Bretten is a quaint town in the Kraichgau hills, about half an hour northeast of Karlsruhe. Its old centre has preserved an authentic flair with small alleys and half-timbered houses. So far hardly in the focus of tourists, it is a worthwhile day or half-day trip. In 2017, in connection with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it may receive more attention than usual, though, because it is the birthplace of a certain very famous person… But more about him later.
Bretten’s old town is a maze of small alleys. The town is small enough not to get lost altogether, though. Photographers will find many pretty street views with little old houses, a bit of timberframe, and one or two towers showing up in the distance. There are the steeples of the churches, two medieval watchtowers along the town wall, and the gables of the old houses. The old town is located on a slope, so topography changes the views and perspectives all the time.
View from Bahnhof
Reaching Bretten on public transport is easy from all directions. Bretten is the train, or rather tram, hub for the Kraichgau region. The tram line S4 between Karlsruhe and Heilbronn crosses the line S9 between Bruchsal and Mühlacker at Bretten Bahnhof (train station). From Karlsruhe centre, the S4 takes you to Bretten in about 35-40 minutes depending where you board. Eilzüge (express trams) are faster. KVV tariff applies.
Bretten is not too big and the old town can be reached from Bahnhof on foot in about 15 minutes. If you are on the S4, though, you better stay on the tram one stop further and get off at „Bretten Stadtmitte“ which is just 5 minutes walk from the edge of the old town.
S-Bahn in the station, stop "Stadtmitte", and the view of the old town from there
On the way from tram stop „Stadtmitte“ into town I came across this Graffiti, and found it so funny and interesting that I want to draw your attention to it. I assume that the building behind has some function in the town's supply of drinking water. The outside wall has been painted with an artwork in graffiti style that includes the chemical symbol for water. „H2O“ is depicted in large letters made from pieces of fancy plumbing. A big wave of water seems to splash over the wall.
Brettener Hundle: The Doggie of Bretten
The little dog is the hero of an old legend which has no historical background but is very popular in town. Once upon a time, it tells, Bretten was besieged by a large army. The situation was desperate, food was scarce and military powers were not sufficient to drive the enemies away. There was no help from outside to be expected. Only a clever trick could save the town.
One of the city councellors had an idea: Let’s collect all available food, take a little dog and feed him, and when he is round and fat send him outside the town gate to the enemies. They will then believe that we have food in abundance and breaking us by starvation would take a very long time.
The trick worked, the enemies ended the siege and left. Disappointed and angry as they were, though, they cut off the poor doggie’s tail before they sent him back. The grateful citizens erected a monument with a statue of the little dog who rescued their town from falling. (I hope they also treated the doggie’s wound. Posthume fame alone would not have eased his pain.)
The original doggie is sitting on top of a historical fountain in Melanchthonstraße, not far from the Western town gate. The gable of Stiftskirche also bears a statue of the little dog (third photo from left). New copies of the dog statue can be spotted in some private gardens (photo on the right).
The Town’s Most Famous Son
On February 16, 1497 the first child was born to a certain Georg Schwartzerdt, armorer of the Elector of Palatinate, and his wife Barbara, the daughter of Bretten‘s mayor. It was a boy and they named him Philipp. The family inhabited a house in market square, so the boy will indeed have been playing around the fountain as depicted in the fresco.
Young Philipp was a talented boy. He was soon sent to the Latin School in Pforzheim where he studied all classical subjects including ancient Greek. Johannes Reuchlin, the humanist and Pforzheim’s reformator whom I mentioned in my entry about Pforzheim, was his great-uncle, by the way.
Nowadays Philipp would probably have translated his name into English and make it „Blacksoil“ to sound cooler. However, in the times of humanism, Latin and Greek were the fashionable languages among intellectuals. His teacher translated his last name into Greek and Philipp would then use that new name for the rest of his life. Under that name he has become famous to this very day: Philipp Melanchthon.
After his studies at the universities of Heidelberg and Tübingen Melanchthon moved to Wittenberg, where he became professor of the ancient Greek language at the age of 21. He was fascinated by the theology of Martin Luther and became, after Luther, the second most important protagonist of the Wittenberg Reformation. The rest is history, as we say.
Sometimes I wonder, what if Melanchthon has translated the Bible instead of Luther. The language of Luthers Bible had a vast influence on the development of what we now call High or Standard German. Luther was from Saxony and his language was Saxon, the upper-class Saxon German that court and authorities used. Had it been Melanchthon, the whole of Germany would be speaking Badisch now…
Melanchthon left Bretten at the age of 11, after the death of his father, and has not returned except maybe for short visits. The town is nevertheless proud of him and cherishes his memory. His father’s house where he was born does not exist any more. Around 1900 the large neogothic Melanchthonhaus was erected in this place. A statue of Melanchthon can be found in front of the main church, another in opposite the (sic) Melanchthongymnasium. Of course they also have one inside Melanchthonhaus.
