We went on two excursions on our first day in Germany: Speyer, a small town with a huge cathedral, in the morning and the famous old college town of Heidelberg in the afternoon.
From the ship we walked through the Cathedral’s Gardens (domgarten) and passed many strange statues along the way. You can’t miss the Cathedral, generally called the Kaiser Dom zu Speyer. It’s the largest Romanesque church in the world!
Our tour guide for the morning was none other than Dragan, our cruise director. He told us how the town began as a Roman camp more than 2000 years ago. And about a thousand years ago they started to build the cathedral. In 1090 King Heinrich IV began a reconstruction which was completed in 1106, making the cathedral one of the largest in the world.
In 1689 Louis XIV of France burned the town down, including a large part of the cathedral. And about a hundred years later Napoleon’s troops used the cathedral as a stable and storage facility and also as a hospital.
In 1815 Speyer was returned to the Germans and their leader, Ludwig I of Bavaria. Another Bavarian king, Maximilian II, built the impressive Neo-Romanesque westwork in the 1850s and the cathedral became a national monument. In 1906 a newly constructed crypt was completed for the tombs of eight kings and emperors (four of these eight rulers of the Holy Roman Empire were not crowned emperors because they didn’t get along with the current Pope and so they are considered just Kings of Germany) and several queens and bishops.
In 1957 a complete restoration was begun to make the cathedral look almost exactly as it did in the 12th century. The current restoration will be completed in 2015 at the cost of 26 million euros.
Speyer is also home to one of the oldest Jewish settlements on the Rhine and the same masons and artisans who built the cathedral also built the synagogue and baths on land given to the Jews by the bishop. The baths still exist but the synagogue was destroyed on Krystallnacht (November 9th) in 1938. Two years later all the Jews in Speyer were expelled and most were murdered in concentration camps. In the 1990s some Russian Jews, descendants of persecuted Rhineland Jews who fled over the centuries to eastern Europe, decided to return to Speyer and last year on the anniversary of Krystallnacht a new synagogue was dedicated.
The official tour ended in about an hour and we spent an additional hour on our own visiting the cathedral and walking down Maximilianstrasse, the main street of Speyer’s old town. It was our first view of a German town and it was spotless!
The sky was getting pretty gray by the time we got back to our ship for lunch — not a good omen for our planned afternoon excursion to Heidelberg. I’ll cover that trip in my next posting.