Modern Meets Medieval in Halle an der Saale, Germany

Germany holds a very special place in my heart. Not only can I understand what’s going on for once, thanks to years of German instruction and a semester in Austria, but the things that are going on usually make sense. There’s masterful public transportation. I have more than a few friends scattered all of the country. To top it all off, there’s little to no crime, so arriving in Germany is not just exciting (dark beer! curry wurst!) but, sigh, comfortable.

And now, my parents are moving there.

Yes, my expat-ness has officially rubbed off onto my poor, unsuspecting parents and my dad has accepted a job transfer to a plant in Germany. And he’s dragged his suitcases across the ocean and is squatting in a hotel at the moment in the small little town of Halle and der Saale, a short drive away from Leipzig, where I had a happy reunion with my Finnish friend Pinja less than a year ago. He’s begun work, my mom is wrapping up life in Pittsburgh, and then in April, she’ll complete her own leg of the journey to Halle an der Saale and they’ll set up house in a house. Coincidentally, I’ll also be headed to Germany at the same time… oh wait. That’s not a coincidence. It’s just my excellent planning, muahaha.

Anyhow, I am running away from the point of this post. I visited Halle for a few days before my flight to Barcelona, Spain, and was surprisingly quite… impressed. Not only was the city small, quaint and full of history, but it had done an excellent job of not just preserving that history, but giving it a new usefulness and function in the modern world. Now, I’ve not been to many small towns in Germany (maybe Lübeck counts?) so I can’t speak for all, though I wouldn’t be surprised in Halle an der Saale wasn’t the only little city to do such a phenomenal job of balancing history with today’s world. But I can only talk about what I know. These are my favorite ways Halle an der Saale brings its past into the present (and who knows what else I’ll discover, come April!).

Moritzburg Castle & Saxony-Anhalt’s Art Museum

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If you’ve ever been to Halle an der Saale, this is probably the building you knew I was going to bring up. Because it’s great. This castle was built in the fifteenth century and as most castle stories go, people were fighting over dumb things and actually important things got burned. Like beautiful, giant castles. Anyways, after years of deteriorating, finally the city of Halle was given rights to the property and after that whole DDR situation was dealt with, a gorgeous and modern art museum was created. Now, instead of recreating the castle walls, though, Halle an der Salle decided to stabilize what ruins there were, preserve them, and then built a sleek metal/glass building within the walls. It looks like this museum literally rises from the ashes, if you will.

Dramatic effect, indeed. Well played, Halle.

Market Church of Saint Mary (Marienkirche)

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This church sits right in the main plaza of the city and is pretty iconic, for good reason. Not only does Halle an der Saale incorporate their history into today, but they’ve even got a history of incorporating history, as seen with Marienkirche. Why do you think this church has 4 towers? Nope, it’s not because the architects were weird. (Though maybe they were, who can say?) It’s because some important Catholic Germans wanted to build a giant church to impress all of the townspeople and make sure they didn’t join the Reformation. But instead of tearing the two existing churches completely down, they left the towers in place and connected them with the new nave (fancy speak for the middle part of a church).

(Also, a bit of historical irony, it was within this partially-built church that some important German dude gave a speech and converted the congregation to Protestantism, the exact thing the construction of the fancy church was supposed to ward off. Ouch. See Wikipedia for more drama.)

But that’s not the only way the Market Church of Saint Mary has fought off being dated. These days, instead of closing off the tower stairs and declaring them unfit for traversing, the city of Halle installed new, metal, spiral staircases in both front towers, maintains the top bridge/platforms and leads tours up, across and back down, twice a day. How do I know that, you ask? Because out of sheer luck, I found myself in the right place at the right time and joined the tour group, stepped up those steep metal stairs, visited the indoor platforms and walked across the hanging bridge, hundreds of feet above ground. How often do you get to do that in towers dating from the 1500s? (On second thought, maybe that’s not on your to-do list…)

The Francke Foundation Homes

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In 1695, a German guy (Can you guess his last name?) decided to set up an orphanage and religious school for poor kids and anyone else who wanted to attend classes or live there. It was a huge success and expanded into an entire complex (teacher training, a pharmacy, library, etc.), all with matching white buildings in a row. Until the dumb WWII bombings and later DDR situation, things were going well and the place was huge. Nowadays, they’ve rebuilt and repaired the damage and started up all of the social programs again. Big-whoopty-do, right? But that’s not the entire reason I was so impressed with this old complex

No, the real kicker is that the library holds books that are hundreds of years old, in a building built completely out of the original materials: nails, floorboards, bookshelves and all. It’s fully functional, beautifully done and you’re allowed to walk into the first section of the room and touch a couple books. And then, they’ve digitally scanned a ton of the super old books so that you can look at the books online. Not only is that modern, but it contributes to the book’s preservation in the long run and it’s just super cool.

The Main Square

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Alright, so this one isn’t really so unique, but I still love how Halle’s modern transportation, street cars, go right through the historical center square. Berlin also has a trolley hub right in one of its historical centers, and I’m sure there are plenty of other cities that qualify on the same account. But there’s just something about seeing that bright red street car pull up in front of a 15th century clock tower (or in this picture’s case, a 16th century church) and let off a bunch of Germans, some of whom have their face in an iPhone. I adore it.

There are a couple more honorable mentions, here:

  • The Handel Museum is built inside of the house George Handel (a famous composer) was born in.
  • A square of apartments are being put into renovated 15th-18th century buildings with a courtyard.
  • The Giebichenstein Castle also houses a museum and University, though I’ve never seen it myself (parts of it are closed in winter so I didn’t make it up there).

I only had a few days in Halle an der Saale, but it was quite a lovely time. If you’re ever in the area, it would certainly not be a waste of time! And say hello to my parents, too, while you’re there.

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What do you think of Halle an der Salle, Germany? Which modern/medieval mash up was your favorite?

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