Impressive evidence of the ancient past can be found in Helmstedt and the surrounding area. Whether monasteries, palaces or megalithic tombs: historians, art lovers and archaeologists will be in their element in the region.
The St. Lorenz and St. Vincenz monastery church in Schöningen
The twin spires of St. Lorenz catch visitors’ eyes from afar. Rather unusually, they do not stand in the west but rather in the eastern part of the church in the choir. According to the foundation charter, a Romanisque monastery. Romanesque monastery was built on this site starting in 1120. However, researchers also found remains from pre-Romanesque times, which indicate a fortified tower. It is believed to have been part of the outpost that the Carolingians built in the 8th century as protection against the Slavs from the East.
The interior of the church impresses visitors with a rich reticulated vault, figurative keystones and the ‘heaven’ and ‘hell rooms featuring impressive painted ceilings. A further, fragrant attraction for visitors is the biblical garden of St. Lorenz, home to over 200 plants from various regions. The garden only includes plants that are mentioned in the Bible.
The picturesque St. Vincenz town and market church lies in the heart of Schöningen, A market settlement developed on this site in the 12th century around the Heiligtum – the oldest town church in Braunschweiger Land. Prayer services have long been held here on market days. Those who leave the hustle and bustle behind and enter the cooling tranquillity of the nave will find a peaceful setting surrounded by impressive architecture. The former Romanesque church was restored in the middle of the 17th century and has been captivating visitors ever since with a combination of static Renaissance forms and animated Baroque ornamentation. Besides the organ, altar and Baroque headstones, the busts of biblical personalities in the gallery are also well worth seeing.
Schloss Schöningen Palace
Built as a hunting lodge and border fortification under Duke Magnus I. of the House of Welf around 1350,Schöningen Palace has only retained certain features of the magnificent late medieval complex today due to its renovations in the 16th and 17th centuries. And yet the historic ambience remains impressive here. The great hall offers a unique setting for weddings and other large celebrations. The lovingly furnished hotel rooms promise a romantic stay. A restaurant with German and Italian cuisine, a cafe and rooms for seminars and training courses round off the services offered here. In summer, a beer garden attracts locals and tourists in front of the old walls of the palace.
The palace chapel and the former palace park, which is now open to everyone as a public park, are also worth a visit.
The Juleum Novum in Helmstedt
The Juleum Novum (or simply Juleum) is an especially impressive exponent of the Weser Renaissance. The multi-storey auditorium and library building served as the first state university in Braunschweig from 1612 to 1810. A particularly eye-catching feature – both then and now – is the 56-metre-high octagonal tower. The large windows, the embellished walls and the gables adorned with sculptures are also impressive.
The magnificent building has an impressive interior as well: the ‘Auditorium Maximum’ on the ground floor was previously used as an auditorium and can now be admired on tours or during concerts, readings and other events. A library awaits on the upper floor with 30,000 historic titles from the days when the building was actually used as a university. In the vault, meanwhile, you can also take a look at the district and university museum. Students used to enjoy a tipple here in ‘their’ wine cellar.
Kloster St. Ludgerus in Helmstedt
The former Benedictine monastery monastery now serves as a meeting place and modern guesthouse. The contemplative atmosphere still pervades the centuries-old building complex today; the simple accommodation dates back to the former quarters belonging to the friars. Other rooms still show signs of having served as workshops, stables or a large writing room at one time. The crypt even remains largely unchanged for today’s visitors. The historic imperial hall from the Baroque period is one of the most impressive rooms.
The monastery was founded back around 800 on the site of a Germanic spring sanctuary and played a significant role in Helmstedt until the 15th century. During the Napoleonic Wars, the monastery was secularised in 1802 and converted from church property to state-owned property for agricultural purposes. Today, the barrier-free buildings are characterised by a combination of historic ambience and modern functionality. Seventy-two guest beds are distributed between single and six-bed rooms, none of which include televisions. The idyllic inner courtyard of the monastery, the cosy vaulted cellar and the Olivia cafe, where you can spend a few hours relaxing over coffee, are particularly popular with people of all ages.
Incidentally, the oldest parish church in Helmstedt is less than 200 metres away. St. Stephani, a Late Gothic hall church with three aisles, crowns the highest point in the town and is definitely worth visiting.
