Speyer

Another quick report for a city outside the "Rick Steves' canon" that you should consider, if your trip involves the upper Rhine-Neckar valley. I've lived within 30 minutes of this city for almost three years, and somehow, I neglected to visit until today. First of all, the biggest surprise for me was that unlike it's nearby sister cities on the upper Rhine (Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Ludwigshafen, Worms), Speyer seems to have completely escaped the destruction of WWII. Most of it appears to date from the 17th and 18th centuries. The brightly painted style of architecture reminds me more of Bavaria or Austria than this region of Germany. Another thing you notice right away are all the church spires. The four bell towers of the giant Kaiserdom dominate the skyline, but there are several other spires that soar almost as high. Speaking of the Kaiserdom... this is the most impressive Romanesque building I've seen anywhere in Europe. It has the thick heavy columns and walls you would associate with the style, but the soaring dimensions and huge windows more often linked with Gothic. The interior is a little spartan, but the sheer size is really striking. Much more impressive than the Wormser Dom. The main street leading out from the Kaiserdom has the usual collection of restaurants, Eiscafés and colorful shops. I had a delicious lunch of Saumagen, which is a regional specialty comparable to hagis but... well, good. There's also an aquarium and an impressive technology museum in town. Overall, this is not necessarily a city I would travel clear across Germany to visit. But you're visiting Heidelberg, traveling from Frankfurt to the Black Forest, or visiting a military friend or relative stationed in the Kaiserslautern-Rammstein area... consider spending a few hours in Speyer.

Posted by Ms. Jo
Frankfurt, Germany
4764 posts

Thanks for posting this Tom. Speyer has been way at the top of my list of towns to visit for quite some time. One, to see the Dom, and two, to see the Jewish history stuff. Speyer, Worms and Mainz were the big 3 Jewish communities back in the year 1000, so since I have been to the other 2, need to visit Speyer to complete the trio. I liked the Dom in Worms and felt it looked a lot like the one in Mainz, but Mainz is more magnificent. Now, I must see Speyer, as you have made me really curious. Love the heavy, Romanesque look and feel to these 1000 year old churches.

Posted by Sarah
Chicago (formerly St. Louis), IL, USA
1311 posts

What a great post - thank you! I have a goal to visit all or at least most of the great cathedrals in my survey art history book and Speyer is one of them. I didn't know about the synagogue remains. Was the church built over them, or were they brought to the church for protection? (This was the case with some interior architectural parts of a synagogue, now in a church/museum in Braunschweig. I'm at work and don't have my notes on which church, but some Christians saved as much of the synagogue as they could, including ceremonial items such as Kiddush cups and a Seder plate, and hid them inside the church during the Holocaust.)

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9130 posts

Jo, I understand that Speyer contains the ruins of the oldest synagogue in Europe, but because I did this trip on a whim, I didn't research its location, and I didn't stumble upon it while walking around. And PS to the forum... I'm not Jewish, but I do think it's interesting that the area where I live was the cradle of world Ashkenazi culture. I only state this because in the past, when I mentioned stumbling upon an intact Jewish cemetery in the mountains above Hemsbach, or was posting a question about the Val di Rabbi in the Ortler Alps (no, I was not looking for a Jewish clergyman in the Italian Alps!), I received a few PMs asking what it's like to be Jewish in modern Germany. I had to politely respond that as a Catholic, I would have no idea...

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9130 posts

Sarah, as far as I know, the ruin I referred to is a stand-alone archeology site. This was not the synagogue destroyed by the Nazis, but it was abandoned centuries earlier when the Jewish settlement around the city shifted. I don't know anything about what happened to the remains of the modern synagogue that the Nazis torched.

Posted by Sarah
Chicago (formerly St. Louis), IL, USA
1311 posts

Thanks, Tom. The ruins are yet another reason for me to get to Speyer.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

Thanks for the great trip report! I too haven't visited Speyer yet, I am planning on taking an overnight trip sometime soon to see Speyer and Worms. And you're right, Speyer was considered really the "capital" of Medevial Askhenazi Jewry. There's even speculation that the common Jewish name "Shapiro" was a last name designated to Jewish residents of Speyer.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9130 posts

"There's even speculation that the common Jewish name "Shapiro" was a last name designated to Jewish residents of Speyer." Not too surprising, when you consider all the people with the Jewish surname of "Landau", which is just down the road from Speyer. Is there a Jewish surname that corresponds to "Worms"? I would concentrate your visit more on Speyer than on Worms. Despite it's very long history, most of Worms today is a post-war rebuild. I was interested in some of the Niebelungen history of the city, but other than the museum, there's virtually nothing remaining from that period.

Posted by nancy
bethesda, md, us
212 posts

We were in Speyer the end of July '13. We had arrived same day in Frankfurt and were overnighting in Speyer. My husband's maternal grandparents' families were from the area just north of Worms, in a town called Worrstadt, and nearly all of them left long before WW2. He makes a habit of trying to go there when he can to see if the Jewish cemeteries are being kept up by the towns, as they are supposed to be under a postwar agreement. The Germans who live in the old homesteads couldn't be friendlier despite our dropping in on them. One even worked with the Mainz Jewish community after we left to get one of the small cemeteries mowed (the grass was shoulder-height in the cemetery in the middle of a cornfield). Anyway, we loved Speyer. The Dom is amazing, as your Janson art history book tells you. Ignore the modern front porch and concentrate on the East apse and towers, and the crypt. (The handout at the Dom is good.) The synagogue ruins are right nearby and part of a very small museum. The best feature is the most impressive mikvah (ritual bath for women) we have seen in Europe. The synagogue ruins are hard to really be excited about but there are mockup drawings on the remaining walls to illustrate what it looked like.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9130 posts

Nancy, there's at least one completely unmolested Jewish cemetary in the region that I know of, but it's hard to find. It sits in the hills above the town of Hemsbach. If you ever return to the region, send me a PM and I'll give you specific instructions.

Posted by Rik
Vicenza, Italy
702 posts

That's interesting, I always wondered about Speyer. I did a two year hitch in Heidelberg (06-08) and when I was looking at houses I found one that looked really, really nice in Speyer. When I asked the housing rep about it (she was German) she said I probably wouldn't want to live in Speyer because it's too far away from Heidelberg and there's nothing there except an aquarium.