Editor’s note: Like Sam, I loved my time in the Rhine Valley, although I based myself in Bonn and Cologne rather than south as he did. His take on the religious history of the region is amazing, a wonderful contrast to my own experience. For more of Sam Spector’s adventures, click here to visit his index page.
As obsessed as I am with world travel, the one country that I delayed visiting was Germany. As a Jew, I had (and still have) a lot of discomfort and inherited trauma that goes along with Germany. I knew that I would one day go; however, I wanted to wait until I felt as though I was fully knowledgeable on the history of Jews and Germany, from the best of times to the Holocaust. After receiving an undergraduate degree in Judaic Studies, which largely centered around the Holocaust, a master’s degree in Hebrew Letters, rabbinical ordination, and multiple trips to concentration camps and Holocaust memorials and museums outside of Israel, I finally felt prepared to travel to Germany when the opportunity arose. That chance came in August 2017 when a random couple that I did not know reached out looking for a rabbi who would marry them atop a German castle, offering to pay for my flight in exchange for my rabbinical services. I jumped at my good fortune and created a vacation out of it, spending four days in Munich, four days in Berlin, and two days (out of necessity because it was where the wedding was being held) in the Rhineland of western Germany. While there were moments that were challenging for me being in Germany, I have to admit that I loved the country and would go back in a heartbeat. However, one of the biggest surprises was that the place that I went out of obligation to officiate the wedding ended up being my favorite spot in the whole nation.
I flew from Munich up to the hustling, bustling financial center of Germany, Frankfurt, yet spent no time in the city. Rather, as my base, I went across the Rhine River to neighboring Mainz, a small college city of 200,000 people compared to the urban area of Frankfurt’s 2.3 million. Mainz is a charming city right on the river with swans floating past and many great bars with a young vibe. I chose this city as a person fascinated with religion for two very geeky reasons. First and foremost, it was in this city that my favorite Jewish prayer, the U’netaneh Tokef, was written in the 11th century. This prayer, which acknowledges the vulnerability of every person, is one of the holiest prayers recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. However, Mainz’s bigger religious contribution was that it was in this town that Johannes Gutenberg lived his entire life and developed the first printing press, which he famously used to print the bible in the 1450s. This invention has often been hailed as the most important invention of the second millennium, and in Mainz you can visit the Gutenberg Museum and see his first two printed bibles on display. In this museum, there are also interactive demonstrations of the printing press and many exhibits.
The symbol of the city of Mainz is its massive cathedral, which is 98 feet high and 357 feet in length. This Episcopal cathedral is one of the oldest in the country as well, having been constructed between the years 975 and 1009. Upon visiting, you will see that there are three styles of architecture for this magnificent structure: the Romanesque church, Gothic bell towers and chapels, and its stunning baroque roof.
Surprisingly, the cathedral is not even the most impressive religious structure in town. Many would argue that this title belongs to the new synagogue, built in 2010, which is one of the most interesting synagogues in the world. Built at the site of a synagogue that had been burned by the Nazis on Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass, when on November 9, 1938, 1,400 synagogues were torched across Germany and Austria), the roof of this synagogue is shaped to look like a shofar, the ram horn blown during the Jewish High Holidays. The emerald-colored building is also designed so that it is shaped to form the Hebrew word Kedusha, meaning “sanctification.”
My favorite religious structure, though, is St. Stephan’s Church, built on top of a hill at the highest point in the city. St. Stephan’s was initially built in 990, but the current building dates back to 1267. However, after being heavily damaged by Allied bombing, it was largely rebuilt in the second half of the 20th century. Yet, what makes this church so special is the nine bright luminous blue stained-glass windows depicting scriptural stories, created by the Jewish artist Marc Chagall. Walking through the church, seeing the stained glass lit up and the blue light bouncing around, is a must do for any visitor.
One of the highlights of this area is renting a car and getting to legally drive as fast as your heart desires on the autobahn; I topped out at 120 mph while cars flew past me. In my rental car, I went south to the town of Worms. Alongside Mainz, the two other cities in the region that have significant Jewish history are Worms and Speyer, both of which are also known for their incredible cathedrals. I sadly had time to only visit Worms or Speyer, the latter having the ruins of a Jewish complex that dates back to the 11th century and containing the ruins of an ancient mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath. I chose to visit Worms because it was briefly the home to Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), better known as Rashi, the most famous rabbinic commentator who ever lived. Rashi received his rabbinical training at the synagogue in Worms and studied there for over seven years. That synagogue was the first one built in Germany, having been built in 1034, though it has been destroyed through multiple pogroms and rebuilt on the same site. The current synagogue was rebuilt in the 1960s using much of the same brick from its previous incarnation that had been destroyed during Kristallnacht. Inside the synagogue, found down a charming medieval street, is a museum dedicated to the town’s Jewish community, as well as to Rashi. Within the museum are burnt remnants of Torah scrolls and other sacred scriptures recovered from the ruins of the building following Kristallnacht, as well as an old mikveh. Nearby is a famous Jewish cemetery with graves of prominent rabbis dating back over 900 years. The old Jewish communities of the Rhineland were decimated during the Crusades, and have been rebuilt and destroyed throughout the centuries. All of the Jewish sites of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms were inscribed in 2021 as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This town also plays a significant role in Christianity, because it was here that in 1521 Martin Luther was called before the Holy Roman Emperor to renounce his challenges to the Catholic Church, yet reaffirmed his views instead. While I am not a fan of Luther due to his violent anti-Semitism, he is one of the world’s most significant religious figures and there is a monument dedicated to him in the town. Before leaving Worms, make sure to visit the Nibelungen Tower, a 173-foot-tall gate that you can drive through that was built in 1897. This tower is beautiful and makes quite the impression of the grandeur that this town once held.
