.


Its shattered crystal was replaced with spectacular stained-glass windows after the resident pastor had the brilliant idea to commission them from artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Fortunately, he agreed. Russian-born, he left the Soviet Union a few years after the Revolution and moved to Paris. When German troops invaded their western neighbor, he went into exile in the United States until his return to France after the war, where he made his home until his death at the age of 97. Mainz is among the fortunate recipients of his inspired art. He designed 9 windows and oversaw their completion at a studio in Reims, France, during his lifetime. After his passing, his fellow artist and friend, Charles Marq (1923-2006), continued the task, using similar colors and techniques but realizing his own style nonetheless. The collection of 28 windows of varying size which run the gamut of concrete biblical scenes to more abstract motifs was concluded in 2000.


Regardless of how often I enter the unpretentious church building, I am never prepared for the cobalt splendor about to embrace me.


A deep blue suffuses the interior and it feels as though I am diving into a profound, calm pool. The short wavelengths emanating from the glass create the illusion of depth and contrast magnificently with bright and cheerful golds, reds, greens, and purples.


I am overcome with an immediate sense of calm and arrested time, and when my eyes adjust to the ambient light, the contrast of the colors deepens. On a sunny day, the tones sparkle and dance, but even under cloudy skies they luminesce with a strength of their own. This is not a destination to hurry through. Rather, it welcomes the viewer to decelerate, take a seat and a deep breath, and contemplate the glory.


Chagall, having escaped the threat of deportation and death by the Nazi regime because of his Jewish heritage, graciously contributed to reconciliation between Germany and France, Christians and Jews, with his exceptional bequest. What a wonderful way to propagate his pacifist ideals, and to let the visitor participate in his beautiful vision.

Click here for the German Version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:


A Walk through Worms

Multiple trips to Worms are par for the course whenever I have occasion to visit Germany. It is my birthplace and even though I grew up in two nearby villages, I spent nine formative years there, attending high school from grades 5 to 13, inextricably linking my memories with this city built adjacent to the Rhine River.

It is well-nigh impossible to stroll through Worms without stumbling across clues of its long history, with archeologic digs proving human settlement as early as 5000 BC. After the passing of the Celts and the fall of the Roman Empire, in the 5th century the area was the purported realm of the King of Burgundy and the Nibelungen, fabled Germanic peoples known for the all-too-human-traits of love, envy, greed, revenge, leading to murder and mayhem. Their trials and tribulations were immortalized in a great epic, the Nibelungenlied, recorded in the 13th century in Middle High German, and multiple monuments in present-day Worms depict its protagonists. Since 2002, the drama is re-enacted in an annual open-air festival attracting spectators from near and far.


Fountain with Siegfried, hero of the Nibelungenlied, dragon slayer


Hagen, villain of the epic, about to drown the treasure of the Nibelungen in the Rhine River

The Roman Catholic Church erected its own monument. The Cathedral St. Peter was begun in the 11th century, on the site of a basilica from the year 600. It is one of a trio of Romanesque Imperial Cathedrals, including those of Speyer and Mainz, located south and north along the river, respectively.


West towers of St. Peter


St. Peter’s nave with view of apse and altar

The seismic event that rent the Christian church asunder also happened here: the Diet of Worms of 1521, in which Martin Luther was summoned before the Emperor and ecclesiastic hierarchy, in order to withdraw his criticism of the church which he had propounded in his 95 Theses in 1517. He did not renounce his beliefs, and Reformation and the foundation of the Protestant denomination were the consequence. Luther himself was rendered in stone for the ages and continues to proclaim from his pedestal, “ I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, it can’t be helped. So help me God. Amen.


Luther Monument

Not far from the reformer rises the Church of the Holy Trinity, marriage chapel of my paternal grandparents. As was the case for many nearby buildings, it was bombed by the Allies in February 1945 and rebuilt with modifications in the 1950s.


Holy Trinity Church

Another victim of the most egregious chapter of Germany’s history was the Jewish synagogue. Originally built in 1034, it was destroyed in a conflagration in the so-called Night of the Broken Glass between November 9 and 10, 1938. It, too, was reconstructed and serves as a reminder of the atrocities committed, and a hopeful beacon to tolerance and peace. Miraculously, the Jewish Cemetery, Holy Sands, with its oldest documented grave stone from 1076, survived the Nazi regime and continues to draw pilgrims.

Exterior of Jewish Synagogue

Exterior of Synagogue

Interior of Jewish Synagogue

Interior of Men’s Synagogue

Jewish Cemetery, Holy Sands

Jewish Cemetery, Holy Sands

As I amble through familiar, yet altered pedestrian zones with new storefronts, I am heartened to find my favorite book shop, displaced and downsized as a result of our Amazonized universe, but thriving nonetheless, having just celebrated its 100th birthday. As a teenager, I spent many hours here, and most of my allowance. I wend through parks, past benches that invite to linger under the canopy of stately trees, and in the presence of fragrant floral creations. I get lost in narrow residential streets endowed with their own character, find myself next to the former town wall which has been enlarged numerous times to protect the ever-growing community.

Residential area of Worms with its old town wall

Often I let my gaze follow the current of the Rhine on its way to the North Sea. The flood of nostalgic recollections tastes sweet, but is laced with the inevitable melancholy which comes from the realization that I will have to leave again soon, that I am neither completely here, nor there — the problem of straddling two worlds.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie hier für die deutsche Version: