Quedlinburg as seen through the eyes of English-speaking travelers:
"A Half-Timbered Fairy Tale: On the edge of the Harz, Germany's northernmost mountain range, lies the finest timber-framed townscape in the country, and perhaps in all Europe (...)” Quoted from: Patricia Schultz in the New York Times best-selling world travel guide “1000 Places To See Before You Die”.
And this is what the seasoned travel-reporter of the US to Europe travel-portal www.gemut.com wrote about Quedlinburg after his visit – back in 2002:
“Quedlinburg is a city of superlatives… It has the most half-timbered houses in Germany … nearly 900 of them are designated protected landmarks. It also contains the largest historic preservation district in Germany, the 200-acre Altstadt.
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'être 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 there.
A 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 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 pla yed 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' 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 halt-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 ar more intricate, with rows of hexagrams or carved, double-rope helixes 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 has always been the site of “work-in-progress” – and still is. Visitors nowadays can see houses at various stages of restoration - or lack thereof. Some decrepid walls reveal the layers of their life-time - stone, brick and plaster (mixed with straw, horsehair and mud), framed and supported through the ages 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 "devil's 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 facade (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…
Excerpted from: “GEMÜTLICHKEIT - The Travel Letter for Germany, Austria, Switzerland & the New Europe”.