SAARBRÜCKEN, GERMANY — I have to constantly remind myself that I’m in Germany and not France as I explore the streets of this enchanting southwestern German border city where the local dialect is spiced with lots of French words.
“The French influence really shows up on our restaurant menus,” says my guide, as she points to a clearing in the near distance and identifies it as the “French border.”
Saarbrücken, the state capital of Saarland and the area’s largest city, drifted between being German and French territory for many decades until finally in 1939 the residents voted overwhelmingly to join Nazi Germany.
While Hitler celebrated Saarbrücken’s vote by erecting an impressive concert hall, which still exists today, the Allies took their revenge. In the waning days of World War II, bombs rained down on this industrial powerhouse, destroying its massive steel mills and many of its historic buildings.
“The Royal Air Force raided our city at least 10 times, killing hundreds and destroying almost 80 per cent of Saarbrücken,” says the guide as we reach charming Market Square, which, she informs me, “miraculously escaped the bombing raids.”
Above: St. Johanner Market Square is where people have been gathering for centuries.
Because of its strategic location on the Saar River and the long veins of iron ore and coal that run deep into the rolling hills surrounding it, Saarbrücken has always been a target. In the Thirty Years War, for instance, its population was reduced to just 70 from 1,637 after a French invasion. In 1677, France’s King Louis XIV reduced the city to just eight homes.
“We have much better relations with France now,” smiles the guide as a large group of French tourists walks past us in the cobbled square.
Officially known as St. Johanner Market Square, the city’s main gathering point is surrounded by Medieval buildings that lean noticeably to one side thanks to their age. The narrow alleys surrounding the square are filled with charming cafés, wine bars and quaint souvenir shops.
“This used to be the brothel district in the Middle Ages,” says the guide about the notorious square that now hosts one of Germany’s best Christmas markets each year.
The Saar River cuts Saarbrücken into two distinct districts — a working class, where Market Square is located, and an historic area dominated by a castle that sits on a hill overlooking the river.
The two districts are connected by a sturdy stone bridge that was first erected by the Romans in the 2nd century. The Romans built it with wood but the bridge was later upgraded to stone in the 14th century.
Above: Inside Ludwig's Church, the box where the count listened to Sunday services is supported by lovely angels.
Palace Square dominates the historic district and features the 17th-century Renaissance-style castle ordered built by Count Ludwig II. A short walk from the castle is Ludwigskirche — Ludwig’s Church — a stunning Baroque structure that has been compared to Hamburg’s landmark St. Michael's Church and Dresden’s famed Frauenkirche.
The church’s white interior is very impressive, as are the pillars of female angels holding up the massive choir loft. A private box with windows in the centre of the loft is from where the count would listen to sermons each week.
“If, during the sermon, the count closed the window, the pastor knew that was the last time he would be preaching in Ludwigskirche,” laughs the guide.
Saarbrücken Castle, along with Ludwigskirche, were completely destroyed in World War II and painstakingly rebuilt afterwards. Unfortunately, the futuristic glass entrance added during reconstruction makes the castle look more like an administrative building.
The most amazing thing about Saarbrücken Castle, though, is what lies beneath it. To see that, you must visit the small, narrow building that sits to the right of the castle. It houses the Saar Historical Museum and beneath it lies much of the city’s earliest history.
“In the 1990s and into the early 2000s there was a lot of excavation work done below the castle and they discovered Saarbrücken Castle is actually built on top of two others — an original from Medieval times and another from around 1560,” says the guide.
The moat and outer walls of the original castle and some chambers from that time lie 14 metres below the museum and visitors are able to wander through ancient history on a guided tour. Art, armour and other relics from Saarland’s earliest days are neatly displayed on the main floor of the unique museum.
The tour also reveals the castle’s darkest side — it was used by Hitler’s dreaded Gestapo as their headquarters during WWII and sadly, says my guide, many people were tortured and killed in the basement.
Above: Under the city's infamous castles, visitors find secret passage ways and ancient millitary hardware.
Saarbrücken’s industrial prowess made it one of the richest cities in Europe, and, unfortunately one of the dirtiest, thanks to the mills and mines that produced lots of unchecked pollution.
Times have changed for the better here. Now 46 per cent of the city is forested and Saarbrücken is regarded as one of Europe’s most environmentally friendly places to live.
One of the most fascinating places to visit in Saarbrücken is Basilika St. Johannes der Täufer (The Basilica of St. John the Baptist), which is located just off Market Square.
The interior of the lovely Baroque church from 1758 looks like it jumped off the pages of a fairytale storybook. It’s no wonder St. Johann has become a favourite spot for local weddings.
At the entrance to the church, there’s a simple plaque remembering the life of a local legend named Willi Graf.
When I ask the guide for an explanation, she lowers her eyes and in a soft voice tells me, “Willi Graf was a member of the White Rose, an underground German resistance group that fought against Hitler’s Nazis,” she begins.
“They caught him and tortured him brutally before killing him. He was just 25 when he died. There are schools and public buildings named after him and he is part of our history.
"Willi is the role model for our city,” she says.
Saarbrücken is a good role model for cities everywhere.
Above: The city's old town is full of narrow streets, passage ways and colourful homes.
JUST THE FACTS
• For more information on Saarbrücken and German tourism, go to http://www.germany.travel/en
• Air Canada and Lufthansa offer daily service to Frankfurt and Munich from several Canadian gateways.
About the Author
Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former Travel Editor of the Toronto Star, Canada's largest newspaper, and now Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world. Japan is one of his favorite destinations and he's been there on numerous occasions.