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.
|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.
The town's oldest—and Germany's second oldest—half-timbered house, the Ständerbau, lies at the base of the Schlossberg. Built in 1310, its austere Gothic structure contains the Fachwerkmuseum, devoted to the evolution of the half-timbered construction style which is depicted in a wealth of maps, photographs and models. (Descriptions in German.)
Quedlinburg's concentration of half-timbered houses makes it easy to put your new-found knowledge to quick use. Even a short walk through the city's narrow streets (wear sturdy shoes due to the omnipresent cobblestones) becomes an architectural primer of half-timbered styles.
For example, most streets feature several late Gothic houses with only a hint of decorative devices, while the many Renaissance houses are more intricate, with rows of hexagrams or carved, double-rope helices thought to protect inhabitants against demons and sickness. During this period, the more upscale homes featured enclosed balconies that jutted into the street, so women could sit and watch the goings-on. The Latin inscription on one reads: "Mind Your Own Business." (Don't be surprised to see elderly women, elbows propped on pillows, watching every passerby.)
By the 17th century, bricks filled the spaces between the timbers in baroque houses, and builders used brickwork and timbers to create designs and figures—symbols to fend off illness and increase crop fertility. Through the early 1800s, styles became increasingly ornate and the half-timbered style became more decoration than construction scheme.
Since Quedlinburg is an historical work in progress, visitors can see houses in various stages of restoration—or lack thereof. Some fallen walls reveal layers of stone, brick and plaster (mixed with straw, horsehair and mud) framed by wooden beams.
Some walls have come down completely, revealing inner courtyards and farm yards. As early as the 12th century, farmers brought their families and animals to the relative safety of the town, and built houses around grazing areas, stables and barns. Today, these structures are distinguished by the large gateways that allowed for the passage of carriages, and by the overhead pulleys used to lift grain and crops to the top floors.
Despite moving to town, many lost stored crops in fires and wars. As insurance, each farmer stashed a bag of seed in one of the honeycomb of cubbyholes in the tower of St. Benedict's, the market church. That way, regardless of what might befall the town, the "urban farmers" could always fall back on the stored seed to start planting again the next spring.
A walk through town reveals many interesting sights and curiosities. The only entrance to the windowless medieval treasury is from inside the Rathaus through a secret door leading from the council chamber. Unfortunately, the location of the button that opens the door was forgotten generations ago.
If you ask directions, don't be offended if a resident tells you to go to Hell. That's simply the name of an intersection. In medieval times, an alchemist's oven belched smoke through a hole in his roof. It wasn't the smoke or fire, but the "devils work" being conducted that led to the name.
The town's narrowest alley—a tunnel almost—opens into the Schuhhof, where shoemakers set up shop and home in the 16th century. Like the alley, its houses are tiny. Since interior space was at a premium, shutters were built to open up and down so that the bottom one would become a counter, enabling the shoemaker to sell his wares without customers crowding inside his house.
The Schuhhof leads to Quedlinburg's bright, expansive Marktplatz. The best view of it is from the northern end; across the length of the cobblestone plaza to the Gothic Town Hall with its Renaissance façade (almost fully covered by vines and flowers) and the steeple of St. Benedict's rising behind it. As it has been for centuries, the marketplace is the center of commerce, surrounded by restaurants and hotels, with farmers' markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It's also the perfect place to finish one's explorations—or take a well-deserved break.
Plan on at least two days to do Quedlinburg justice.
The centuries-old Hotel Theophano has an extensive and interesting history especially in the last 60 years. Built originally as a trading house in 1668 by a wealthy merchant, the baroque-style, half-timbered hotel has been in Reinhard Spilker's family since 1924. Toward the end of World War II, he moved there with his grandparents, out of the path of Berlin-bound bombing raids.
In 1949, he and his parents fled to the West, and the socialist government forced the grandparents to convert the building into cheap apartments. Unable to maintain the structure on a small income, they turned it over to the government in 1985. After reunification, it was returned to the family, and Spilker undertook extensive restoration—starting with tearing down the cheap drywall that had divided the apartments.