The largest and most striking building in Bretten’s market square is the so-called Melanchthonhaus. The huge sandstone gable dominates the square. This is the place where Philipp Melanchthon was born in 1497.
The building is, as the neogothic architecture betrays, a lot younger and has nothing to do with his original birthplace. The original house of the Schwartzerdt family was destroyed in the fire of 1689 and nothing is left of it.
Melanchthon’s 400th birthday in 1897 was the occasion to build this house as a memorial hall, library, museum and research centre. Construction works were finished in 1903.
The interior is decorated in all splendour the late 19th century was capable of. Would Melanchthon himself have liked this style? Good question. In Wittenberg he inhabited a rather plain townhouse without much decorum.
When the neogothic Melanchthon House was built from 1897 to 1903 to commemorate the reformator's 400th birthday, the ground floor was designed as a memorial hall to Melanchthon and his colleagues. Life-sized statues depict the most important reformators: Luther, Bucer, Jonas, Brenz, Bugenhagen, Calvin, and of course Melanchthon himself, front and center. The frescoes on the walls show scenes from Melanchthon's life, including the young boy Philipp in Bretten's market square, the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 where Melanchthon handed the Augsburg Confession to Emperor Karl V., the opening of the high school in Nuremberg in 1526, Melanchthon's visit to his hometown Bretten in 1524, and Luther's visit to his friend's sickbed in 1540.
The memorial hall is part of the museum. The upper floors contain both permanent and temporary exhibitions around the life and work of Philipp Melanchthon.
From February to November Melanchthonhaus can be visited. Please check the Melanchthonhaus website for up to date information on opening hours, current exhibitions and events: http://www.melanchthon.com/ The complex is also the seat of Melanchthon Academy, a scientific research centre that does research projects on history, theology and arts, conferences and lectures, exhibitions and publications. Their seat is the hidden modern annex, reachable through the new side entrance. Their activities can also be found through the website.
Market Square and Old Town
Marktplatz is the heart of the old town. It is surrounded by a number of interesting buildings. The largest and most striking is the neogothic Melanchthonhaus. Next to it there is the town hall. The opposite side has a group of pretty timberframe houses from the era around 1700. The market still has its original triangular shape that originates from the medieval town plan. All buildings around date from after the fire of 1689, though. The only older piece is the 16th century fountain in the upper corner.
The sandstone fountain in market square is crowned by a column with the statue of a knight in full armour. His shield depicts the Palatinate escutcheon. The statue represents the governors of the town, the Electorate of Palatine. The date 1555 is inscribed on the column.
There were a couple of goldfish in the fountain - I have no idea whether they are official residents, or if somebody simply had emptied their aquarium into the basin to get rid of unwanted pets.
Bretten’s „old“ town hall in market square is not as old as it may seem. The town must have had a splendid medieval town hall, but it was destroyed in the fire of 1689 together with most of the town. A provisory was built soon after, but a real town hall was only erected almost a century later, in 1787. This building soon became too small, so it was extended and refurbished to its present shape in 1888. The facades in „German Renaissance“ style are a product of 19th century historism.
If there is an „old“ town hall there must also be a „new“ one. The new town hall, a few blocks away, is a modern concrete and glass building probably from the 1970s or 1980s.
Bretten has quite a lot of half-timbered houses everywhere in the old town. The most impressive ensemble is probably the northern side of market square, all built around 1700. Others can, for example, be found in Melanchthonstraße and in the alleys further downhill around the two churches. The cutest ones are in my humble opinion the little houses in Friedrichstraße.
Because you asked: No, these houses are not medieval: Bretten was, like most cities and towns in the Southwest of Germany, burned to ashes in 1689 by French troops. Hence all of them were built around 1700 and later. Young Melanchthon has not walked past any of these.
This real estate between the two churches has been the seat of the bailiff, the representative of the Palatinate government, since the middle ages. The first Amtshaus was a medieval stone house, then extended and refurbished over the centuries, which was then destroyed in the fire of 1689. Rebuilding it took some time. Finally, in the 1780s, the impressive neoclassical building complex was erected. After Bretten became property of Baden in 1803 it became the seat of Baden’s civil servants; that’s why the rooftop terrace bears the large crest of Baden. Nowadays the building hosts the local law court (Amtsgericht).
A small museum tells about life in Bretten in past centuries. Gerberhaus (tanner’s house) is located on the edge of the town by the stream, a typical location because this craft requires a lot of water and causes a lot of bad smell. The timberframe house is the oldest preserved residential house in town, built around 1585. Thanks to its location on the edge and next to running water, it survived the big fire of 1689.
In the 1980s the house was to be demolished in order to make room for a parking lot. A private initiative of Bretten citizens saved it. Research showed not only its age, but also the intact structure of a typical house of „farming citizens“, people who lived in town, worked in their craft and at the same time farmed their fields outside the wall.
