At the Stadtmitte bus stop in downtown Kaiserslautern, you can usually see people staring at their phones, throwing cigarette butts on the sidewalk, or staring at the nearby shopping center waiting to be driven away.
Few would describe the area as scenic. But hundreds of years ago things were very different.
A river fed a tranquil pond where the mall now stands, and perched on the shore was a grand Imperial Palace, considered one of the most magnificent buildings of its kind in the Holy Roman Empire.
Today, the ruins have been partially restored to a public space next to the bus stop, hinting at the neighborhood’s former grandeur. But markers on the site are sparse, so people are unlikely to be aware of the invitation to explore among them.
For those curious enough, however, the city offers both public and private tours that take visitors through the park and through underground tunnels, where they can observe history up close and even come face to face with an ancient skeleton.
Historians trace Kaiserslautern’s roots to around 1,300 years ago, and for much of this time two buildings bore witness to its fortunes: the palace built by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa around 1152 and the Renaissance-style Casimir Castle, built by Prince Johann Casimir, which was completed around 1578.
The history of these two structures forms the basis of the visit, but only traces of them remain. In the 1930s, the stones of the old Casimir Castle were used to build a new building, the Count Palatine Hall, which still exists and is the starting point for the visit.
The room is adorned with a large tapestry and wooden statues made around 1600, intended to give visitors an idea of life at the time the castle was built.
After an introduction on the ground floor, the excursion descends into the underground galleries via a stone spiral staircase. In total, the tunnels stretch for about 80 meters and pass through several rooms equipped with illuminated German language display panels and sound effects that illustrate the city’s history. A tour guide explains everything in English.
A tomb containing a Franconian skeleton, one of many discovered during excavation work at the site in the 1930s, is in the first underground room.
The skeletons are said to have caught the attention of Adolf Hitler, who ordered them to be transported to Mainz, some 80km away, to be studied for evidence supporting his discredited notions of Aryan supremacy.
However, the skeletons are believed to have been forgotten in a basement in Mainz and eventually returned to Kaiserslautern and buried in the city’s main cemetery near Kleber Kaserne, where US forces are now working.
In the second underground hall, visitors get a closer look at an original section of a stone wall that once surrounded the area, even before the construction of the Imperial Palace of Barbarossa.
Over the centuries, successive masons fortified the existing wall by leaning on it. Thus, in the middle part of it, stones older than a millennium can be seen.
The underground wall is different from the one outside, which was rebuilt with historical stones and is not original.
After passing through another room that details how successive wars have destroyed the area, the tour arrives at an escape tunnel. These tunnels were used to escape or smuggle goods into the complex without enemies noticing.
The tunnel is believed to be the only one still in existence. Years of construction in the area destroyed the others.
The narrowness of the tunnel requires moving in single file. Claustrophobic visitors can skip this last part of the underground section of the tour and return to the surface world.
Back at surface level, visitors are a stone’s throw from where the Imperial Palace and Casimir Castle once stood. A metal structure built on top of the ruins of the reconstructed palace gives viewers an idea of its size.
Tours last approximately one and a half hours. Participants are transported to a time when lakes and castles replaced buses and cigarette butts, and they are unlikely to see contemporary Kaiserslautern in the same way.
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Address: Tours begin at Fruchthallstrasse 14 in downtown Kaiserslautern, Germany.
Hours: Public tours in English take place on irregular Saturdays, usually at least once a month, and begin at 11:15 a.m. Upcoming tour dates can be found at tinyurl.com/5ac66735. Private tours can be arranged at different times.
Cost: Adult tickets for the public group tour are $5; children’s tickets are $4. Private groups of up to 25 people cost $75.
Information: Participants should pre-register for the public tour by calling +49 631 365 4019 or emailing [email protected]