Basilika St. Johannis in Süpplingenburg
This church with its fortified appearance radiates a special mysticism here. Perhaps it is because the legendary Knights Templar ran a collegiate monastery here. The place is considered one of the last properties of the Knights Templar on German soil. A moated castle used by Emperor Lothair III as his ancestral home stood here even before then. After the Knights Templar were disbanded, the convent buildings were transferred to the Order of Saint John.
Today, the late Romanesque building is used as a parish church and venue for organ concerts. The typical cross potent of the Templars in the arched ceiling still reminds us of the Order today. Countless visitors flock to nearby Sandteich lake each year in May and June. This is when the rhododendrons planted all around the lake are in full bloom. The highlight of this time is the flower festival organised by the Süpplingenburg community.
The former Zisterzienserkloster Mariental
A gem of the Romanesque period awaits visitors in Mariental near Helmstedt. The extensive complex was built back in 1138 under Palatine Friedrich II von Sommerschenburg and was initially used by the Cistercian Order as an abbey. Following the Reformation, the Protestant monastery school and teaching college were housed in the building until 1745.
Today, the three-aisled pillared basilica of the former monastery church is particularly worth a visit. The scriptorium (a Romanesque writing room), which was reconstructed in 1998 as part of the project ‘Zeitenreisen – Wege in die Romanik’ (Time Travels – Romanesque Routes), is also impressive. There are visiting opportunities throughout the day; group tours can be booked.
The oldest town church in Helmstedt is the Kapelle St. Walpurgis, a chapel documented for the first time in 1160. For centuries, the Romanesque building was used as a parish church in which children were baptised and marriages conducted. Following the Reformation, St. Walpurgis lost this role and became a secondary church to nearby St. Stephani.
Bockshorn cliffs and Groß Steinum megalithic tomb
On the over five-kilometre ‘Geologie- und Naturerlebnispfad Dorm’ (Dorm geology and nature experience path), hikers can reach the legendary Bockshorn cliffs on the edge of the splendidly named village Groß Steinum. This natural monument is made up of impressive quartzite blocks that date back around 60 million years. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to play seesaw on the aptly named ‘Wippstein’ (seesaw stone), as it has broken into three pieces. Instead, you can find panels with information about the geological background of these unique rock formations.
Just 800 metres away awaits the first of three megalithic tombs from the Neolithic. Together with the quartzite of the Bockshorn cliffs, the megalithic tombs probably form points in a line, which connected up holy places in a holy landscape. However, this theory regarding the landmarks cannot be proven, especially as the inhabitants of Groß Steinum regrouped some of the stones when they were discovered in early 1950.
The foundations of a former castle complex are also of archaeological interest. ‘Dit nije hus’ (the new house) could be the real location for a legend surrounding a robbers’ den called the ‘Neue Hof’.
The Lübbensteine near Helmstedt
The most southerly megalithic tombs in northern Germany are located near Helmstedt and are considered one of the outstanding archaeological landmarks in Braunschweig Land. These are two complexes made from blocks of quartzite, each comprised of a chamber and a corridor that leads off to the side. The fully reconstructed north tomb and the south tomb, which has not been completely retained, were built by people of the Funnel Beaker Culture on St. Annenberg in the 4th millennium BC. The picturesque location, which offers a sweeping view over the countryside, increases the appeal of the ancient sites. They were used as a collective burial site, where families or clans were buried. There are many indications that the sites were considered holy places and rituals were held there.
The megalithic tombs, which are the subject of numerous legends, demonstrate the technical expertise of the Neolithic period. Building such sites required both certain tools and also the efforts of the whole community.
The Lappwald’s medieval watchtowers
For many centuries, the Lappwald formed a border forest between the territories of Braunschweig and Prussia. Smugglers, such as the robber chief Rose, who is still known in the region to this day, made the most of the border forest for their purposes. Others built watchtowers here back in the 13th century, which hikers in the Elm-Lappwald Nature Reserve may still happen upon today: the Magdeburg watchtower and the two Walbecker watchtowers. The round stone buildings served as observation posts and defences and were used by the Helmstedt Landwehr as the outer part of the town’s fortifications. The completely rebuilt Magdeburg watchtower can be climbed today and serves as a ten metre-high viewing tower.
There is also a watchtower in the Lappwald dating to more recent times. The inner German border ran through the forest in the second half of the 20th century. An observation tower that was part of the former GDR barrier can therefore be found here. If you’re interested in learning more, you can find interesting objects and information in the Zonengrenz-Museum (Zonal Border Museum) in Helmstedt.