June 1, 2023: A World Heritage Blitzkrieg
After 2 days in Frankfurt and Mainz, it was time to head south to a wedding in Heidelberg. It turns out that there are many UNESCO World Heritage Sites surrounding Frankfurt. While I could not see them all, I devised a route where I could get to 5 of them in a single day.
After picking up my rental car at the Frankfurt Airport, I headed south along the autobahn. This was my first time driving on the speed limit-less roads. Compared to the Interstate freeways in the US, the autobahns were straighter and had wider lanes. For these reasons, I did not feel out of control going 170 km/hour. While I felt like I was going fast, there were cars going WAY faster. It is also worth mentioning that the autobahns do have speed limits in some sections: such as along a curve or more populated area. The speed limits were typically 100 or 110 km/hour.
My first stop was the town of Darmstadt just 30 minutes away. Darmstadt is a very normal industrial town. It is home to the Mathidenhöhe, an artist colony from the early 1900´s. The artists worked in a style called Jugendstil which is the German equivalent of Art Nouveau.
Interesting as the place may be, the site is currently under renovation to ready it for the many visitors that will come as a result of its UNESCO designation. Right now, the main building is not open to the public. The only places open are the Russian orthodox church which was open and a museum which didn´t open for another hour. Not wanting to wait, I headed out disappointed.
Luckily, my next stop was only 15 minutes out of town. The Messel Pit is the only natural UNESCO site solely in Germany and is the discovery spot of some of the best-preserved fossils ever. During the Eocene era 45 million years ago, the area was volcanic. It is believed that the shifting of the ground would occasionally release dangerous gases that would kill everything nearby. The lifeless bodies of the animals then sank to the bottom of the deep lake and became covered in silt, thus preserving them.
In the 1800´s, the site was a mine for oil shale (a FOSSIL fuel). Despite being known for having fossils since 1900, it remained a mine until the plunging oil prices in 1971 resulted in its closure. It almost became a landfill until the state government of Hesse stepped in and purchased the site in 1991. Since then, it has been operated as a museum. Paleontologists still are excavating more fossils from the pit.
The Messel Pit can only be accessed by a twice-a-day guided tour. I arrived 20 minutes before the tour which gave me time to check out the museum of fossils which included a fossilized crocodile.
At 10:30, it was time to start the tour. Unfortunately, the 90-minute tour was only in German so I couldn´t pick up everything. They did give me an English-language brochure, but the tour was far more in depth and included numerous demonstrations. Still, it was cool to be inside the pit.
For the third UNESCO site, I had to head 45 minutes south along the Autobahn where I was going 160 km/hour and still getting passed. I then followed country roads 15 minutes to reach the town of Lorch.
Lorch contains the remnants of a Pre-Romanesque fortress. The remnants include a wall, a palace and shell of a church. The church´s groundbreaking was attended by none other than Charlemagne himself.
The only building with an intact room is the King´s Hall which can only be accessed by a 30-minute guided tour…only in German. Given the tiny size of the room, I decided to pass this and instead enjoy the peaceful grassy lawns. To me this site, as old as it is, was not extensive enough to be considered a UNESCO site. Nevertheless, I don´t work for UNESCO.
Since I was around, I decided to wander the cute town of Lorch and found a brewery. Nobody in the busy restaurant spoke any English, which, while a challenge, meant I had reached an authentic spot. One guy was wearing a Lakers hat and proudly showed it to me.
I then drove 20 minutes to the town of Worms. While the town name is bizarre, it is actually one of the most important and historic in all of Germany. After parking next to a carnival, I walked to the Jewish Quarter.
The Worms Jewish Quarter, along with Jewish sites in Mainz and Speyer, are called the ShUM Sites (an acronym of their Hebrew names) and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sites are all small, but the area in Worms is the largest. It´s 11th century synagogue is the oldest in Germany, although it has had to be rebuilt numerous times due to anti-Jewish pogroms. It was most recently attacked anti-Zionists in 2010. Rashi, one of the most important medieval rabbis, worked in the Worms Synagogue.
15 minutes away is the Jewish cemetery known as Holy Sands, which contains the oldest Jewish gravestone in Europe: 1058/1059. I found it interesting that the gravestone language shifted from Hebrew to German in the late 1800´s as the Jewish community began to assimilate.
Worms is not only Jewish history, it is also a major importance in the Reformation. In 1521, Martin Luther defended his thesis here in front of the Diet of Worms (the legislature of the Holy Roman Empire) and the Holy Roman Emperor himself. In one sense the defense didn´t go so well as the Diet issued an edict saying that he was a heretic, ultimately leading to his arrest. However, this defense was so impassionate that it is still talked about today.
Also in the city is an imposing Catholic cathedral built in 1120. It was here that the Diet of Worms took place.
Finally, I drove to my final UNESCO World Heritage Site of the day: the Speyer Cathedral, located 30 minutes south of Worms. The humongous sandstone cathedral is the largest Romanesque building in the world.
In addition to the Gothic-sized nave, the cathedral also contains an impressive crypt, which contains the remains of 4 Holy Roman Emperors and multiple kings of Germany including the very first Hapsburg king.
Speyer looks like it has a lot else to see including a UNESCO-listed Jewish mikveh and the humongous Teknik Museum. However, the day was ending and I needed to head to Heidelberg to attend the wedding of my college friend, Michelle.
This was a hectic day jumping between so many sights that I would not recommend to the average traveler. So, instead here are my quick thoughts on each individual site:
Speyer was the best of the 5 sites and is spectacular. The town of Speyer seems to have other things to see/do so it could be a great day trip on its own.
The Jewish sites in Worms were well-done but, to be honest, I thought the entire city of Worms was fantastic. All the sights can be seen in a half-day.
The Messel Pit was interesting but would have been far more interesting had I known German. The museum took about 15 minutes to see and once you see the pit from the free viewing platform, that´s all you can really get out it. Actually going into the pit isn’t worth the 90 minute tour. So, I would probably not recommend visiting for a non-German speaker.
While Lorch is ancient and peaceful, I don´t think it is complete enough for the UNESCO designation. Seeing the non-touristy German town was better than the ruins themselves, and there are hundreds of non-touristy German towns you could visit.
And finally, the Darmstadt artist´s colony will probably be worth visiting after the renovation, but right now is not worth it.