Getting a Handel on Halle’s Anglo-German history

The history of Halle an der Saale may be bound up with salt production, but this lovely little town has much more to offer. The dramatic central square, the Marktplatz, marks the centre of the Old Town. Ancient streets radiate outwards under the shadow of the 16th century Market Church of Our Dear Lady, and the the Roter Turm which, with 76 bells, is the largest carillon in Europe (and the second largest in the world, the top spot going to a modern carillon in South Korea).

The other popular feature of Marktplatz, is the statue of Georg Friedrich Händel, or George Frederick Handel as he was better known in England, a country that he adopted as his own after his early years in Germany. Handel didn’t end up an English citizen by chance. He first had success there in 1711, and was a popular composer at the court of Queen Anne. Her death in 1714 though, led to Hanoverian prince, George Louis, taking the English throne as King George I.

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Roter Turm and Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Handel statue, Halle, Germany

Museum of Prehistory, Halle, Germany

Hanover and Halle are a couple of hundred kilometres apart, and Handel was already in George’s service by 1710. George would never get to hear Handel’s most famous work, the oratorio Messiah, which premiered in 1741, by which time the most English of composers had come a long way from his childhood in Halle. The house where he grew up, known as the The Yellow Deer, is now a museum telling his story. Although undergoing a few restorations, it’s a must see.

After exploring the Old Town, I spent time wandering attractive areas to the north of the centre. Halle received fairly light damage during the Second World War, and numerous original buildings in this district survived. Today, many have been restored to their former glory, and wandering around you stumble upon some beautiful old town houses. I was heading to the Church of St. Paul, which sits on top of small hill in a funky and youthful neighbourhood filled with great restaurants and bars.

This is quite some turnaround. Halle was the epicentre of East Germany’s chemical industries, making it one of the most environmentally polluted regions of the country. The fall of communism was accompanied by the collapse of Halle’s industry, much of the city was dilapidated and young people left in droves. Slowly, the largest town in Saxony-Anhalt has reinvented itself, helped by a population of around 25,000 students who give it a vibrancy that would otherwise be missing.

Like much of former East Germany, after three decades of unification, Halle still feels like it hasn’t made as much progress as its residents might like. Probably thanks to its student population, Halle was one of the few areas in the southern half of the State that didn’t vote for the Far Right, Alternative für Deutschland, at the last election. The surrounding districts all did. Things do seem to be on the up though, with luck Halle will begin to attract more international visitors, and not just for the Handel Festival.

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Halle, Germany

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Cemetery, Halle, Germany

Halle, Germany

Cathedral, Halle, Germany

I walked a large loop around the area to reach the Museum of Prehistory – they have a mammoth – which is both interesting and in a monolithic building. Then made my way back to the main square passing the town’s cathedral. It’s rare to find a cathedral that is less impressive than the main church, but in Halle their traditional roles have been reversed. It’s worth popping inside, if for no other reason than it’s 700 years old and Handel played here.

I had spotted an independent brewery on my meanderings and intended to finish my trip with something cold and local. There was just one destination left on my list, the cemetery. I like a good cemetery and, although few luminaries are buried here, I’d read that it was worth a visit for the peace and tranquility it provided in the  city centre. Built in the 16th century, it’s considered the finest Renaissance cemetery in Germany. It was quiet, shady and quite small. I soon found myself sampling the local brews.

Halle, a salt of the earth East German town

I expected much from a town called Halle an der Saale. After all, Halle is derived from the Celtic word for salt; Saale, coincidentally the name of the river that runs through the city, is derived from the German word for salt. No surprise then, that the town’s history is intimately intertwined with the harvesting of salt. A local industry that can trace its origins to the Bronze Age. Salt made Halle rich and important, so a museum dedicated to telling that history must be worth its salt?

I arrived in Halle late on a Friday evening. The long and uninspiring walk from the train station led me into the medieval Marktplatz, where I was greeted by the magnificent sight of the illuminated Marktkirche Unser Lieben Frauen, the Market Church of Our Dear Lady, and the Roter Turm, or Red Tower. These two 16th century structures give the city its nickname, City of the Five Towers. The expansive central square includes a statue of the city’s favourite son, Georg Friedrich Händel.

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Saale River from Giebichenstein Castle, Halle, Germany

Salinemuseum, Halle, Germany

Marktkirche Unser lieben Frauen, Halle, Germany

Salinemuseum, Halle, Germany

Saale River, Halle, Germany

It was late, so after grabbing something to eat I found my hotel, my introduction to the city whetting my appetite for more exploration in the morning. First on my list was the Salinemuseum. A geologic fault beneath the modern-day town led to numerous saline springs appearing in the area. Boiling the saline solution produced salt crystals and an industry was born. In an era of salt abundance, it’s easy to forget how precious salt was. There’s a reason it was called ‘white gold’.

I once read Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, a fascinating tale of humankind’s relationship with salt. As a commodity it’s been central to human history, acting as a currency in some cultures. Its importance is underlined by the aphorisms and proverbs salt has inspired. I was keen to learn more from a museum housed in the former Royal Prussian Saline Works, which were founded in 1721 and only closed in 1964. Sadly, it was a case of rubbing salt into the wound.

The museum still produces small amounts of salt, and offers demonstrations, but I was out of luck. This, coupled with the fact that all the explanations in the small museum were only in German, meant that I learned next to nothing of Halle’s salty history. This wouldn’t be the only disappointment of my trip. The Moritzburg Palace museum and art gallery was closed for a whole month. I took this setback with a pinch of salt and set off to discover what else Halle had to offer.

The Salinemuseum sits on an island where the River Saale splits in two. Along the river banks, there are kilometres of parkland stretching to Giebichenstein Castle. The walk was lovely on a hot early autumn day, and I was even able to squeeze in a visit to a beer garden next to the river. I eventually found myself face-to-face with a massive horse at Giebichenstein Bridge. One of a pair of sculptures, the horse represents the vibrant life of the city; on the other side, an equally huge cow represents the countryside.

Giebichenstein Bridge, Saale River, Halle, Germany

Ziegelwiese, Halle, Germany

Giebichenstein Castle, Halle, Germany

Ziegelwiese, Halle, Germany

Halle, Germany

Saale River, Halle, Germany

I made my way to the castle on the other side of the bridge, and clambered upwards to get views over the city. The castle was built in the 10th century, in part to protect the salt monopoly of the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I. There is little left but ruins today, although a far newer part of the complex has been turned into a school for fine arts. I could see sculptures in the grounds, but it wasn’t open to the public. From up here, I spotted the City of the Five Towers and my route back.

 


* Yesterday, Halle found itself at the centre of an atrocity. Two people were murdered by far-right terrorists espousing extremist ideology. An attack on Halle’s synagogue was timed with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The attacker was unable to enter the building where a congregation was at prayer, but he killed a woman passerby and a man in a nearby kebab shop. I can imagine that the sense of shock in this typically quiet town is profound.