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Quedlinburg is a city of superlatives. The first German "Reich" began there with the coronation of King Heinrich in 919 A.D. It has the most half-timbered houses in Germany—about 1,500, nearly 900 of them are designated protected landmarks. It also contains the largest historic preservation district in Germany, the 200-acre Altstadt.

Image of Fachwerk (half-timbered) houses
Fachwerk (half-timbered) houses

Thankfully, Quedlinburg was spared during World War II, and the buildings are original. During four decades of communism, however, only 26 houses were rebuilt. Since reunification, Quedlinburgers have spent much of their time and resources restoring nearly 800 additional houses and cleaning up the town. Indeed, in 1995, Quedlinburg joined the likes of Lima, Damascus, Quebec, Katmandu and Prague as one of only 187 UNESCO World Heritage Cities.

Local residents stress the reasons for restoration go well beyond tourism. It's a living city—not, they point out, a theme park. "We don't want to become another Rothenburg," says a local innkeeper. "We don't want to be caught in a trap of nostalgia, or to make our raison d'etre just being looked at. We live here and do business here."

Therefore, although Quedlinburg opens its arms to visitors, it does so without hype, attitude or artifice—and, for the most part, without bus loads of tourists. The experience is far more subtle and sublime. The food is traditional, the lodging historic, and the people warm and sincere. Kitsch is decidedly absent. And even the shortest walk yields a sense of exploration and discovery.

The best place to start a tour of Quedlinburg is atop the Schlossberg (Castle Hill), site of Heinrich's coronation. It's a short, cobblestoned climb to the castle courtyard, which rests atop a 75-foot-high sandstone outcropping. The hilltop is dominated by the Renaissance Castle (once a convent residence and now a museum) and the 12th-century Romanesque Collegiate Church of St. Servatius, with its three naves and flat ceiling. Among other rulers, Heinrich and his wife, Mathilde, are buried in the crypt, where visitors can see 13th-century frescoes.

The church has two interesting footnotes in recent history. In 1938, recognizing it was where the First Reich began, the Nazis tried to make it a shrine to the start of their Third Reich. SS Commander Heinrich Himmler saw himself as the reincarnation of the first Heinrich and, at annual ceremonies, would rise from the crypt atop a wooden lift dressed as his ancient namesake.

Another bizarre tale involves the church's priceless treasury. Just after WWII, U.S. Army Lt. Joe T. Meador was assigned to guard the treasury where it had been hidden in a mineshaft. He took his assignment as an opportunity to mail a few of the more valuable-looking pieces to his home in Texas. For decades after the war, the items lay hidden in a bank vault while Meador toiled in the family hardware store. But at his death in 1980, his brother and sister tried to unload the hugely valuable Samuhel Gospel, a 1200-year-old jewel-encrusted manuscript printed on gold parchment. Word of the sale, of course, quickly spread and, after years of lawsuits and diplomatic wrangling, Meador's heirs were paid nearly $3 million by the German government. As a result, the items were returned in 1996.

A book on the affair, Treasure Hunt: A New York Times Reporter Tracks the Quedlinburg Hoard was written by William Honan, who played an important role in locating the missing pieces.

The castle gardens provide a 360-degree view of the town below. Pathways wind around the hill, with terraced houses—once inhabited by castle servants—so close together neighbors can practically shake hands across the street. Space was at a premium, and one house is only six feet wide. To the north, the "newer," medieval part of the city takes typical form around the marketplace, with church spires poking through a sea of red-tile rooftops. It's not difficult to make out remnants of the town's 13th-century fortifications—including more than a mile of walls and six of the original 25 watchtowers.

To the south, the view shows signs of more recent prosperity. During the 19th century, Quedlinburg captured nearly 70 percent of the international market for vegetable and plant seeds. By the 1850s, the wealth translated into expansive villas for the seed "barons," who built their homes atop the filled-in moat of the walled town. Many of the old warehouses still stand, converted to apartments or offices.