It's evident the restoration was done with love and care. After all, it's still Spilker's home; he lives in the rooftop penthouse with his wife, Gabriele, and three teenage daughters.
With views to the marketplace and Rathaus, the Theophano is also one of the most central hotels and guests will often see other visitors photographing its beautiful baroque façade.
Named for the Byzantine princess who ruled the German empire in the 10th century, Theophano has 20 double rooms and four singles, all appropriately decorated with antiques and furnishings in a kind of "Laura Ashley meets the Renaissance" style. Room Number One is spacious and romantic, with a small balcony overlooking the inner courtyard. Carved cupids spy on slumberers from each corner of the four-poster bed. Room Number 20 is king-size, gabled and on two levels, with superb views to the marketplace and town hall.
Daily Rates: Singles €62; doubles €94. Free parking, difficult access for disabled guests.
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value: 17/20
Hotel Am Brühl
Restoration is everywhere in Quedlinburg and Am Brühl is a good example. The ivy-covered buildings of two former farms have been turned into a hotel of great charm.
Arriving guests enter a front courtyard via a gated driveway. Inside, public rooms have a clean, wide-open feel enhanced by shiny terra-cotta floors scattered with Oriental rugs. Tall Palladian arched windows are set in thick stone walls and the exposed rough support timbers contrast nicely with the modern lighting and furnishings.
We had hoped for more from the contemporarily-decorated guestrooms. Though above average in size they seem a bit vacant, in need of a sofa or a couple of soft chairs to achieve optimum comfort. Bedside reading lights were clever looking but difficult to read by.
Though we find Am Brühl an attractive hotel, better use of guestroom space and more intelligent furnishings would move it from "above average" to the "excellent" category.
Daily Rates: Singles €78 -88, doubles €98 -135
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value: 15/20
Hotel Zur Goldenen Sonne
The Goldenen Sonne lies just off the marketplace in a 16th century half-timbered structure. And although its baroque architecture is similar and the history as extensive, the hotel lacks the familiarity and charm of its neighbor, the Theophano. Modern, somewhat sterile, guest rooms have more a sense of renovation than restoration. Still, with rates about a third less than at the Theophano, it offers good value. For those who need it, many of the 27 rooms have Internet access.
Daily Rates: Singles €44; doubles €67. Free parking.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value: 15/20
Schlosshotel Zum Markgrafen
In sharp contrast to the medieval and renaissance structures that dominate Quedlinburg, the 12-room Schlosshotel Zum Markgrafen is an art nouveau palace.
Built by a wealthy industrialist from 1898 to 1904 in neo-Gothic style, it is breathtaking though somewhat out of step with what a Quedlinburg experience should be. Yes, it has beautiful stucco, carved timber ceilings, elaborate tapestries, chandeliers, extensive gardens, gabled guestrooms, and intricate leaded-glass windows, as well as a fitness area, but it doesn't feel like Quedlinburg. Still, with the marketplace only a few blocks away, the Quedlinburg feeling is always nearby.
In addition, the hotel lies near the old town wall, adjacent to a watch tower, and the view from the terrace café to the town is stunning, especially at night. At twice the cost of the Goldene Sonne, it is a matter of taste, preference and budget.
Daily Rates: Singles from €88; doubles from €135. Free parking and welcome cocktail.
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value: 14/20
Those who prefer upscale dining will find numerous options in Quedlinburg. However, for fast, cheap eats, head to the Steinbrücke, a small street immediately off the Marktplatz, where a variety of restaurants offers pleasant, if not stellar, culinary options. At #7, Olli's Bistro is a cafeteria complete with trays. Choose á la carte from a choice of goulash, dumplings, Spätzle, cutlets and other entrées and side dishes. Plan on spending €4-8 per person.
Although Pasta Mia at #23 Steinbrücke features more expensive choices, inventive pizzas and pasta dishes range from only €3-5.
