Story by Wendy Brown
U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden Public Affairs Office
I have a general belief in life that recreational activities requiring hard hats are bound to be fun, and a visit to the Oppenheimer Cellar Labyrinth has confirmed that belief.
Oppenheim is a 30-minute drive south of Wiesbaden, and in addition to the labyrinth of tunnels, the city features the beautiful St. Katharine’s Church, an ossuary that contains thousands of skeletons, two museums, castle ruins and much more.
The people of Oppenheim built the tunnels between the years of 1,100 and 1,500 in order to create more space to hold merchandise in their cellars, Hans Bodderaz, manager of the Oppenheim tourism office, said.
Oppenheim officially became a city in 1,225, and merchants wanted to keep their wares inside the city wall, Bodderaz said. The city charged a tax to store wares in the cellars, so that was an incentive to increase the amount they would hold.
Thankfully for the diggers, the soil in that part of Oppenheim was extremely easy to dig, Bodderaz said. The soil, called “löss” in German, is a sandy soil that only requires seven percent of water in it to make it run like mud.
Altogether, there are about 35 kilometers of tunnels under the city, Bodderaz said.
The city’s tour, which is the only way to see the tunnels, takes about an hour. It meets in front of the tourism office at Merianstrasse 4. To find the office, simply walk down the front steps of St. Katherine’s and walk toward the city center. The office will be on your right about 100 feet down the street.
The tour takes people down stairs into the tunnels, which are high enough for most people to walk through without ducking. In a couple of places it is necessary to bend down in order to get to the next tunnel, but the squeeze is not tight. I lost count of how many flights of stairs we went down, but I think it was about three.
While the hard hats were probably a good precaution, I never had any apprehension that I would actually need mine. The tunnels have stucco on the sides and appear well supported. They are also well lit and there are two small exhibits that show someone digging the tunnel and spending time in the tunnel.
The city offers tours in German at noon and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays, and at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. Sundays. Tours in English are available for groups of 10 or more by contacting the tourism office and arranging a time, Bodderaz said. The phone number is civ (06133) 4909-19 and the email address is email@example.com.
My sons and I have a (very) limited understanding of German, but we still enjoyed the tour in German we took.
The labyrinth was what brought us to Oppenheim, but for a small city, it has an amazing number of places to see.
St. Katharine’s Church, which dates back to 1,100, contains dazzling stained glass, medieval statues and artwork that make it a must-see place. Behind the church is the ossuary. People cannot walk into the ossuary, but gate bars are wide enough so it is easy to see into and take pictures. It contains thousands of skeletons, and the skulls are stacked up by the hundreds in full view.
Bodderaz said the skeletons came from St. Michael’s Chapel, which is also behind St. Katherine’s and is located above the ossuary. The chapel was a mourning chapel where funerals would take place.
In the Middle Ages, bodies were wrapped in cloth and buried about a foot deep, Bodderaz said. The bodies rotted quickly, and the bones were put under the chapel and cemetery.
In the summer, the town holds the Oppeheimer Cultural Summer, which includes entertainment from the area. That festival and the Oppenheimer Theater Festival are held at the Landskrone Castle, which is a castle ruins located a short walk from the city center.
There is a parking lot below the castle ruins, and since the city center has narrow streets, it is a good place to park and then walk to the rest of the sites.
The city also has an Oppenheimer Stadtmuseum and the Deutsches Weinbaumuseum, which shows equipment from the long history of winemaking in the city. The city also offers great views of vineyards.
For a complete listing of all Oppenheim has to offer, visit the town’s website at www.stadt-oppenheim.de. It is in German, but look for the “Tourismus” listing on the left and then the “Sehenswürdigkeiten” to get to the section on sites to see in Oppenheim.