Thuringian Forest, Her(R)bergskirchen

Thuringian Forest, Her(R)bergskirchen

Reconciling worship and tourism: Sacral sanctuary as wayside hostel

“The opportunity to spend the night in a church attracts people from near and far, giving the church new appeal as the social centre of the community. The Her(R)bergskirche is a successful example of sustainable tourism.”
Prof. Barbara Holzer, IBA Thüringen Advisory Board  

What’s it like to sleep in a church? Inspired by the EKM Protestant Church in Central Germany’s open call for ideas in 2017, regional stakeholders and external ideators have joined minds and hands to find new uses for churches in the Thüringer Wald holiday region. St Michael’s Church in Neustadt am Rennsteig is the first of a series of wayside shelters and overnight stopovers in churches – the so-called Her(R)bergskirchen – along the Rennsteig Hiking Trail.

A provisional solution first installed in 2017 was converted in 2018 into a permanent sleeping niche at the rear of the neo-Romanesque choir near the church tower. The model project in Neustadt enables passing hikers to stay the night in the church. 93 people took up the opportunity in 2018, and more than 155 in 2019. The success of the project has prompted the parish to come up with other possible uses: a space for yoga courses, a library and a communal cooking and dining area are now scheduled to be installed in the coming years. It also earned the church the EKM’s “Golden Steeple Award” in 2019. Additional LEADER funding has made it possible to install a guest bathroom and kitchen next to the sleeping niche in 2020 and 2021.

The success of the IBA pilot project in the Church of St Michael in Neustadt am Rennsteig has encouraged other churches to open their doors to passing hikers. Currently in discussion are the churches in Tambach-Dietharz, Spechtsbrunn, Steinheid and Gehlberg. As in Neustadt am Rennsteig, micro-architectural insertions will supplement the historical naves of the churches to create spaces for simple sleeping accommodation as well as for meetings and communal use. These site-specific interventions make the churches more usable and bring them back into the public consciousness of the villagers and visitors as public places in the community.

A diverse network of local participants has arisen around each project, and an overarching brand – the Her(R)bergskirchen – has been developed to connect the locations and coordinate ideas, marketing and tourism potential. The capital (R) is a reference to the Rennsteig Hiking Trail that runs the length of the Thuringian Forest region.

The idea is a product of the “'STADTLAND:Church 2017” ideas competition organised by the Protestant Church in Central Germany (EKM) together with the IBA Thüringen. The project was initiated and further developed by the volunteers from the parish of Neustadt am Rennsteig with the support of young architects from Berlin and Leipzig.

St Michael’s Church in Neustadt am Rennsteig became an IBA project in March 2019 and is a model project for other possible Her(R)bergskirchen along the Rennsteig Hiking Trail in the Thuringian Forest.