At #18, Hassler Fisch Schnell Imbiss offers a variety of takeout fish creations such as fish sandwiches, breaded cutlets and pickled fish for about €2-5.
Zur Goldenen Sonne
Some of the most peaceful dining in Quedlinburg is on the sunny terrace of Zur Sonne. Even during cool, damp weather, a retractable canvas roof and gas heaters help maintain comfort. It's comfortably casual, set atop small stones cobbled together to form a mosaic of the sun. A flurry of flowers surrounds an old millstone in the center, and vines and roses drape across wooden trellises. Servers are young, attentive and friendly.
The cuisine is distinctly regional, with an emphasis on vegetarian and fish dishes, like trout with red cabbage and a vegetable-and-cheese platter with bread. The soups stand out: Oberharzwildgulasch, with tender venison pieces sweetened by red cabbage; Quedinlinburger bean soup topped with watercress; and a rich, hearty and savory barley soup with Black Forest ham and carrots.
Two can dine well for €22-29 for lunch, €28-35 for dinner.
Contact: Hotel Zur Goldenen Sonne, Steinweg 11, D-06484 Quedlinburg, tel +49/3946 96 25-0.
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 14/20
Quedlinburg's Ratskeller doesn't get high points for ambiance, at least until they dim the lights. Only the vaulted ceilings inject a sense of history. However, the somewhat sterile setting is more than offset by friendly service, a limited but superb wine list, and reasonably priced and well-prepared dishes.
Guests will find a heavy focus on meat entrées like pork hock with sauerkraut, lamb cutlets with banana sauce and raisin-almond rice, and duck breast stuffed with pineapple, red cabbage and wild berries. Vegetarians won't starve, and fish eaters will love the salmon with hollandaise sauce, noodles and asparagus. Without wine, dinner for two will range from €14-22, lunch is somewhat less.
Contact: Gaststätte Ratskeller, Marktkirchhof 1, D-06484 Quedlinburg, tel +49/3946 2768
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 14/20
The setting alone is worth a visit to the restaurant at the Hotel Theophano. Indeed, many guests spend hours in the quiet candlelight with only fine wine and exotic cheeses for nourishment. The setting is sublime in this medieval cellar, the rich history captured in every ancient stone and brick. Nooks in this one-time storage area lend privacy, and flickering candles a sense of intimacy. (In good weather, dining is also possible under the stars in the courtyard.)
The menu takes German fare to exotic levels. Appetizers may include salami of venison with olives, baked Münster cheese wrapped in pastry with fried apples, or arugula with roasted rabbit, cherry tomatoes and pine nuts. Under the category of "Substantial Starters/Light Main Courses," the current menu offers smoked salmon crêpes with sour cream and red caviar, turkey liver sautéed with fresh mushrooms in balsamic vinegar, and pumpkin risotto. Larger appetites may want dishes like roast venison served with savory vegetables and potatoes au gratin. Some guests make a special trip just for the desserts, like sweet pumpkin strudel with vanilla flavored whipped cream, espresso with homemade French praline, and white chocolate mousse with elderberry sauce.
Two persons with light appetites can enjoy the setting and a pleasant dinner for €32-40, without beverages, while more complete dining satisfaction might cost as much as €80 per couple.
Contact: Hotel Theophano Markt 13/14, D-06484 Quedlinburg, tel +49/3946 96 30-0.
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 18/20
Restaurant Am Brühl
One huge room in an old stable has become the Hotel Am Brühl's restaurant. There is a high brick and beamed ceiling with barrel-roll vaults and the floor is square, polished terra-cotta pavers. There are substantial wooden tables and chairs and the white stucco walls are decorated with interesting art and antiques. It is a fine room to be in, though a little noisy. The menu is mainly traditional dishes and you won't go far wrong with familiar selections such as Kalbsleber (calves liver) and Geschnetzeltes (chopped veal in cream sauce), but overall the food doesn't quite equal the room's charm.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value: 14/20