live slow, love nature, be adventurous

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Stepping Back in Time at Maulbronn Monastery, Germany

I’m not going to lie: I’m only writing this post to remind myself that there are times of the year where such a thing as a blue sky actually exists. Apart from a few sunny hours here and there that tease us with the promise of an imminent spring, the weather has been pretty miserable all of February and I am starting to seriously doubt that winter is actually ever going to end. I always struggle a bit to stay positive during this time of the year, and so I have decided to dig up some colorful pictures from last fall on the off chance that I'm not the only one that feels this way and could do with a little color therapy.

Back in November, my boyfriend and me visited Maulbronn Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site close to Stuttgart and the best-preserved medieval monastery in Europe north of the Alps. I realize that touring ancient monasteries is not everyone’s idea of fun, but Maulbronn Monastery is truly one of the most beautiful and charming places I have visited in the south of Germany in a long time and makes for the perfect destination if you want to step back in time for one afternoon.

Surrounded by rolling hills that were just made for a countryside amble and miles away from the next big city, Maulbronn is a peaceful small town that feels almost hidden away from the world. There are some bus connections, but they aren’t very frequent on the weekend and because the train station is located somewhere in the middle of nowhere and requires a solid thirty-minute-walk through the forest until you reach town, arriving in Maulbronn truly feels like entering a secluded alcove.

There are not a lot of places I would rather be in the fall than a forest and so the walk from the train station was an obvious blessing for my photo-obsessed and nature-loving heart. With a bright blue sky above us and warm sunlight flooding through the trees, the forest had such a cheerful ambience and I was amazed how different – though not less mesmerizing – the scenery was from the mysterious and sinister fairytale atmosphere that we had encountered on our last forest walk near Heidelberg a few weeks earlier. I have probably said it before and I am sure I will say it again, but I cannot think of a lot of places that could be as picturesque as a forest on a fall day!

The Witch House is open!

Words and pictures cannot properly explain what it feels like to first step into Maulbronn Monastery. As you enter through the tall and narrow gate that separates the grounds from the outside world and a vast square framed by large half-timbered houses appears in front you, you find yourself transported to a different world and a different time. The thick walls of the old monastery church in the back must look just as majestically as they have for hundreds of years and it seems entirely possible to forget all the woes and temptations of the secular world with barely as much as a step - and I imagine that that was exactly the intention of its makers.

The monastery was founded by members of the Cistercian order as far back as the 12th century. The Cistercians strove to pursue a simple life according to the principles of ora et labora – Latin for pray and work – and first settled in the area after they were bestowed land by a local nobleman. Over the centuries, the monastery grew both in size and in its economic and spiritual importance, but when the state of Württemberg became Protestant during the reformation in the 16th century, the monastery was desolved.

We spent some time just strolling over the square and exploring the different nooks and crannies of the monastery grounds. With a restaurant and a cafe, the local police station and several municipal administrative offices, Maulbronn Monastery almost seemed to form a town within a town and I loved seeing how seamlessly the grand old structures had been incorporated into the modern life of the town.

While most of the monastery grounds are free to visit, there is a small entrance fee for the monastery church that is well-worth it for the stunning architecture alone, though we also joined one of the included guided tours that was the perfect way to learn more about life at the monastery. Our guide told us so many interesting facts about different facets of the monastery’s history that we could have never gotten from a guide book - let alone have known ourselves – and I think our experience was all the more profound because of it. As far as I know, guided tours are only available in German, but alternatively, there are also audio guides available.

Since the monastery was built over a period of a few hundred years, the church exhibits features of many different styles of architecture. Round Arches in the entrance area of the church showcase the monastery’s Romanesque beginnings while the lancet arches and vaults that dominate the cloisters are clear characteristics of the prominent Gothic style that started to emerge in Europe in the High Middle Ages. The architecture was beautiful in its simplicity and execution and it was easy to see why Maulbronn Monastery exerted much influence on the construction of many other sacral buildings of the time, but – to be perfectly honest – I was only able to mutter one thing to my boyfriend: “You know, this looks like Hogwarts in Germany!”

And, to be fair, Maulbronn Monastery doesn’t just look like it could have taken Christ Church College’s place in the Harry Potter movies, but actually does contain a boarding school. And while there may be no magic involved, the school that was first founded as a convent school after the Reformation to give the monastery new purpose in a Protestant state, does look book at centuries of history and has brought forth many notable alumni.

One of the school’s most renowned students was German writer Hermann Hesse who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1946. He attended the school as a boy in the late 19th century to prepare for theologic studies at university, but because he didn’t care for a career in the clergy at all, but rather wanted to become a poet, he had a decidedly unhappy time at the monastery. Hermann Hesse only spent one year in Maulbronn before leaving the school, but his time there influenced him so much that he wrote an entire novel on his experience with the suffocating academic environment of the time called Beneath the wheel years later. As sad as his time in Maulbronn had been, he did remark the physical beauty of the place and his literary descriptions of the monastery are so precise and vivid that they really bring the countryside to life.

After our tour, we decided to go on a little walk through the groves around the monastery that our guide had recommended. We passed one of the ponds that the monks had created for fish farming, but that functions at the town’s swimming pool today and then walked among the fruit trees which had already started to lose most of their leaves. And with a tiny hot air balloon gracing the sky in the distance, I decided that the scenery couldn’t have gotten more idyllic.

I have been making a lot of effort over the last year to explore more places that are closer to home. I’m definitely guilty of getting so caught up in dreaming of visiting exotic, far flung destinations that I forget what beautiful places are only a short train trip away from where I live and so I am definitely planning to keep the momentum going – at least if spring ever decides to come around!

Happy March! 


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