A wander through Mainz: On the trail of the city’s history

A wander through Mainz is like a stroll back through the centuries. There are monuments, historic buildings and churches dating back to different chapters in the history of the city. Follow the trail from the centre to the old town, up the Stefansberg and into the new town in the company of interesting personalities like Johannes Gutenberg and Marc Chagall.

The walk through the capital of Rhineland‑Palatinate begins in the busy market square in the very heart of Mainz. Your eye is immediately drawn to the town’s most famous landmark, the red sandstone cathedral towering over the hustle and bustle at its feet. St Martin’s Cathedral has dominated the Mainz skyline since the cornerstone was laid in the 10th century and has seen plenty of interesting times, including around seven coronations and seven fires. As you step through the portal, the bustling voices of the market square disappear as if switched off. Mainz Cathedral is an oasis of calm. Now, you can stroll through the vast interior of the church, which was designed along the lines of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The 15th century two-storey cloister in its picture-perfect garden is also worth seeing. The cathedral’s canons used to live in the neighbouring buildings, which are now home to the Cathedral and Diocesan Museum.

Next, you can wander a few steps further to Liebfrauenplatz and stand right in front of the lovely façade of the Gutenberg Museum. If you are interested in the history and identity of Mainz, there is one name that keeps cropping up: Johannes Gutenberg. The inventor of letterpress printing using movable type is the city’s most famous son, so it is no surprise that there is a museum dedicated to him and his incredible legacy.

The carefully curated exhibition is a journey into the world of writing culture. You can look at rare printing presses and learn that, contrary to how he is normally depicted, Johannes Gutenberg probably did not have a beard. In the museum, you can even gaze upon two original Gutenberg bibles from the 15th century, which are so sensitive to light they are exhibited in a special darkened vault.

The Gutenberg Museum, Mainz

The Gutenberg Museum with the Imperial Cathedral in the background, Mainz

Armed with your new-found knowledge on working processes and printing techniques, you can stride into the workshop itself in the museum’s own print shop. As you step inside, you can feel the creativity in the air. The ceilings are hung with finished prints, the air smells of ink and the shelves are straining under the weight of tools, letters and paper. It’s a wonderful atmosphere! Under the guidance of an expert, you can produce a print of your very own. The choice of designs is virtually endless. Perhaps you could choose a picture of Gutenberg (albeit with a beard). Then you would have a piece of Mainz history in your hands.

The walk through the city continues towards Augustinerstraße. It is a real gem in the Mainz old town, full of traditional half-timbered houses, little shops, cafés and wine bars. It is as bustling now as it would have been in the Middle Ages.

Augustinerstraße leads into Kirschgarten, a really pretty little square. It is another chance to encounter Johannes Gutenberg, albeit indirectly. The ‘Zum Aschaffenberg’ house, which was built in 1500, making it the oldest surviving half-timbered house in the city, once served as security on a loan taken out by a relative for the printer and his work.

The Augustinerkirche is completely different to the comparatively simple styling of Mainz Cathedral. By contrast, the 18th century Baroque church is unmistakably all about intricacy and opulence. The impressive church interior features ceiling panels, wooden figures and plenty of gold. The Prince-electors did not want it to be a ‘peasants church’, and you could say they got their way.

The ‘Kirschgarten’ in Mainz, Rhenish Hesse

The ‘Kirschgarten’ in the old town of Mainz, Rhenish Hesse

Onwards and upwards! The Gothic St Stephan’s Church stands on Stefansberg, the highest point of the city. Again, you can learn about another chapter in the history of Mainz, this time not so long ago. Like so many historical buildings, St Stephan’s was severely damaged in the Second World War. When it was extensively restored in the 1970s, a powerful symbol was included. At the insistence of the then pastor, a monument of German and French friendship and Christian and Jewish solidarity was installed inside the church. World-famous Jewish artist Marc Chagall designed a total of nine church windows that now bathe the interior in romantic blue light. They are the only windows he ever designed for a German church. Just below St Stephan’s is an oasis of green, and in the middle of it is a bench, which is the perfect place to sit for a moment. The insects bustle around as merrily as the people in the market square earlier.

Next, you leave Stefansberg behind, walk across Gutenbergplatz with its famous Gutenberg Monument and head towards the new part of Mainz. The route takes you past Karmeliterplatz and the ruins of the early Gothic St Christoph’s Church. This church was also severely damaged in the Second World War, but, unlike St Stephan’s, has not been restored. Instead, St Christoph’s was converted into a memorial in the 1960s. It is a reminder of the horrors of Nazism and the destruction of the city by the end of the war. But we also come across an old friend here too. It is believed that Johannes Gutenberg was christened in this church. The house where he was born, which no longer exists, was not far away. So it is a reasonable assumption.

One of the most eventful chapters in the history of Mainz is the one about the Jewish community. It is among the oldest in Germany, with early traces going back as far as the 10th century. In the heart of the new town, you can see the really impressive new synagogue, which was built and consecrated in 2010 in the exact place the main synagogue stood before it was plundered and destroyed during Kristallnacht (the November Pogrom) in 1938. The architecture is fascinating. The extraordinary shape of the place of worship symbolises Hebrew letters from the ‘Kedushah’, a Jewish liturgical blessing. On the forecourt, you step through an arch of columns. This is the only surviving part of the old synagogue and forms a strong contrast as well as a bridge between the past and the present.

Your stroll through the history of Mainz comes to an end in front of the Prince-elector’s Palace. It is one of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings in Europe and makes a powerful impression with its sandstone red colour and pretty façade.

Gable of the Electoral Palace in Mainz, Rhenish Hesse

Gable of the Electoral Palace in Mainz, Rhenish Hesse

This is the former residence of the Archbishops of Mainz, who were also Prince-electors. It is the venue for the biannual ‘Mainz bleibt Mainz, wie es singt und lacht’ (Mainz will always be Mainz, watch it sing and laugh) television carnival, which is another institution in the city’s history that it is difficult to imagine Mainz without. There is a beer garden in the inner courtyard of the great palace. You can make yourself comfortable in the shade of a large tree and enjoy a well-earned refreshment after a long and really interesting walk through the whole city and many chapters of its history. Cheers!

More recommended excursions for outdoor activities in and around Mainz:

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