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Romantic Lorsch Abbey

If you’re looking for a building that invites open-mouthed amazement, Speyer is surely an excellent choice. But if you’re looking for a building to fall in love with, Lorsch Abbey is a much better bet. Chances are, you’ve often passed within a couple of miles of it on Highway 5 or 67 between Weinheim or Mannheim and Darmstadt without noticing the Lorsch turn-off. Yet, at one time, the abbey here was one of the most important establishments in Europe. But that, as the saying goes, was way back in the mists of time. In fact, centuries before the present Speyer Cathedral was even conceived. Because, in Lorsch, old really does mean very old indeed. When we park near what is signposted as the Königshalle, we are about to see a small but nonetheless wonderful building that goes back over 1,200 years. It was probably built in the 770s, and the great Frankish king Charlemagne may well have passed through its arches long before he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800.

You don’t have to be a connoisseur of Carolingian architecture to feel immediately fascinated by the mosaic-like pattern of the stonework. The impressive Corinthian capitals might well remind you of what you’ve seen in Speyer, as will the narrow palmette frieze between the two tiers of columns. But take time to enjoy the lovely patterns of the red stonework, whose very irregularity gives them so much vivacity.

The building served as a gatehouse where it was decided who would be allowed into the precincts of the powerful Benedictine monastery that owned vast estates in the surrounding region. Upstairs, there’s a rather primitive room that is rarely open, but is worth checking out, as some of its fragmentary paintings are over 1,000 years old. Unfortunately, little else survives of the original monastic complex, the only substantial building being the torso of the church that does contain a couple of ancient tombs.

Behind this, a pleasant monastic herb garden has recently been laid out. The museum next to the gatehouse has a section devoted to tobacco cultivation, but its main interest lies in the reconstructions of the abbey buildings plus facsimiles of its greatest treasure, the so-called Lorsch Gospels, whose covers (now in London and Rome) incorporated ivory carvings going right back to Roman times. In other words, even further back into the mists of time.

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