A Destination Back In Time
By Patricia Keegan
Frankfurt’s bustling Hauptbahnhof stands as one of Europe’s busiest and most efficient rail stations. Each platform is clearly marked, and trains run on time to many enticing capitals throughout Europe. In this, my journey back in time, I will be leaving the modern, fast- paced Frankfurt with a plan to change trains at Stuttgart, continuing on until I reach the small, medieval town of Schwaebisch Hall, in the northeast of Baden-Württemberg.
I boarded the impressive, silver bullet ICI Train, the express inner city rail connection. For part of my trip, I sat at a linen-covered dining car table, savoring a pastry, watching the fields roll by and catching up with the political woes of Germany’s Chancellor Schroeder. Switching trains was no problem, but when I arrived in the small town of Schwaebisch Hall, I was confronted with a challenge: how to get to the Hohenlohe Hotel about two miles distant. In this small town, on a Sunday afternoon, either the taxies were busy or the drivers had decided to spend this quiet, sunny day with family.
After waiting some 20 minutes, I inquired about the lack of taxis from a young man who had just pulled his white van onto the curb. Without hesitation, he invited me to accompany him, his wife and three year-old son, assuring me it was “no trouble” as they were already en route to town. Heading down some steep hills, the car pulled up front of the Hotel Hohenlohe. From this point I could see the Kocher River and glimpse the town, with church steeples and red roof tops climbing ever higher above the river valley.
I was struck with the drama of the town and the gracious, spontaneous attitude of the people. I even wondered if I had stumbled into a time warp far from the crass world of the 21st century. After expressing appreciation to this Schwabisch Hall family, I rolled my suitcase through the surprisingly sterile, modern looking facade of the hotel.
After checking into the Hohenlohe, (named after the Hohenlohe dynasty who, since 1103, have played a significant role in the development of this town), I was given a key to a room downstairs on the 2nd floor. I found myself in a small room, with a tiny bed but generously endowed with two large windows and a French door opening to an expansive roof terrace -- three times as large as the room, with the additional luxury of a table and chairs. This terrace gave me a wide angle view of Schwaebisch Hall, and the view was spectacular. Like spreading wings, I could see, in detail, all the way up and down the Kocher River. In front of me the hills rose steeply beyond the quaint town and, as the church bells chimed six o’clock, I heard them calling for me to come out and explore.
A stop at the hotel’s plush restaurant for what I thought would be a quick refueling, turned into a veritable feast. I enjoyed a hearty meal, high in quality and nicely presented. I was contemplating the salt shaker before me, containing the “white gold” of the Middle Ages, first distilled by my ancestors, the Celts, in Schwaebisch Hall as early as the fifth century, when I heard a woman at a nearby table telling the waiter that she and her friends were “off to see Juan Carlos on the steps.” She was waving her hand in the direction of the church on the hill which was visible through the long panel of windows facing the town.
The waiter informed me that there were two other operas playing on the steps of St. Michaels’ on different evenings -- Die Dreigroshegnoper and Die Comedian Harmonists.
Leaving the hotel on this bright summer evening, I passed a museum with a banner hung across it advertising The Last Judgment by Henry Caro -- a bit eerie for my upbeat momentum, but I made a mental note and hurried on. When I arrived at St. Michael’s Church, the air was filled with music but it was too late to purchase tickets and the area was blocked off. Walking across the wooden bridge of this artistically vibrant town, I paused to look down at the Kocher River and was surprised to see a few Henry Moore sculptures set in precise locations along the banks, flanked by ancient buildings. The Henry Moore, Epoche and Echo exhibit was in full swing with sculptures set around the town and in the Kunsthalle Wuerth Museum. Other sculptors included Barbara Hepworth, Eduardo Paolozzi, Tim Scott and Barry Flanagan.
Schwabisch Hall, with a population of approximately 35,000, is one of Germany’s few remaining cultural treasures not annihilated during WWII. In the 18th century, during the height of its salt production, Hall, as the town was called, had become very prosperous. An Imperial mint was in production, founded by the House of Hohenstaufen.
Today the town is known for Bausparkasse Schwabisch Hall AG, a housing credit company founded in 1944, as well as a center for service industries.
The two oldest churches, St. James and St. Michaels’ were built in the 11th and 12th centuries respectively. The first recorded mention of Hall was in 1037. It became a free imperial city in 1280 and remained as such until the Napoleonic wars in 1802.
The town, with its timber framed buildings, was destroyed by fire three times, in 1360, 1680, and 1728, but today the architecture creates an ambience in which the past is still solidly present. During the Reformation, Josep Brenz, a young theologian and friend of Martin Luther, became the dynamic power behind the religious Reformation and the introduction of Protestantism to Hall. He became pastor of St. Michael’s in 1522 when it was changed to a Lutheran church.
In 1934 the name Hall was officially amended to read Schwabisch Hall.
Setting out to explore the narrow, cobbled streets, each flight of steps I ascended led to more cobbled streets with decorative, timber framed houses. I passed museums and peered into inviting shop windows, promising to return in the morning for further exploration. On the return trip I saw the Globe Theatre, on what appeared to be an island on the river. It is a Shakespearian theatre constructed like its famous namesake in London and accessible by walking across a covered bridge.
Returning to the Hohenlohe, I plunged into its famous swimming pool which is connected to the original salt water mines by underground pipes, creating a solebad – hot, healing salt water. This enormous pool is a great asset to the town residents as well as hotel guests.
