History, churches and wine make Ingelheim worth a visit

History, churches and wine make Ingelheim worth a visit

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

The Romans were great at many things, but one thing they didn’t excel at was covering their tracks. Throughout the vast European space that made up the Roman Empire, you’ll find gates, bridges, monuments and foundations of once-sprawling villas. Having left us such a rich cultural heritage to discover, it can sometimes be hard to be overwhelmed by traces of much later eras.

For a peek into another pocket of time, today’s travels are taking us to Ingelheim, a modern city of some 35,000 residents along the west bank of the Rhine, just a quick ferry ride across the river from Wiesbaden. The town’s most famous industry is Boehringer Ingelheim, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

Our journey to Ingelheim takes us back in the time to the eighth century, as Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne or Karl der Große in German, is on the rise. Born in 748 and crowned King of the Franks in 768, King of the Lombards in 774 and the Emperor of the Romans in 800, he is credited with uniting the majority of western and central Europe, and he was the first recognized emperor to rule from western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476.

In 787, Charlemagne chose Ingelheim as the location for a type of lodging known as a Kaiserpfalz. The term, which loosely translates to “imperial palace,” referred to not one but a number of castles and palaces scattered across the empire that would serve as seats of power before the emperor and his retinue would move on to carry out the business of state and make merry elsewhere. This so-called Pfalz would generally be made up of, at a minimum, a palace with a great hall known as an Aula Regia, an imperial chapel and an estate. Hundreds of such “Kaiserpfalz” existed throughout Germany, and traces of them can be found in many cities. Those in Goslar and Düsseldorf-Kaiserswerth in particular are remarkably intact.

Documents show that Charlemagne stayed in Ingelheim 10 times between 817 and 840, and was present for five imperial assemblies and four receptions for envoys. Sporadically throughout the Middle Ages, the Pfalz of Ingelheim served as a spot for stopovers, with the last imperial stay in Ingelheim made by Karl IV in 1354. The necessary infrastructure was erected on a slope some two miles up from the Rhine, and is the first of Ingelheim’s sights that we will be checking out today.

The Museum bei der Kaiserpfalz and information center at Francois-Lachenal-Platz 5 is a good place to begin your explorations. Here you can pick up informational materials and a map of the three major Kaiserpfalz sights to see, each of a different dynasty: the Aula Regia from the Carolingians, the Saalkirche Church of the Ottonians, and the Heidesheimer Gate of the Staufers. While what you’ll find is mostly ruins scattered among modern-day construction, there’s plenty enough left to spark the imagination. A couple of churches and a pretty town hall are also worth checking out while you’re wandering the area. For an overview of city highlights, see http://www.heritage-route.eu/en/ingelheim/places/#.YEdx0J1KiUk.

Our next stop brings us from the part of town known as Nieder-Ingelheim to Ober-Ingelheim, a long walk if you happen to be hoofing it. The major sight here is the Burgkirche, or Castle Church, a fortified church considered one of the best-preserved examples of this type of building in Germany. This lovely white church with its yellow trimmed tower was built over several centuries, which explains its mix of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles. If the church is open, enter inside and look at the stain-glass window depicting the Virgin Mary. The window dates back to the 15th century. Ancient stone tombs built into the walls attest to the wealth and power of long-ago local noble families. The church is surrounded by strong stone walls that beg to be climbed; to do so is possible, but only in the company of a local guide.

Burgkirche in Ingelheim | Photo from Karen Bradbury
Burgkirche in Ingelheim | Photo from Karen Bradbury

Our third and final area worthy of discovery ties back to the first: the vineyards and wineries in and around the town. Unlike most towns of the Rheinhessen growing area, Ingelheim is best known not for its white wines, but its reds. The cultivation of red wine in the area is a tradition that started with Charlemagne, who modeled his preferences after the Roman emperors who had ruled centuries before him. Several well-marked thematic trails lead visitors through the vineyards. To sample the wine instead of watching it grow, consider dropping by the Weingut Wasem, located at Edelgasse 5, or any of the other wineries clustered in this vicinity. Another area with plenty of wineries to choose from is Großwinternheim, a charming village that’s considered part of town. Looking for the perfect souvenir of Ingelheim? Search out a bottle of Carolus, a burgundy (pinot noir) cuvee produced as part of a joint project between 14 local winegrowers. The tourist office sells bottles as well.

When festivals and public events become a thing again, consider timing your visit to coincide with one of the town’s major events, to include the Eurofolkfestival in June or the Red Wine Fest at the end of September.

In the hills just outside of town, a half dozen tigers stalk and pace, but that’s a tale best saved for another day. . .

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