It you’re looking for a quintessentially medieval German town with a long and storied history, not to mention an abundance of cobbled streets running between timber-framed houses, Quedlinburg is it. Add to this a location on the edge of the Harz Mountains close to other historic towns in Saxony-Anhalt, and you have the perfect base for a few days exploration. No wonder UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site in 1994.
Quedlinburg is dominated by its magnificent 16th century castle and 11th century Church of St. Servatius that, from their prominent hilltop position, tower over the more than 1,300 medieval timber framed buildings in the narrow streets below. A wonderfully preserved centre that is largely traffic free really gives you a sense of what a prosperous medieval European town looked like.
The castle was, of course, closed and covered in scaffolding while restoration works take place – a recurring theme in Germany – but a hike to its lofty location still impresses upon you the immense history that this town has seen. Founded in the 9th century, legend has it that it was here in 918 that Henry I, know as Henry the Fowler, learned he was to become King of Germany.
Some say this makes Quedlinburg the birthplace of Germany, but that seems an unnecessary embellishment for a town that already has an extraordinary history. This became one of the favourite residences of the Dukes of Saxony, including Otto I who would become the Holy Roman Emperor. When Henry died in 936 he was buried in Quedlinburg and his widow, Queen Mathilde, founded a convent here the same year.
The convent’s aristocratic abbesses became the de facto rulers of Quedlinburg for the next 800 years. Otto I’s daughter, Mathilda, became the abbess in 968, and imperial connections mattered. The abbesses went on to run the economy of the town for the sole purpose of supporting the convent. This allowed the nuns to spend their days doing what they were good at, praying for the soul of Henry the Fowler.
It was rare for women to hold such power at that period in history, but the abbey was like a club for daughters of the aristocracy and all challenges for control of the town failed. Until, that is, Napoleon secularised the abbey in 1802. Perhaps it was the effect of a town run by women that led a Quedlinburg native, Dorothea Erxleben, to become in 1754 the first female medical doctor in Germany.
Quedlinburg is so well preserved that even centuries later this history still seems alive. We had arrived early in the morning from Berlin and headed to the castle for glorious views over the town and surrounding countryside. We were the only people there and the peaceful quiet was wonderful. A short stroll brought us to the historic Marktplatz where we had breakfast.
The Marktplatz is extraordinarily beautiful, with magnificent timber-framed buildings and the Rathaus with its medieval statue of Roland. Behind the Rathaus lays one of the town’s many ancient churches, the thousand year-old Marktkirche St. Benediktii. While the Marktplatz is undoubtedly one of the showstoppers, wander anywhere in the Altstadt and you won’t be disappointed.
Quedlinburg survived the Second World War undamaged, something we should all be thankful for today. It did not, though, survive the greed of one of the US soldiers who captured the town in 1945. The ancient church treasures had been hidden in a nearby mineshaft, an American officer found it and had much of it shipped back home to Whitewright, Texas.
There it lay unnoticed until after the soldier-thief’s death in 1980. It took another nine years for the soldier’s siblings to find it and start selling it. Finally, the fate of these treasures and the role of a light fingered army officer came to light when jewel encrusted manuscripts surfaced in Switzerland. It took a legal battle, but they were returned to Quedlinburg in 1992.