WIESBADEN, Germany — In 1986 the town of Oppenheim made international headlines with its failing system of underground tunnels and cellars.
Today the Oppenheim Kellarlabyrinth comprised of an intricate maze of tunnels on varying levels beneath the town is the city’s main tourist attraction.
The 1986 picture of a Polizei car sunk into the ground in the middle of a city street changed the fate of the deteriorating kellarlabyrinth. At that time city officials wanted to fill in the tunnel system because of safety issues.
City historians and the tourist bureau had another option.
“It’s taken 19 years of workers down there digging the tunnels out by hand,” said Jill Kaiser, a tour guide and night watchwoman with the city of Oppenheim. “They’ve taken out 200,000 buckets of earth and garbage to save the cellars.”
But the city has done more than just preserve the centuries-old labyrinth. The underground wonder is a main starting and stopping point for city tours that educate people on the sometimes bizarre history that surrounds Oppenheim.
After more than 900 years, Oppenheim still reflects a glorious past of when the booming trade city was one of the most coveted sites along the Rhein River.
Remnants left behind by armies that struggled to control the city are visible in castle ruins, a room full of 20,000 skeletons and, of course, a labyrinth of cellars.
A walking tour of the city includes stops at all three attractions.
For hundreds of years, the Landskrone Castle was the place where kings and emperors lived and rested during their travels.
But in 1689, the castle and most of the city were burned to the ground by French forces. Today only the ruins of a few castle walls remain on a hill that overlooks the city.
A protective wall that once stood erect around the entire town is also almost gone. One watch tower remains near the castle. And in the downtown, rows of homes were constructed where the back walls of the dwellings are actually the centuries-old wall.
On weekends, concerts and plays are performed among the castle ruins.
Tour guides suggest sticking around on Saturdays around 2 p.m. to help local archaeologists spend time on the historic grounds searching for relics such as bullets fired in the 17th century.
Seven-year-old Amelia Bettencourt grabbed on to the cold metal gate at the Beinhaus entrance located behind St. Catherine’s Church in downtown Oppenheim. The Wiesbaden home-schooler took a few minutes to take in the sight of a wall made entirely of human bones.
The room, also known as the Oppenheim Ossuary, contains between 14,000 and 20,000 skeletons all collected from the cemeteries belonging to the church.
As cemeteries got full, graves were reused. Old bones and skeletons were dug up and placed in the small room behind the church. Tour guide Helga Schmadel said most of the bones likely came from graves of residents who died during the 16th and 17th centuries.
“It was interesting to think that they were all people at one point, and now they’re all buried together,” said Erika Bettencourt, Amelia’s mother.
Amelia shook her head, “It was freaky.”
“Watch your feet. Watch your head. And most importantly keep up with me,” said Kaiser, as she led a group of American home-schoolers from Wiesbaden, Mannheim, Baumholder and Heidelberg.
The dark tunnel passageways of the labyrinth are illuminated with modern lighting strung along the narrow walls. Cement is sprayed on the ceiling to keep loose rock from falling on visitors.
And at each twist and turn, the tour guide shares a bit of history.
“In the Middle Ages everyone helped to dig the tunnels. From kids to grandparents, everyone helped,” said Kaiser.
“And this was important because everyone needed to know where to go in case the city was attacked.”
Originally created for cool storage of goods and a safe haven for residents, the tunnels and cellars took a turn for the worse in the 20th century. Like a piece of Swiss cheese the ground broke open and tunnels began to cave in.
Today, the city maintains the tunnel system which connects most of the city’s home cellars. Most residents keep their cellar doors locked and off limits to the city tours.
But on the streets, residents greet tourists with smiles and a few giggles.
Tour guides attribute it to the fancy hats — brightly colored construction helmets — that tourists wear while marching toward the kellarlabyrinth entrance in downtown Oppenheim.
“But they don’t laugh at us as much anymore,” said Kaiser.