This medieval city has its charms even though it takes a little bit of time for the city to give up its reticence and grow on you, writes Anita Rao-Kashi.
Magdeburg is not a name that will spark recognition immediately. In fact, even locals will seem dubious when the name is uttered. But this medieval city on the Elbe, the capital of Germany’s Saxony-Anhalt state has its charms even though it takes a little bit of time for the city to give up its reticence and grow on you.
It didn’t help that the day I landed it was a cold, grey morning with the skies threatening to open up. But as I kept peeking out of the window anxiously, the day got brighter and the skies cleared up enough to banish the overcast quality though the sun was far from making an appearance. Taking a chance and eager to get out of my room and outdoors, I cut through a maze of roads to reach the river. Looking back from there, I saw the most amazing sight – the city’s ancient walls towering for some distance with greenery below. Behind the walls stretched out a series of magnificent stone structures, almost all of them churches and I understood why Magdeburg had earned one of its epithets – city of churches. It made for a striking picture.
Magdeburg’s history went back to the medieval times, to as far back as the early 11th century, when Otto 1 the Roman Emperor turned a tiny little fishing village into a royal city and a foremost outpost of the Holy Roman Empire. But Magdeburg is also called the city of two Ottos. While the city was founded by one Otto, it renewed its fame and importance in the early to mid 17th century with Otto von Guericke, an engineer, physicist and inventor among other things. He is known for proving vacuum and the famous vacuum hemispheres. Magdeburg also had the distinction of being the city of Martin Luther and where he delivered his first proclamation about the indulgences and where the Reformation movement kick-started.
With all these swirling in my head, I walked up the river for a few hundred metres to a little hillock called the St Peter’s Hill. It was home to three churches – the Walloon Church with its origins going back to the Netherlands, St Peter’s Church built in Gothic style with spacious aisles and beautiful interiors, and the Magdalenekapelle, also in Gothic style.
But what fascinated me more was Johanniskirche or St John’s Church with a beautiful metallic door and carvings and lovely interiors. The original church was believed to have been built originally in the 10th century, but destroyed and re-built at least four times. Its twin steeples were imposing and the interiors were impeccable, reason why it has been used as a concert hall from time to time. In the basement was also the grave of Otto von Guericke, but more eye-catching was the statue of Martin Luther in front of the church, pointing to his dominating presence in the city.
I headed South from here, briefly visiting the lovely Church of Our Lady, an 11th century Romanesque church attached to which was a cosy cafe where I stopped to have lunch. But I couldn’t wait to finish my meal and head to the massive and arresting Magdeburger Dom or Magdeburg Cathedral dedicated to St Maurice and St Catherine. One of the city’s most iconic landmarks, the towering building took more than 300 years to build and stands on the remains of a Roman cathedral. At a height of over 104 mts, it’s also one of the highest church buildings in Eastern Germany.
The cathedral had exquisite sculptures both on the outside and inside. Especially riveting were those of the Twelve Virgins on the Northern face of the cathedral, the sculptures of Emperor Otto and his wife Editha as well as high arched ceilings, elaborate pulpits, carvings of stories from the Bible and much more. It also housed the grave of Otto the emperor.
The building had an air of tranquillity and I could have sat there for hours and soaked up the serenity but glimpses outside indicated the clouds were back with a vengeance. So I hurried back to the refuge of my hotel, immensely glad to have seen the sights I had. Gradually, Magdeburg had revealed its inner self by the end of the day. So, even though it might not evoke immediate recognition in others, it had woven its subtle charm around me.
Magdeburg is the capital of the state of Saxony-Anhalt in central Germany.
Getting there: Berlin (155 km) is the nearest airport hub which is in turn well connected with flights from India. A fast train from Berlin takes an hour and 30 minutes to reach Magdeburg.
Stay: Magdeburg is large enough to have a variety of stay options but opt to stay in the centre of town at the Maritim Hotel which has large comfortable rooms or the quirky and funky Green Citadel.