A Brief Shore Excursion in Breisach, Germany

germany_breisach_cathedral_virgin altar
The beautiful altarpiece, by the master H.L. His initials survived along with his altarpiece from the 15th Century. Unfortunately, his name did not.

One of the disappointments of visiting Germany for a church art freak like me is that so much of Germany was destroyed during World War II. That's especially true of the tall church towers, which were often used as targeting bullseyes for Allied bombers and artillery men. Moreover, although small towns along the French German border (especially in the historically disputed region of Alsace) had little or no strategic value, Hitler ordered that they be defended to the last man because they were the Allied entry points into Germany. Indeed, Hitler regarded Alsace as part of Germany.

Consequently, these towns, such as Breisach in Germany and Colmar, only a few miles to the west in France, suffered awful damage all out of proportion to their military importance.

So, in a way, it's a real history lesson to visit these places to see a couple of things: what the locals were able to preserve from the bombardment, and, perhaps even more optimistically, what they've built up to replace what they lost.

So, in Breisach's St. Stephen's Cathedral, you see a restored church to its original size and architectural basics, but with little or no inside decoration. The windows are all modernistic. The side altars all gone, the crypts collapsed. But, from pure luck, or from foresight, at least in Breisach, their magnificent carved wooden altarpiece was removed from the church and hidden. And so, it's there again today for us to enjoy.

germany_breisach_cathedral_burial of christ
A detail from a surviving side altar depiction of the burial of Jesus.

Also, there's one sculptural tableau of the burial of Jesus which somehow made it through and has been reestablished on the left of the altar.

germany_breisach_cathedral_crypt font
The exposed crypt now features what seems to be a fragment of an old crucifixion sculpture surrounded by a modern take on what might be a baptismal font. Or just random decoration.

But perhaps even more joyful than the preservation of the old is the celebration of the new. Modernist sculptures proliferate in the old town center near the cathedral. And, even more remarkable, the old town well wheel pump from the water tower building (which also served once as the town jail and torture chamber) has been turned into a whimsical piece of modern sculpture that recalls Breisach's history–both medieval and modern.

germany_breisach_modernist 1
A few pieces of modern sculpture decorate small plazas near the cathedral. Like this one.
germany_breisach_modernist
And this one.
germany_breisach_pump tower sculpture
The former town water wheel pump has been turned into a whimsical, clock-like sculpture and placed outside the original tower.

Unfortunately, it being Monday, the town's well regarded museum was closed. But the outside of the building which faces a park along the Rhine shows off a few interesting bits of Renaissance era sculpture.

germany_breisach_museum roof sculpture
The Breisach Museum was closed when I was there, but I still got to look at the cool roof sculptures.

We visited Breisach as the first stop on our hosted Viking River Cruise from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam.

You can also see this post to see what other shore excursions we made on our Viking Rhine River Cruise.

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5 thoughts on “A Brief Shore Excursion in Breisach, Germany”

  1. In 2015, I spent two weeks shuffling around Germany tracing the roots of its most famous son, Martin Luther, but also the father-son duo named Lucas Cranach (the elder and the younger). I fell in love with their deeply disturbing works and wrote a lengthy blog post about it. My wife was much less enthusiastic on the topic. Given your love of church art, you should check out the Franconia region of Bavaria (Nuremberg, Wurzburg, Coburg, Bamberg, etc.). Much of the artwork is still original and was not destroyed during the war.

  2. Are you by chance going to post more about your stops / experience on your Viking River Cruise? I am about to go on the same one and am interested in finding what are things to see and what are things that we should not do.

    • I would definitely do the tour of the Colmar battlefield. Way better than average tour, and the guide was great. Also, the Koln tour was very nice. The Alsace wine tour was Kris’s favorite. Posts still to come. We’re still traveling in Europe and haven’t had much time to sit and write yet.

  3. We liked Breisach a lot, because of the combination of the old and new. Of course, like so many German cities, it had extensive damage during the war. We didn’t go on the Black Forest excursion but I vaguely remember some of the cruisers saying it was a long bus ride.

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