The early cathedrals, abbeys and churches of Germany tell the tale of rival kings and emperors, of expanding Christianity and new forms of art and architecture. Standing face-to-face with millennium-old buildings, you can only think of the ingenuity and sacrifices made at the time to erect such massive and innovative structures. From atmospheric abbeys to some of the best cathedrals in Germany, prepare to be amazed.
Over one thousand years old, Aachen Cathedral (Aachener Dom) is – simply put – one of the best cathedrals in Germany. Emperor Charlemagne started construction around 796 and was buried there in 814. Originally the chapel of Charlemagne's imperial palace, the octagonal core of the cathedral was inspired by church design from the eastern part of the Holy Roman Empire, and is richly decorated with a massive chandelier, bronze doors, antique columns taken from Rome and Ravenna and golden shrines and altars dating back to the 11th century. The Carolingian stone throne in the church was used to coronate dozens of German kings and queens until the 1500s. The Cathedral Treasury is one of the best in Europe and is worth a visit for the thousand-year-old golden cross of Lothar and Charlemagne's original marble sarcophagus.
From Aachen Central Station, it's a 15-minute walk to the cathedral.
After Charlemagne conquered the Saxon lands, the area was Christianized by founding abbeys and bishoprics. Corvey Abbey was established on the banks of the Weser river in 822, and staffed by Benedictine monks from Corbie Abbey (hence the name) in what is now northern France. After the construction of the church was finished in 885, the abbots controlled a huge area for almost one thousand years before it was refashioned into a castle. Bearing witness to the missionary tasks of imperial monasteries at the time, the grand Westwork, the stone front part of the former abbey church, is the only remaining example of Carolingian-era church architecture. Inside, it has an original vaulted hall and an upper floor with galleries, featuring stucco figures and mythological friezes depicting ancient mythology. The former abbey buildings, or Civitas, only exist as excavated ruins, but indicate the abbey complex was as important as a city would be now, with a school, library, pilgrims' hospice and workshops. You can enjoy the relatively unspoilt rural setting along the river by staying the night at the cheap and cheerful Weser Aktivhotel in the castle complex, which has basic rooms and a campsite, and rents out bikes and canoes.
Corvey Abbey is 25km east of Höxter Rathaus station, 1.5–2 hours by train or car south of Hanover.
When it comes to very old buildings in northern Europe, you have to be happy with what's still standing – and the late 9th-century King's Hall (Königshalle) of Lorsch Abbey is certainly a pleasant surprise. This quirky brick building with three arches and colourful exterior sandstone decorations was once part of a majestic monastery complex, first founded in 764. For six hundred years, the relics of St Nazarius guaranteed the abbeys' wealth and popularity with pilgrims, before reforms, war and extensive use as a stone quarry destroyed the complex, leaving only a wall and fragments of buildings standing. The King's Hall was saved due to its use as a chapel for many more centuries, until modern conservation returned it back to its Carolingian state. However, its original purpose is still a mystery. The King's Hall and an exhibition of the abbey's remnants can be visited on a tour of the site, which also includes a working farm where Carolingian agricultural methods are researched.
To see a perfectly preserved medieval monastery complex, look no further than Maulbronn, where a Cistercian abbey was founded in 1147. The so-called Paradise Hall from the 13th century is a masterpiece and the first example of Gothic architecture in the German-speaking world. Beyond, the austere Romanesque church has carved choir stalls and wooden doors that date back to 1178. The monastery courtyard has several half-timbered houses and the whole complex is encircled by walls and fortifications. The Cistercians put the surroundings to good use, running several farms and channelling waterways for watermills, fish farms and sewage systems – still in use today. Since the reformation the complex has been used by a Protestant seminary, where writer Hermann Hesse spent some unhappy years, later featuring it in a semi-autobiographical novel.
Maulbronn is 20km north of Pforzheim, taking 40 minutes by car or train.
Four imposing towers – two Romanesque, two Gothic – overlook the attractive town centre of Naumburg, where the Cathedral (Naumburger Dom St Peter und St Paul) is a recent addition to the World Heritage List, despite being one of the best cathedrals in Germany. The building styles of the towers are reflected in the 13th-century interior with its carved medieval choir stalls and unique double choir screens. An anonymous stonemason known as the Naumburg Master carved the twelve extraordinary statues of the cathedral's donors, with special attention for the noblewoman Uta, who was considered the most beautiful woman of her time, and whose statue possibly inspired Disney's wicked queen in Snow White.
Naumburg is 70km west of Leipzig, an hour by train or car.
The biggest Romanesque church in the world, Speyer Cathedral (Dom zu Speyer) from 1103 has been through tough times, sustaining severe damage when French troops set it on fire in 1689. An early and ambitious 18th-century restoration programme ensured this imposing red sandstone building has essentially been preserved in its original form, a proud millennium-old reminder of immense imperial power, influencing church design across Europe. Its sensitive restoration has ensured that Speyer remains among the most beautiful cathedrals in Germany. The crypt from 1041 is the largest hall of the Romanesque era and houses the simple graves of eight medieval emperors and kings of the Holy Roman Empire. In the summer months, you can visit the Emperor’s Hall, with restored wall paintings added in the 1950s, and continue up the stairs to the 60-metre-high viewing platform in one of the fours towers. If you're adventurous you can book a tour of the dwarf gallery, an arcaded walkway just below the roof that encircles the whole building.
Heritage is much more than bricks and mortar, and Hildesheim's two massive Romanesque churches prove that even reconstructed buildings can convey important ideas about the ingenuity of the original artwork and design, and the societal circumstances at the time. Both churches were rebuilt to their original design after Hildesheim was bombed in the Second World War.
The ancient Benedictine abbey church of St Michael dates back to 1022 and looks much like it did at the time, with a fantastic painted wooden ceiling. A few hundred metres away, St Mary’s Cathedral from 1046 has stunning bronze doors – the oldest of their kind in Germany – and a bronze column, both with biblical scenes. A popular myth links the state of the millennium-old rosebush in the cathedral courtyard to the prosperity of the city, and just weeks after it burnt during the bombings, new shoots were to be seen. Nearby, Hildesheim's main square was completely reconstructed in the 1980s and features a Gothic house and the massive wooden Butchers' Guild Hall.
These seven extraordinary spiritual World Heritage sites, with their unique architecture and priceless artworks, document the first steps that were made towards the society that is now modern Germany. When you visit, think for a moment of the forty generations of visitors that, just like you, stood in awe in front of these venerable structures that are part of our common human history. Amen.
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