Photo by Matteo Ceruti
Photo by Matteo Ceruti

Exploring the historical town of Speyer

by Jessica Zen
Stripes Europe

The historical sites in Germany are numerous and vast, as almost every single town has something special to offer. For a visit to one of Germany’s oldest cities that lies along the Rhine River, head to Speyer and view the cathedral, Jewish courtyard, Sea Life Aquarium and tourist hub on Maximilianstrasse. There’s a little something for everyone hiding in this gem of a town. 

The Speyer Cathedral has been standing tall since 1061. It was commissioned to be the largest church in the world under the direction of Emperor Konrad II. In 1080, the cathedral was rebuilt as it is seen today under Henry IV, and it remains the largest Romanesque church to date. The cathedral is also the burial site for several emperors, empresses and kings, making it a focal point for burials from the Middle Ages. The crypt that runs under the choir room and transept has four rooms which feature high ceilings and arches that symbolize the divine order. The crypt leads the way to the burial place of bygone rulers and holds stone sarcophagi. 

In addition to the fascinating burial room, there is an imperial hall which houses nine frescoes by Johann Baptist Schraudolph. For the best view of the frescoes, the southwest tower has a viewing platform, which can be reached by climbing 90 steps. For an even better view of Speyer and the Rhine Valley, make the climb up 214 additional steps to the top of the tower. The cathedral has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981 and is a beautiful example of Romanesque architecture. This cathedral offers 60 minute guided tours which include a look inside the crypt. Prices and times are available online.

Other remnants of the Middle Ages in Speyer are the synagogue ruins and ritual bath. The synagogue ruins, which include only the east wall of the original building, are the oldest standing representations of a Jewish place of worship. The ruins are left over from the Jewish community that flourished from 1084-1349. In 1349, a pestilence spread throughout Europe; the unfortunate outcome was the persecution of Jewish families. Their homes and worship sites were burned, but the trouble didn’t end there. By the 19th century, the Jewish population in Speyer began to flourish again but were again cast out due to anti-Semitism. By 1939, there were only 77 Jews living in Speyer, almost all of whom didn’t survive the Holocaust. It wasn’t until the 1990s that there was a sizeable Jewish population in Speyer again. 

Close to the ruins is the ritual bath, the oldest of its kind in central Europe. It sits 32 feet below ground and was once used for Jews to practice religious cleansing. The bath, or mikveh, is covered by glass for protection and features Romanesque architecture on the inside that was once very colorful. 

After taking in all the heavy history associated with the synagogue and bath, take a break from learning and head to Sea Life for some family fun. There are so many activities for the kids that they are sure to have a good time! Check out the freshwater area, shipwreck, North Sea area and ocean area where Marty the turtle likes to eat broccoli and salad. Tickets for Sea Life start at 11.55 euros for adults and 9.45 euros for children and are available online. The aquarium is open Monday - Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. There is a daily feeding at 4 p.m. for all children to join. 

For some typical tourist fun, head to Maximilianstrasse, which was created in the 11th century to connect the cathedral to the rest of the city. It once saw emperors on horseback and wine markets. Pope John Paul II even drove down this famous street! Today the street is still home to many parades and festivals. Along the cobblestones of Maximilianstrasse, you’ll find cafes, coffee shops and museums interspersed with beautiful Baroque architecture. 

Add the incredible town of Speyer to your list of places to visit within Germany. You’ll not only learn a few historical facts, but you’ll also ogle the impressive cathedral architecture! 

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