Following Worms, I continued to the romantic town of Heidelberg, one of the region’s most visited destinations. Sitting on the River Neckar in a valley with a backdrop of mountains, this town is also one of Germany’s college towns. While most German cities were destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II, Heidelberg was spared, preserving its rich history, beautiful homes, and baroque streets. The main attraction in town is riding the funicular up to the Heidelberg Castle, built in the 13th century. While this castle differs from the more recent Neuschwanstein Castle of Bavaria and the Sans Souci Palace of Potsdam, it is in many ways just as impressive. The castle looms imposingly over the town and from the castle, you will discover many beautiful courtyards and gardens that give breathtaking views of the town, valley, and river. The sheer size of the castle and its grounds is impressive as well and makes for an enjoyable stroll. However, the main attraction for many visitors of the castle is its wine museum, which contains the largest barrel of wine in the world. Built in 1751, this barrel is 22 feet high, 27 feet wide, and holds more than 58,000 gallons of wine. There is a stairway and a platform to the top of barrel to get an idea of just how large it is. Down in the town there are other sites to see. While there is a new synagogue today, it is not built on top of the site of the old synagogue, burned on Kristallnacht. However, as a memorial, there is a square where the synagogue once stood, which today contains cornerstones of foundation in remembrance of the synagogue. Another must-see in Heidelberg is the old bridge, which goes across the river, built in 1788.
Since the 15th century, there has been in Heidelberg a statue of a monkey (the initial destroyed in various wars – there is now a modern one). The monkey is a sign of mockery, holding a horn in one hand and a mirror in the other. Since the 17th century, there has been a poem inscribed below the monkey that says:
“Why are you staring at me?
Haven’t you seen the old monkey in Heidelberg?
Look around and you probably will see –
more monkeys like me!”
In essence, the person looking at the mirror is the monkey. However, if one touches the horn that monkey holds, it is considered good luck and that they will one day return to Heidelberg. While the monkey is facing the town, its rear is pointed away from town, supposedly towards the rival city of Mainz, in order to provide a not too welcoming greeting to the Bishops of Mainz when they came to visit. With a similar feel to that of Worms, there is a spectacular and iconic gate at the base of the bridge to treat those visiting the town to an impressive entrance.
Following my visits to Worms and Heidelberg, I raced up to north. While Germany is known for its beer, this region is famous as German wine country. I highly recommend a stop at a vineyard north of Mainz. Many of these wine towns have medieval castles perched on hills which, along with the wineries, provide spectacular views of the Rhine River. Perhaps the most famous wine town in the area is the picturesque Bingen, which hosts an 11-day wine festival every September.
While for those not rushing, I would recommend at least a full day relaxing in this area, I was in a bit of a hurry and rushed up to do a quick visit of the Cologne Cathedral, one of the world’s most famous. This cathedral, dating back to the 13th century, has Europe’s second tallest church spires and is Northern Europe’s largest Gothic cathedral. With the tall, dark spires, there is no church on earth that has a larger façade. The cathedral took over 300 years to build until the project was halted incomplete in 1560. In the 1800s, the construction resumed and was completed after another nearly 70 years. While the outside of this UNESCO World Heritage Site church is internationally famous, the inside is spectacular as well. There is stained glass that dates from the 16th century to contemporary times, and also the oldest known large crucifix in the world dating back to the 10th century. There are also many medieval-era statues of Catholic saints, and a piece of Jewish history, with the inscribed 13th century provision by the archbishop of the time permitting Jews to live in the town. However, perhaps the most famous shrine is that to the Three Kings. This gilded golden sarcophagus allegedly holds the bones of the Three Magi, who visited the baby Jesus upon his birth.
While I seldom go back to places that I have visited as I always want to explore somewhere new, I fell in love with this part of Germany and found myself frustrated that I did not have more time there. Aside from Speyer, I did not visit one of Europe’s most famous cathedrals in the town of Trier. I was rushed in Cologne. I did not get down to the Black Forest or baths of Baden, nor did I cross over into the historic town of Basel, Switzerland or make it up to the micronation of Luxembourg, all of which were so close. Though I loved my time in Munich and Berlin, next time I visit Germany, I will dedicate more time to visiting this area that is rich in culture, history, natural beauty, and incredible wine; make sure you do the same!
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