In the center of town, looking down from atop steep sandstone cliffs since the 10th century, is Quedlinburg Castle. A former abbey and church, it was established by King Henry’s wife Mathilda and his son Otto I. After the king’s death, when Mathilda learned how to read, she established the abbey on the hill. Its mission was to educate unmarried daughters of the nobility. Later, a church was built where the young women could pray for the king’s memory.
Amazingly, the castle and the town that grew up around it continued to be ruled by women for more than 800 years, until Napoleon invaded Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Before exploring Stiftskirche St. Servatius, the castle church, we wandered through its lush rose and herb gardens that have been carefully tended since the 10th century. Looking out over the stone walls that edge the garden, we enjoyed panoramic views over the town’s jumble of red roofs and towers, winding cobbled streets, and magnificent abbey gardens.
Inside, the church is plain, almost austere, and beautiful in its simplicity. There are no stained-glass windows or heavy decorations that you find in cathedrals from later eras. Two rows of sturdy pillars topped with capitals featuring whimsical creatures support walls pierced by slender arched windows high above. Light slants in, illuminating the upper reaches of the church and revealing its simple wood ceiling.
At the front of the church, we took the stairs that led to the crypt below the altar. Carved out of the rock over 1000 years ago, it’s the oldest part of the church. Parts of ancient wall paintings have been painstakingly uncovered. They once filled the walls and the low ceiling above the tombs of King Heinrich and his wife Saint Matilda. On either side of the crypt were two doorways leading to small rooms containing the church treasure*, which includes several magnificent jewel-encrusted relic boxes, some from as far back as 600BC. Each piece is lit in a way that emphasizes its brilliance in the darkened space.
* The treasure’s more recent history made it world famous. At the end of WWII, US troops found the priceless church collection in a nearby cave, where the Nazis had moved it for safekeeping. A US officer was assigned to guard the treasure. Sadly, he removed some of the pieces and mailed them home to his mother in Texas. The soldier kept the stolen objects hidden in storage until his death. Later, one of the objects turned up at auction and was identified as part of the missing church treasure. Finally, after a long legal battle, the stolen treasure was returned to Quedlinburg in 1993.
Next, we hiked up the Münzenberg –or “Coin Mountain” in English – directly across from castle, where a second abbey was built in the 10th century. The abbey survived until the 16th century, when it was destroyed during a peasant uprising. Later, tinkers, scissor grinders, and other artisans built their small houses on top of the abbey remains. We visited a fascinating underground museum and saw the remnants of the abbey, later discovered beneath the existing houses.
Today, the Münzenberg is a town unto itself. Filled with brightly colored half-timbered houses cheerfully decorated with flowers, it is a nice place to wander. The streets on the Münzenberg don’t have names. Instead, each house simply has a number. There are only 65 or so, so even if you don’t know which street you are on, it’s hard to get lost.
From the Münzenberg, you get a perfect view of the castle and the surrounding town.
to be continued….