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Step back in time

Goslar and Quedlinburg are Germany gems

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While Germany's dynamic cities drive much of its appeal for international travellers, it also boasts many smaller towns where centuries of history offer exquisite views of the past.

Festooned with half-timbered homes and windy, narrow lanes and bustling marketplaces, they offer a chance to literally step back in time.

Goslar and Quedlinburg -- both protected UNESCO sites -- are two of the best. South of Hanover and west of Berlin, these communities -- each more than a millennium old -- retain their architectural roots. And since modern industrialization largely passed them by, they were not targeted and therefore untouched during the Second World War.

No one knows how long Goslar, in the foothills of the Harz Mountains, has been inhabited. But more than a thousand years ago, it grew quite wealthy due to ores -- primarily copper but also silver, zinc and lead -- extracted from its Rammelsberg mines.

For several centuries, the town's wealth grew, and visits by the Holy Roman Emperor were not uncommon. These rulers eventually grew more interested in Italy, and rights to the mines passed to noblemen who did not invest in the town.

Today, Goslar retains hundreds of medieval houses -- both half-timbered and slate-covered -- an extraordinary royal palace, lively town square, several excellent restaurants and the Rammelsberg mine, which was still being worked as late as 1988. Indeed, daily guided tours -- which can include rides on rail wagons miners used to transport ores to the surface -- are fascinating. The adjoining museum details a thousand years of mining.

Above ground, specific sights include the massive half-timbered home of the Siemens family. Hans Siemens, an ancestor of the founder of the same-named modern firm, built it in 1693. Also, check out the many medieval dwellings at Schuhhof Square, steps from the town hall.

Visitors should tour the 16th-century town hall on Market Square, and the Kaiser Pfalz, an 11th-century Romanesque masterpiece. Initially the site of royal gatherings, in the 19th century an array of historical portraits depicting great moments in Goslar's medieval history, were installed. If you have extra time, explore the area near the rail station where an impressive remnant of Goslar's city walls and a conical tower still stand.

More medieval wonders are in Quedlinburg, less than 65 kilometres away. Town sources say 1,300 half-timbered houses are here. Visitors also come in droves to climb up to and examine the structures atop Castle Hill, particularly the Romanesque collegiate church of St. Servatius. Highlights include the graves of Germany's first king, Henry I, and his wife Mathilde, along with an extraordinary treasury.

Henry established his residency on what became Castle Hill. After he died in 936, his son and successor Otto, along with the queen, created an imperial convent for the education of unmarried daughters of the nobility.

Though the original St. Servatius was destroyed by fire in 1070, its replacement -- considered to be one of Europe's finest examples of Romanesque architecture -- contains the crypts of Henry and Matilda as well as tombs of other early German monarchs.

Also found here is the treasury containing manuscripts, a 10th-century gospel and a 13th-century knotted carpet whose design is an allegory of Greek myths. It is regarded as a priceless example of Romanesque-era handiwork. Near the church are the palace and restored castle, home to the expansive castle museum.

In the heart of Quedlinburg's commercial area, there are many cobbled lanes behind town hall, a statue of the legendary warrior Roland and plenty of other settings ideal for strolling and taking photos.

The Nazis -- wanting to enhance their legitimacy by establishing links between themselves and Germany's earliest kings -- paid a lot of attention to Castle Hill. Indeed, Gestapo head Heinrich Himmler gave speeches here, insisting the Third Reich was a logical continuation of the nation's ancient history.

Close to the roadway leading up to Castle Hill is the Lyonel Feininger Gallery. It displays works of the American-born illustrator, expressionist painter and Bauhaus artist (1871-1956). Born in the U.S., he spent five decades in Germany, returning to the U.S. several years after the Nazis came to power. Ultimately they banned Feininger's work as "degenerate art." Many of these were preserved, thanks to their being hidden by students and colleagues until the Nazi era ended.

Gernrode, 10 kilometres from Quedlinburg, also is worth a look. Highlights include the Romanesque church of St. Cyriakus, which dates to the 10th century; and a 16th-century Lutheran primary school, restored to its 18th-century configuration. Get there via a fascinating ride on the Selketalbahn, a historic steam-powered, narrow-gauge railway. Or, take a taxi.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 E5

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