At the heart of old town stands the square with magnificent Renaissance buildings, the ornate, baroque City Hall, and the romanesque St. Michael’s Cathedral. The church houses a multitude of precious art works, and is currently running an eclectic exhibit by local contemporary artists. The colorful square, with its architectural mix, stole a place in my heart. It is like a setting for a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale encompassing the vibrancy of the entire town.
Since 1925, professional open-air theater has been performed on the 54 steps of St. Michael’s. While I watched rehearsal forComedian Harmonists on the steps, listening to the music, watching the dancing and absorbing the performers fun-filled enthusiasm, I looked up at the windows of the Goldener Adler Hotel, (The Golden Eagle), and decided I would stay there on the last of my three nights. The bright red geraniums in the windows were an added attraction.
The Adler was erected in 1500 as a patrician house in the gothic style. In the 16th century it became an attractive inn with stained glass windows, hosting guests from the ranks of the nobility. On the sidewalk, next to an outdoor café which daily bakes a memorable rhubarb custard pie, is a model of an old pillory, reminiscent of the system of justice which was customary in medieval times.
Facing St. Michael’s is the reconstructed, baroque Town Hall, the only building damaged during WWII. In this magnificently restored building, I was introduced to the Oberburgermeist, (the mayor), Hermann Josef Pelgrim. In Germany he is called the Lord Mayor. I expected him to come out in a long robe and tri-cornered hat, but was surprised to meet an ebullient, cosmopolitan leader in a business suit who has also lived in Brazil and Chile. He came to office in 1998 and now, in his second term, is striving to make Schwabisch Hall a good investment while keeping up a steady flow of cultural activity. In our brief meeting, he informed me that the key to sustaining and increasing the stream of 70,000 visitors per year is to maintain and promote his town’s cultural strength.
“In this town, which combines past with present, we have a big music school, a library, an arts school, museums, theater, the Goethe Institute. We have a vibrant exchange program with American students, and a Media and Art University of Applied Sciences which includes graphic design, video and filmmaking.”
Schawbisch Hall has one of the lowest crime rates in Germany. He also mentioned that over 100 different nationalities live side by side, “Open minded people from all over the world.”
When the US army was stationed here,” the mayor said, “they brought there own cultural exchange of football and American square dancing.' Schwabisch Hall now has a Mosque built by a Muslim man who won the lottery. Construction has recently been completed on this ultra modern mosque which stands near a Catholic church in a residential area. The Muslims have invited Catholics, Protestants and Jews to meetings in the mosque to try to build bridges of understanding in their culture.
There are three major museums in Schwaebisch Hall. The Kunsthalle Wuerth has paintings and sculpture from the 20th and 21st century and from the collection of art patron Reinhold Wuerth. Visitors can also experience contemporary art in the City Gallery and the Fire Department Museum with over 5,000 exhibits from four centuries telling the story of the town’s battle against fires. Among the most important and impressive in all of Baden Württemberg is Museum Hallisch-Frankisches the Hall Franconian, illustrating the history of this medieval town.
To get a full sense of the unique setting of Schwabisch Hall is to take a drive out through nearby countryside to visit surrounding areas. Vellberg is an idyllic, tiny town with old town walls, gates, towers, flowers gardens and a common garden where people grow their vegetables. It is so quiet here that one can hear only the sound of a breeze rustling the leaves and a bird singing.
On a rounded mountain peak above the Kocher valley stands Gross Comburg, formerly a Benedictine monastery, with Romanesque towers and Baroque architecture, which the Count of Rothenburg-Comburg donated to the Benedictine order in 1078 when it was first established as a monastery. Here you can walk the 500-meter ring wall with covered battlements enclosing the monastery with lookout towers scanning miles of open countryside.
The church is filled with beautifully preserved romanesque works of art. In the 12th century, when the monastery experienced its heyday, Abbot Hartwig donated two precious works of art to the church. One was the Antependium which covers the altar table, the other; the richly adorned wheel-shaped chandelier, produced around 1130, which is 16 feet in diameter. It is believed to be the only chandelier of this style left in the world. With its ring and twelve gate towers, it symbolizes “heavenly Jerusalem” in an apocalyptic vision. This is a “must see” for visitors to the area. In 1947, using many of the buildings of the former monastery, Gross Comburg was set up as the first State Academy for Advanced Teacher Training, and is still active today.
My last day at the Goldener Adler, which allowed me a grand view of the square and all its activities, began with the bustling market -- with farmers selling their vegetables, meats and flowers -- and closed with the opera bursting forth from the steps of St. Michael's.
The atmosphere of this hotel, run by owners Rosmarie and Johann Ganz, is warm and inviting with a personable, efficient staff. Ensuite rooms are large, and the stairs to the third floor are so old they slant sideways. Inscribed on one of the wall on the 3rd floor landing is an artistic inscription, Hier Wohnte Kaiser Karl V,1541-1546. Rosemarie told me that the Kaiser had been one of the procession of nobility who had lodged here. Since 1925 the Adler has been designated an architectural monument.
I enjoyed my box seat for the opera from my large window sill. I didn’t mind having my shutters open all night and getting less than 40 winks when suddenly the bells of St. Michael’s rang at 6 am. The experience was great, I would do it all again.
For information on the Hotel Goldener Adler see www.goldener-adler-sha.de
For information on Hotel Hohenlohe see www.hotel-hohenlohe.de
For more information on Schwaebisch Hall visit www.schwaebischhall.de