Only English speaking visitors find the name of the town funny, the German pronunciation is ‘Vorms’, the ‘o’ is pronounced like the ‘a’ in the word ‘warm‘. The oldest known name of the place is the Celtic Borbetomagus. The Romans called it Civitas Vangionum, the later Latin form Wormatia developed into the name Worms - which has no meaning in German.
Worms is situated on the left bank of the river Rhine in the land Rhineland-Palatine, about 45 km northwest of Heidelberg, one of Germany’s most famous tourist attractions. It’s one of the warmest and driest places in Germany, the precipitation amount is as high as in Jerusalem. Although the town has only 84.000 inhabitants, it’s well-known nationwide and also internationally. Together with Cologne, Augsburg and Trier Worms fights for recognition as the oldest town in Germany. Worms is, however, the only German member in the Most ancient European Town Network, so it seems to be the winner. Worms can also score as town of the Nibelungs, as one of the towns associated with Martin Luther and as having one of the three Romanesque imperial cathedrals in Germany (the two others aren’t far away in the towns Mainz and Speyer).
In Germany tourist information centres can be found in the train stations of big cities, in towns they’re usually somewhere in the centre. When the tourist has found them, they’ve already passed half of the sights. This is also true for Worms, but in the train station is a book shop where one can get a free map of the town with some information printed on the back.
We cross the street in front of the station and turn slightly to the right, there the pedestrian precinct begins. It’s nothing special, pedestrian precincts like this can be found in many German towns. Two allied bomb attacks with 334 aircrafts in February and March 1945 destroyed Worms nearly completely, approximately 6.500 buildings were damaged or completely destroyed, the cathedral was also affected. After the war the town centre was rebuilt quickly so that people had a roof over their heads, architectural subtleties were not of prime concern then - as it was the case in many other German towns and cities. Half a century has passed since then, time has put patina on the post-war buildings, all in all one can say that Worms looks good nowadays. The still existing old houses, the rebuilt houses after old designs and the modern buildings form a pretty ensemble.
After about three hundred metres the street opens into a square, one stands in front of the remains of the old town wall. Where the moat and the open fields used to be there’s now a park with tall trees, flower beds and benches. So much green here, but we didn’t notice any birds and thus also no worms the birds were pulling out of the lawns. Worms’ worms were in hiding.
Some metres to the right stands the biggest monument for Martin Luther worldwide, I was overwhelmed by its pomposity. I had always seen the great reformer as a modest man, I’m not sure he’d like the thing.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) changed the course of history when he nailed his 95 Theses onto the church door of Wittenberg accusing the Catholic Church of heresy. Luther wasn’t the only one but the most prominent of the reformers with whom the beginning of the Protestant Church is associated. Pope Leo X condemned Luther’s views and summoned him to renounce or reaffirm them at the Diet of Worms in 1521. After consulting with his friends Luther said, "Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." The last sentence with ‘Amen’ afterwards is chiselled into the monument. It has become a well-known saying in German. One month after the Diet the Emperor issued his Edict of Worms, declaring Martin Luther an outlaw.
Walking on from the monument one comes to an opening in the city wall leading to the Cathedral St. Peter built on the highest point of Worms from 1130 to 1181. It was the site of many important events in the Middle Ages. A pope was elected here, diets were held, the Emperors Friedrich I. Barbarossa and Friedrich II visited repeatedly. This is history, but the cathedral is also important for a mythological event. On the north side of the cathedral is the Emperor’s door (Kaiserportal) where Kriemhild and Brunhilde, the two heroines of the Song of the Nibelungs (an epic poem in Middle High German by an unknown author) argued about who should be the first to enter. This argument led eventually to the killing of Siegfried. Opera buffs may know the story from Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. Worms calls itself Nibelungen City, the names of the protagonists of the poem can be found everywhere. And who knows, maybe the Rhine gold treasure is still somewhere in the river near Worms.
Btw, the Tourist Information Centre is situated near the cathedral, the leaflet one gets there is the same as the one from the bookshop in the train station.
A short walk takes the tourist to the town hall and from there straight on to the Nibelungen Museum, a modern building tucked into the remains of the town wall which is still intact here. It’s inviting, but the audio tour takes one and a half hour, a tourist can fit a visit in only if they’ve got the whole day in Worms. From the museum it isn’t far to the river Rhine, to the Nibelungen (of course) Bridge, but one leaves the confines of the town. Why should one go and look at the river? This is a German thing, the Rhine is the longest river of the country and has been called ‘the River of Fate’ because of the German-French history throughout the ages. Alas, it’s a long walk to the direct access to the river where a restaurant offers beer from an own brewery and a statue of Hagen stands, another hero of the Song of the Nibelungs.
Back to the centre the streets lead through a slightly seedy part of the town with not so nice houses with pubs and bars. The next highlight on the itinerary is the Synagogue which was completely destroyed but has been rebuilt as it was before the war. The area where the Synagogue and the Mikwe, the Ritual Bath, are was called Little Jerusalem. Between the year 1000 and the beginning of the Third Reich a lively Jewish community existed which was well-known throughout the Jewish world. When we visited the Synagogue, a young man told us about international visitors who come to see where Rabbi Rashi taught and many said that they could still feel his spirit. I had never heard the name and asked, "Which century are we talking about?" and he replied, "The eleventh." Amazing. Beside the Mikwa is a small museum about the former Jewish community of Worms. It has never recovered, the present Jewish community is so small that it shares a rabbi with Mainz, a bigger town not far away.
After visiting the Synagogue it makes sense to visit the Jewish Cemetery. It’s at the opposite end of the centre, outside the town wall following the religious rules, but the sites tourists are interested in are never more than ten minutes on foot apart from each other. It’s a beautiful site, very peaceful, more a park than a cemetery. The Jewish cemetery is the oldest in Europe, the oldest tomb stone is from the year 1076. No Christian cemetery with upright tombstones from Romanesque times has been preserved. The cemetery is still in use, kind of. I saw a pile of paper, each pinned down with a stone on top of one of the old tombstones. Some papers had Hebrew print on them, others handwritten texts in Russian.
From the cemetery it’s not far to the train station, on the way we pass the Luther memorial again.