Speyer: a Sunday stroll
Beside the pink sandstone walls of Speyer Cathedral, we came across a musician in the shade of a plane tree, performing a personal rendition of Bach. From his glockenspiel the familiar notes of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring rang through the crisp November air, and I breathed in its magic as we admired the changing leaves of autumn. My sister and I had opted to spend a slow Sunday afternoon in one of Germany’s oldest cities, with more than 2000 years of recorded history.
From the outset, Speyer (pronounced “schpy-er”) was an enchanting alternative to Heidelberg. For someone unaccustomed to medieval German townscapes, it came as a vision straight out of the Brothers Grimm. On the edge of the old town, the 15th-century Altpörtel loomed large, with its impressive clock face in black and gold, an arched gallery running high above our heads, and a steeply pitched, 20-metre roof that culminated in a baroque lantern.
We peered through the gateway down the length of Maximilianstrasse, towards the gingerbread patterns and copper spires of the Romanesque cathedral. Up to 30 metres wide, the main street was once used as a triumphal way for the Holy Roman Emperor and his court.
In 1024, Conrad II, a nobleman from Speyer, was elected king of Germany before being crowned Holy Roman Emperor three years later. Under his rule, construction on a monumental cathedral was started (1030), spurring the city’s growth and cementing its position as a spiritual centre for imperial power.
When completed in 1111, the structure was the largest church of its time. Speyer Cathedral became the resting place for eight German kings and emperors, and a tomb inside the crypt was even intended for Barbarossa. Today the building has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it remains the world’s largest surviving Romanesque church.
Down a street from the cathedral lies the Judenhof (Jews’ Court), with the oldest remains of a synagogue found in Central Europe. Here, we descended into an underground chamber to see the medieval Jewish ritual baths, or Mikvah, in a pool still fed by groundwater. Lit from a square opening in a vaulted ceiling, it had an almost mournful atmosphere. Speyer was once home to one of the most important Jewish communities of the Holy Roman Empire, and the city’s Hebrew name, Shpira, may have been the source of the Yiddish surnames Spira, Shapira, Spier and Shapiro.
By the 16th century, the Jews of Speyer had endured many pogroms and countless instances of persecution. When the empire’s roving general assembly (the imperial diet) came to the city in 1544, its Jewish residents voiced their grievances to Emperor Charles V, who responded with a charter upholding their rights and privileges across the empire. A similar assembly 15 years earlier was marked by the Protestation at Speyer, in which the leaders of Lutheran states petitioned against the imperial ban on Martin Luther and his teachings. It was this event that would give the Protestant cause its name.