The house was then restored and turned into a museum, together with the adjacent part of the town wall and gate arch. The exhibition shows the history of the tanners’ craft and the daily life in old Bretten. The museum is open on Sunday afternoons only.
Stiftskirche, the oldest and largest church in town, is one of the few buildings that survived the big fire of 1689. Its oldest part is the bottom of the steeple, originally the keep of an early medieval castle. The gothic nave and choir were separated by a jube as befits the church of a convent of canons.
The first and second reformation in the 16th century turned the church into a Calvinist parish church. After the peace treaty of Rijswijk (1697) the church was, like many churches in biconfessional Palatine, shared by Calvinists and Roman Catholics. The choir was closed with a wall and became the catholic church while the Calvinists used the nave.
The simultaneum lasted until 1938, when the catholic community completed their own parish church. Stiftskirche is now the main parish church of the Protestants in town.
I cannot figure out if the Stiftskirche has any regular opening hours for visitors outside the services. Except once I have always encountered locked doors. During my most recent visit I finally found the main church open for the first time. The interior was a bit of a disappointment, though. The whole nave has been cleared from anything historical, it is all modern, wide and vast. The only exception are the old tombstones attached to the walls of the southern transept which still has its gothic vaults.
The huge new organ fills the former choir entirely. The room appears more like a concert hall than a church. In front of this huge instrument the altar, or rather communion table as we are in an area with calvinist tradition, almost disappears. Forgive the blasphemy, but this piece of furniture reminded me of those folding tables that are used for pasting wallpaper. The (also new) flat ceiling is painted with an abstract fresco that suggests the shape of a cross or the sun or a shining figure in the sky - at least it adds some colour to all this emptiness. In other words, you won’t miss too much if you find the church doors locked.
Kreuzkirche, the former Lutheran church, the smaller of the two churches, was built around 1700. Since Lutherans and Calvinists united to one protestant parish in 1821, the community has taken the larger Stiftskirche as their main church and this one is hardly in use any more.
It is said to have a beautiful baroque interior, but I wonder whether it is ever open to visitors.
After sharing Stiftskirche with the Calvinist and then United Protestant parish community for centuries, the Catholics were finally able to build their own parish church from 1936-1938 on a patch of land by the Northern edge of the old town. They dedicated it to St Laurentius.
The architecture is an example of the „retro“ style which was popular in times of the NS regime. The facades are rather plain. The interior is a wide hall with a low side nave along the Northern wall. The choir has a pseudo-gothic vault while the nave is covered by a wooden ceiling with carved and painted beams. The higher middle part consists of cassettes painted with abstract symbols of faith, trees and animals. The mural in the apsis was added in the 1990’s; I have no information about it but it looks a lot like it’s a work by the painter Emil Wachter. This church is, unlike its protestant sisters in town, open in the daytime.
Towers and Fortifications
Once upon a time Bretten was surrounded by walls, gate and watch towers. Most of them are gone. Along the creek on the southern side and in the southeastern corner parts of the wall are preserved, Three towers of the town’s medieval fortifications are still there. Two of them are complete and appear in the town’s silhouette, the third is a torso.
The tall Pfeiferturm on the Northern side of the old town is hard to overlook. It used to be the strongest tower. Its origins date from the 13th century. Through its history it has been damaged and repaired countless times. In former times it was accessible from the wall only, now there is a new entrance on the ground floor.
The tower can be climbed for the view; the key is available at the tourist information office and at the town hall.
Only a stump is preserved of another tower on the uphill side, named Frauenturm.
Simmelturm in the southeastern corner of the old town is smaller than Pfeiferturm and harder to spot. The tower has a crooked and worn-out look which tells of how much it has been through in its history. In former times it protected the Southeastern corner of the town. A stretch of town wall is still attached to it. A little park around the tower invites to sit down and rest.
A plaque on the wall recalls the Battle of Brettheim (Bretten) in 1504, the most dramatic event in the town’s history. Every year during Peter-und-Paul-Fest the battle is re-enacted here in the meadows around the tower. Peter-und-Paul-Fest is a big medieval festival which is celebrated in Bretten every year on the first weekend in July - but this deserves another visit and a separate blog entry!
The Town's Coat of Arms: Are We In Bavaria?
The coat of arms of Bretten will look oddly familiar to anyone who has ever visited Munich or other places in Bavaria. However, Bretten is not in Bavaria and has never been ruled by Bavaria. The lozenge pattern in blue and white originates from the Wittelsbach dynasty’s armorial bearings. One branch of this dynasty ruled Bavaria, the other governed Palatine. Due to their close relationship both lines used the same escutcheon with the lozenges and the golden lion on black ground. The magistrate of Bretten has adopted the territory‘s as their town coat of arms.