The Electoral Palatinate is a forgotten land within the borders of modern-day Germany. Its cities and people are now divided between three German states and nobody can agree on just where the Palatinate starts and ends these days. Though much of the Palatinate is far off the radar for most tourists, its cultural capital, Heidelberg, is one of the premier destinations in Germany. This guide will show you what the region has to offer beyond the walls of Heidelberg, with its sweeping vistas of the Rhine valley, ancient churches and the small towns snugged away in the forest and valleys of the Rhenish highlands.
What is the Electoral Palatinate?
The region I refer to as the “Electoral Palatinate”, or Kurpfalz in German, is an agglomeration of many different smaller but historically and culturally distinct regions. The rugged terrain and low population density makes it more realistic to focus on the areas roughly encompassed by the county of the Elector Palatine, with its ancient capital of Heidelberg and later Residence in Mannheim. The main regions can be summarized as:
- The Nahe Valley, with the city of Bad Kreuznach at its cultural center. The architecture and sights here come primarily from its 19th century history as the region industrialized. A few places, such as the church in Sobernheim or the ruins of the Disibodenberg Monastery are evidence of a much older past.
- The Palatine Highlands (Pfälzer Bergland) with the ancient capital of Meisenheim at its northern edge. Meisenheim is the only major settlement in this region. Offenbach has the remnants of a large monastery completely and Kusel offers a charming 19th century historicist cityscape.
- The dense Palatine Forest and Kaiserslautern. All of the most interesting castle ruins will be found here, especially Hardenburg and Triefels.
- The ancient territories of Mainz and the mouth of the Main. The lands of Mainz were mixed with the territories of the Palatinate, but wealth of Mainz came from its holdings in the Middle-Rhine and Franconia. This meant that Mainz would be the preeminent cultural center in the region after the French scorched earth campaign.
- The Rhenish Palatinate with Mannheim and Heidelberg along with the old imperial cities of Worms and Speyer. The cultural core of the region was devastated by WWII. The main sights today can be summarized as Heidelberg and Speyer, even though historically, Mannheim and Worms played much larger roles.
- The Neckar Valley with the old administrative center in Mosbach. The lower Neckar valley is a cultural border region, but its influence today is less evident than prior to the destruction of Heidelberg in 1697. That Heidelberg once looked like Mosbach or Wimpfen can be alluded to from a handful of vernacular-styled houses built before the elector mandated a specific style.
This region differs quite dramatically from the modern day administrative borders of Germany. These borders, for the most part, follow the post-Napoleonic carve-up at the Council of Vienna in 1815. They arbitrarily partitioned historical regions with their own local identities and sometimes even their own languages. One relic of this period is the term “Rheinhessen” or Rhenish-Hesse, which refers to the left bank of the Rhine controlled by the Grand Duchy of Hessen, and included Mainz and Worms.
By redrawing the old borders we can see connections between places that were less apparent before. Many of these cultural differences can be seen reflected in the architecture. The cities of Mainz and Mannheim were the cultural centers of the region, and exerted a gravitational force on the localities they controlled. The minimalist baroque style of the Mannheim court adorns the cityscapes up and down the Rhine valley. The more heavily Würzburg-influenced styles of Mainz are more evident in the extravagant ornamentation of the church interiors, especially in comparison to the rather classical style of the Jesuit and Court Churches in Mannheim.
Gravity is a good metaphor because cultural influence isn’t a binary identifier. As you travel down the Neckar Valley the baroque styles of the Rhineland fade and Swabian influence becomes more apparent. The Nahe Valley, by contrast, never recovered from the myriad of French invasions, and its cityscapes are defined by the architecture of its 19th century industrialization.
Despite the region’s wealth and prosperity in the late medieval period, virtually nothing survived the French scorched earth campaign of the Nine-Years-War in 1698. The great baroque cities of Mainz and Mannheim, which reached their cultural height in the centuries that followed, would be reduced to ash in the Second World War, along with the cities of Worms and Bruchsal. Of the region’s urban heritage only the city of Heidelberg has survived. Nevertheless, glimpses of the past of possible in the beautiful towns of Speyer, Oppenheim and Meisenheim.
Exploring the Region
As to how you should travel through the region, of course not everything on the map is equivalent in interest. However, the most interesting destinations are quite spread out and not necessarily convenient to reach. Below are some thematic routes that focus on specific aspects of the region’s history and culture.
If you had only a single day or perhaps a few days in the Palatinate, what would you see? This short list should narrow down the options quite significantly and help you decide where to go. Though if you have more time on your hands, then check out the more detailed itineraries.
Culinary Overview of the Palatinate
Like any region in Germany, the Palatinate has its share of unique flavors and dishes. Don’t miss out on its main culinary contributions to German cuisine.
Thematic Tours of the Electoral Palatinate
One approach to narrowing down a list of interesting destinations is to look at the historical threads that connect them. Below are some guides based on the history of the region and its people.
Travel through the heartland of the most powerful state in Medieval Europe and uncover the vestiges of past imperial glories. In focus are the cities of Speyer and Mainz.
The goal of this guide is to take you through the reconstruction of the Rhineland following the devastating War of Palatine Succession which ended in 1697. The focus is on the Baroque architecture of Mannheim Court, with brief excursions to the different styles of Mainz, Meisenheim and Mosbach.
Guides to Major Cities in the Region
From the reconstruction of Heidelberg to the civic pride of Mainz’s noble families, the architecture of the Palatine cities have a story to tell if you know where to look. Devastated by the Second World War, these narratives can be even more difficult to uncover. With that in mind, I have put together some guides to help appreciate and understand what remains in the largest cities.
Heidelberg’s cityscape tells the story of a city returning from the ashes, of artistic exploration and the costs of irreconcilable conflict. Its worth a visit, even with its reputation for tourists.
Despite severe wartime losses, Mainz still retains some of its rich architectural heritage. We can follow in the footsteps of powerful medieval Archbishops and explore symbols of civic pride. This guide to Mainz will take you through all the key things to see and experience in the city.
For a city that did not survive the Second World War, Mannheim does better than most of its counterparts. I can only recommend it as a destination for people interested in Baroque Architecture specifically.
For more pictures of the many places to see here, head over to my gallery of the region: The Electoral Palatinate
- Luzie Bratner, and Rheinland-Pfalz. Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz. 2014. Mit Allen Sinnen : Reisewege Zum Barock in Rheinland-Pfalz. Regensburg:Schnell & Steiner.
- Hotz, Walter. 1985. Die Wormser Bauschule 1000-1250 : Werke, Nachbarn, Verwandte : Studien Über Landschaftsbezogene Deutsche Baukunst. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
- Dethard Von Winterfeld. 2000. Die Kaiserdome Speyer, Mainz, Worms : Und Ihr Romanisches Umland. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner.
- Mueller, Carla, and Katrin Rössler. 2007. Barockschloss Mannheim. München: Dt. Kunstverl.
- All Maps made with Datawrapper
- Historical Map from Wikipedia